Ardala looked seductively over the rim of her wine
goblet. “So what is on your
Buck was well aware of what was on her mind.
Some things never changed. He
took a sip of his drink. “Right
now—you,” he replied, his eyes taking in the outfit that, like all of
the others, accentuated her physical assets.
“Glad you still notice,” she said tartly,
taking a few swallows of her wine. She
motioned for Tigerman to leave.
Could Tigerman stay for a few minutes?
Part of my visit concerns him.”
She smiled. “I
assumed that you weren’t here for totally social reasons, despite what
you said in the audience chamber.”
She glanced at the Rrilling. “Stay.”
“And you’re not angry?” he asked.
anymore.” She took another
sip, watching his face. When
she saw his relieved look, Ardala smiled mischievously.
“Not much anyway.”
“You seem to have regained your daddy’s
favor,” Buck said, leaning back with the languid ease of one in the
company of friends. And
despite all that had happened that first year after his awakening, he did
consider Ardala as something of a friend.
One that had to be closely watched, but a friend nonetheless.
After all, she was responsible for his return to the world of the
living; indirectly, that is.
“Oh, yes. Father
was very impressed with the lucrative deal that I made on Bosk.”
“I have to find some way to thank you for
that,” she added.
“We’ll see, but I’m not that worried about
it,” Buck assured her. “The
newly freed prisoners on Bosk feel they got the better deal.
Especially after the antidote to garox was found.”
Now she knew why Buck was so much more like his
old self. She wondered how he
had pulled it off. “But
there is something you want,” she coaxed.
Buck affected a hurt expression. “Now, Princess, you cut me to the quick.”
“There is precedence,” she said dryly.
“Hm, I suppose there is,” he admitted
“You’ve been busted, Buck,” Twiki piped up.
“No comments from the peanut gallery,” Buck
shot back and then returned his attention to Ardala.
“By the way, you seem to be in much finer
spirits than you were the last time we met,” Ardala said, taking another
sip of her wine.
“Yeah, you might say that I took care of a
problem or two that was bothering me then.”
He glanced at her glass. “You
want a refill?”
“No, thank you, not now,” she almost purred,
her voice sultry and alluring. “Perhaps
later.” She continued to
gaze at him, her eyes seductive.
Buck had to remind himself of his loyalties,
although there was nothing wrong with artistic appreciation.
Adrala was certainly a Draconian work of art.
“So why did you come?” she asked.
“I need to borrow Tigerman.”
Ardala had not known what to expect, but this was
totally surprising. “Why?”
“Um, you just need to trust me on this one,”
Buck replied, his voice holding a note of urgency.
Ardala studied Buck carefully and then felt anger
flaring. He didn’t trust
her! Whatever he wanted, he
didn’t trust her with the knowledge.
“Well, you do know that this is going to cost you,” she said
Buck looked visibly nervous. “And what is the price?”
“When Tigerman returns, so do you. As my consort.” She
watched him carefully to gauge his reaction.
Buck took a deep breath, not surprised by her
response, but still hoping that they would have been beyond that kind of
thing. He had expected too much. Why the hell did everything have to
come back to this matrimony crap? How
naïve to think that things had changed, he thought with a sigh. “Well, then, whatever I needed Tigerman for, I’ll
just have to try and accomplish myself,” Buck said tersely.
“The invitation to dinner is still on, by the way,” he added,
standing up. “You sure you
don’t want another drink. I
do. Unless that, too, comes with a price.” He headed toward the bar.
He fixed a drink and there was no sound other than the clinking of
ice cubes in his goblet. Ardala
was strangely silent.
When she finally spoke, her voice was soft, almost
plaintive and not the least bit sultry.
Buck turned his attention to her.
“No,” she said softly. Then
a brief pause, before she began again.
“I . . . I had hoped that maybe after all this time, you could
learn to like me, even a little bit.”
“Princess, I don’t have to marry you to like
you.” Buck gazed at her
curiously. Her lip was
trembling almost imperceptibly. He
was wondering if this was an act or if Ardala was serious.
“I really can’t divulge the reasons for needing Tigerman
because there are a great many people whose lives depend on secrecy right
now.” He paused. “Just
as there was when we were fighting the War Witch.
I came to you then in good faith.”
He sat back down and took her hand.
“I am asking you to trust me now.”
Ardala gazed contemplatively at his hand.
She sighed, remembering that time on Pendar very well.
“I am sorry about that incident.
I thought I could win the war by myself; that I had the power to
influence Serena. I learned a lot during that time. And I didn’t like everything I learned.”
She finished her drink.
Buck thought a few seconds, studying Ardala
carefully. “Funny thing is,
“You did what?”
“Like what I learned,” Buck responded.
She looked deeply into his eyes and saw respect
there, something she had not seen in the early days.
He turned and glanced at Tigerman before looking
back at Ardala. “Princess,
I promise, it’s nothing dangerous for your father’s realm, but we have
to protect the anonymity of some of the people involved in this
they a threat?”
“No, actually, I guess you could say we are,”
Buck answered enigmatically. “But
Tigerman has the clues to solve this whole thing.”
They both gazed at the Rrilling and somehow Buck
knew that Tigerman was aware of what he wanted.
“Who are these people that we are such a threat
to?” she asked.
Buck leaned over and nuzzled Ardala’s ear with
his lips. “Princess, it
would still be better if you could just trust me on this. But I can give you a few more details on the Searcher
tonight if you want me to. Privately.”
“Oh? You mean that Colonel Deering will allow
you to continue this on her ship?”
