Darkrock tried not to grit his teeth as he descended the ramp from his shuttle. His leg injury from the battle with Strongsea that morning hurt like hell, but he refused to appear vulnerable for this meeting. Tri-Ruler Ridgeback had ordered a conference between him and Strongsea to put an end to the rivalry between their sectors.
It was about time. After the report he'd forwarded, Ridgeback must have finally seen Strongsea for the underhanded, power-seeking swine he was. Darkrock was prepared to assume leadership of both sectors. Eventually he would select a male and female partner. The male would be his second-in-command and the female would bear his children.
The Shand people who dwelled on the neighboring planets of Shandra, Shandri and Shandral traditionally had a marriage of three. To them, three was a sacred number, occurring in architecture, legends, government and symbolically in their major religions.
Almost all Shand marriages included two males and a female. It was long past time Darkrock chose his partners. He wasn't old, but was certainly no longer a young man. The problem was, he'd been so dedicated to training and leadership that he'd neglected his personal life.
Hell, he didn't even know what it meant to have a personal life. Since his sexual preference leaned toward females, he sated his lust with willing women, when his duties allowed, but never took a permanent lover.
After the battle this morning, he planned to have some female companionship today, namely a shapely masseuse who serviced him regularly.
It felt strange being on the surface of a planet by day, but the Tri-Ruler lived on Shandral, where the weather was milder than on Shandra. At home, due to the intense heat, most people slept by day in their underground dwellings and were active by night when the temperature cooled.
A smile flirted with his lips, but he refused to let it take over. One thing he'd learned was never take anything for granted. Only when he heard from the Tri-Ruler's lips that Strongsea would be removed from power and punished would Darkrock allow himself to relax the slightest bit.
The leadership battle had taken place by morning, in the heat, to increase the difficulty of the fight. Just thinking about the battle and Strongsea infuriated him. Strongsea was everything a Shandra leader shouldn't be--tradition meant little to him. He allowed the people in his sector freedom. Even the women had voting privileges. How could one run a sector with females involved in politics and security? The people of Strongsea's sector were in for a rude awakening when Darkrock took over.
The Tri-Ruler's residency loomed ahead--a vast gray structure with three towers. Darkrock had never noticed how long a distance it was down the smooth, black walkway to the entrance. Of course he'd never traveled it with a healing leg before.
Halfway down the walk, he paused. Though the worst damage to his leg had been repaired directly after the battle, the newly mended flesh and muscle would still hurt for a day or two.
His chief advisor and security guard also stopped walking and turned to him. "Is something wrong, sir?"
"No," he stated and continued on his way.
Finally they reached the tall double doors. They opened automatically and the men stepped into the coolness of the foyer where two heavily armed, gray-garbed soldiers stood guard. After a security check, Darkrock, his advisor and guard were allowed to pass.
Inside, a servant guided them to the Tri-Ruler's meeting room where Ridgeback awaited them. He sat at the head of a long black table. Four of the Tri-Ruler's guards were stationed at each corner of the room. Strongsea and his chief advisor sat to Ridgeback's right. A guard from their sector stood behind them. The conversation between Ridgeback and Strongsea ended as Darkrock approached. The slight smile on Strongsea's face faded. Good. Darkrock hated the man's sickeningly passive smile that only masked his true nature.
Darkrock had thought Strongsea would never accept, let alone suggest, a traditional one-on-one challenge. He'd guessed Strongsea would rather send thousands to war rather than risk his own skin in a leadership battle. Darkrock had been wrong about that and had also underestimated the man's prowess as a warrior.
The soft-spoken liberal had a will of iron. Under different circumstances, Darkrock might have respected him, but he also knew Strongsea was cunning. He smiled to his rival's face, feigning the desire for peace talks, while behind his back he planned to assassinate and conquer.
On some planets such tactics were acceptable, even admirable, but not on Shandra. Despite their technological progress, Shand people were rooted in the old ways and prized traits such as honor and courage.
Strongsea was a relatively new leader, having undergone the trials two years ago when the old leader of his sector died. Darkrock, as well as the leaders of some of the smaller sectors, had hoped one of the other candidates would win the trials. Even before he assumed power, Strongsea's personal and political viewpoints had caused concern throughout the planet. Some had even believed that Tri-Ruler Ridgeback would deny him leadership despite winning the trials. However, the Tri-Ruler had given him a chance and Strongsea had failed. Now he would learn that following tradition wasn't optional.
"Darkrock come. Sit," Ridgeback said in his rumbling voice while gesturing toward the empty seat to his left.
Darkrock did as ordered. His advisor sat near him and the guard stood behind. Darkrock bowed his head respectfully to the Tri-Ruler, then his gaze locked with Strongsea's. The man was annoyingly handsome. Almost too handsome for a Shand leader. His wheat-colored beard was neatly trimmed, accentuating his chiseled bone-structure. Only his strong nose and the predatory look that sometimes gleamed in his thickly-lashed blue eyes kept him from being too pretty. He wore his pale hair ultra-short, almost shaved to his scalp, probably because dark-haired men were considered far more masculine on Shandra. Tall and lithe, he gave a deceptively elegant appearance, but as Darkrock had discovered during their battle, Strongsea was tough and supple. Grappling with him had been like tangling with warm metal--powerful and almost impossible to break. Just thinking about it made Darkrock's belly tighten and his cock tingle to life. Of course he wasn't turned on by Strongsea. He hated the man, but at times anger and arousal provoked the same response. If and when he chose his mate it wouldn't be a man like this.
Rugged good looks, similar to Darkrock's, were preferred in their culture.
During their earlier battle, Darkrock had tried his best to destroy his rival's gorgeous face. He nearly curled his lip in disgust, noting that even the swollen lower lip, blackened right eye and four painful-looking scratches down his left cheek couldn't disguise Strongsea's beauty. Maybe exile or sentence to a hard labor prison camp would.
Ridgeback said, "I was saying, and Strongsea agreed, that as leaders of the two most powerful sectors on Shandra, your recent behavior has set a poor example."
"He's agreed?" Darkrock said, not bothering to keep the sneer from his lips. "Strange, considering he's the cause of the problem, as you must have seen if you read my report."
"In your report you accuse Strongsea of planning an assassination and takeover of your sector. Of course such allegations warrant a full investigation, which would take much longer than a single day," Ridgeback said and Darkrock didn't miss his note of sarcasm. "However, a quicker method is to question Strongsea."
"As if he'd tell the truth," Darkrock scoffed, his gaze shifting from the Tri-Ruler to his hated rival.
"He accepted questioning by the Spike of Integrity," Ridgeback stated.
This surprised Darkrock. The Spike of Integrity was an old and powerful tool that never failed to bring forth the truth from its victims. Sector leaders were rarely subjected to it. A long, ultra-thin needle was inserted into the back of the neck, supplying a controlled stream of serum that forced