Buck pulled back slightly and grinned.
“I have learned from a master,” she replied
with a wistful smile of her own. “But
after all is said and done, how do you know I won’t still give away this
secret if I figure it out?”
Buck pulled away. “Ardala, we have done some
pretty rotten things to each other, but even so, there comes a time when a
person has to do things just because they are right.”
Frowning, Ardala leaned back and favored Buck with
a pouty look. “You are
taking all the fun out of this.”
“Yeah, I guess it was much more enjoyable being
sneaky,” Buck said with a laugh. This
was more like the Ardala he knew.
“And you won’t consider taking up residence on
“No, Princess, duty calls.”
“No, Colonel Deering calls,” she retorted.
“The colonel and I are not married yet, despite
what everyone thinks,” Buck snapped, frustrated.
“Then the colonel is stupid,” Ardala quipped,
rubbing her hand across his chest.
“I will take that as a compliment, Your
Highness,” he said, his tone softer.
“But I will marry when its right for both of us and it isn’t
“It isn’t for you, I would assume.”
Somehow Buck thought that Ardala was right, in her
own inimitable way.
The princess got up and walked away from the
couch. “You have always
played hard to get.” She
walked back and sat down again. “But
remember, you will always be welcome on Draconia, Buck Rogers.”
“I know, Ardala.
And thank you.” He
leaned over and kissed her soundly before getting up. “I guess I’d
better contact the Searcher and make sure they are ready for your
Several days out of the Draconian system, Buck was
in the workout room with Tigerman and Hawk.
“I know you wanted a rematch but aren’t you a little too
eager?” he asked.
Tigerman just grinned and shook his head.
Pointing to Hawk, he replied, “His people live high in mountains.
Very high. You not
ready. You die there.”
Buck pondered a moment, then it dawned on him.
The altitude would make breathing difficult.
Like climbing up Mount Everest.
“How high? And we
have breathing equipment.”
Tigerman folded his arms across his chest and
climbing, you not ready.” Then
his arm jerked out, catching Buck across the diaphragm, causing the terran
to double over when the air exploded from his lungs.
Coughing and choking, Buck glared at the felinoid.
“What the hell’d you do that for?”
“Prove you soft.”
Buck sucked in breath and straightened up.
“Okay, you made your point.”
He looked at Hawk. “How come he’s not picking on you?”
“Picking?” Hawk asked, then he smiled as he
realized what Buck was saying. “I
am not soft,” he replied with a wry smile.
“You have been doing a great deal of laying around lately.”
Buck groaned and then turned toward Tigerman.
“So what do I do?”
“You work, Colonel work.
“We’re still going to need supplementary
“Much climbing. Hard
where bird people live.”
“Yeah, I get the picture,” Buck agreed with a
sigh. “Let’s get
started.” And they did. Tigerman was a hard taskmaster; the first few nights Buck
fell into bed, feeling every muscle in his body, including many that he
didn’t even think he had and in places that he didn’t want to think
ached. He was beginning to think that perhaps the felinoid was
trying to kill him before ever having that rematch.
On the third night, just when he had lain down,
his door chimed. Without
getting up, Buck called out, “If it’s Tigerman, go away.
Anyone else, make sure you either have a hot tub or very nimble
The door opened and Wilma walked in.
Buck sat up as quickly as his aching muscles would
allow. “Uh, a massage,”
he explained sheepishly.
Buck felt a quick flare of irritation.
Wilma didn’t seem to have any problems with the physical regimen.
But he couldn’t stay irritated for long.
He was well aware how out of shape he had become.
Everything since his time on Mendalis had conspired against him.
And even during most of his sojourn on the Searcher, he had
not worked out as much as he should have. Buck smiled. “I’m
just jealous. You breeze
through Tigerman’s workouts.” He
paused a beat. “But I
suppose it’s my own fault.”
Wilma walked close and began massaging his
shoulders. “A little bit,
maybe, but the mines certainly didn’t help any.”
“Mmm,” was all he could say. Her touch was like a balm in more ways than one.
Buck felt the tightness in his shoulders loosen and his whole body
began to relax.
“Better?” she asked after a few minutes.
“Considerably,” he sighed.
“And for what it’s worth, I have been sore,
too. That rock climbing
exercise of his is hard!”
“I’ll still feel better when I can at least
keep up with you,” he said with a wry grin.
Wilma laughed as her fingers traveled down his
back to ease the soreness there. She
thought of the past month and she sobered quickly.
“It wasn’t that long ago when I thought I would never have the
opportunity to do this.”
Buck sighed as he enjoyed the warmth of her touch.
“Yeah, me, too.” Turning, he took her hands in his. “Thanks for not giving up on me,” he murmured.
Bringing her hands to his lips, he kissed them tenderly.
She sat down next to him.
“That was too close, Buck. Much
“I know,” he concurred.
They sat side by side for a few more minutes, not
saying anything, simply comfortable in each other’s company.
“Oh,” Wilma suddenly said and then colored
“I was supposed to be coming to tell you that
you will be part of the delegation going down to Mendalis tomorrow.”
“I figured I would be,” he replied languidly,
still feeling the effects of her ministrations.
“Good.” He laughed
when Wilma looked a bit puzzled at his exuberance.
“I so hate missing Tigerman’s workouts, but, well, if I
Wilma laughed with him.
“You are incorrigible.”
She got up. “And
you’d better get some sleep. Tomorrow’s
going to be a hard day even without Tigerman’s help.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Buck said contritely.
|Buck Rogers Contents|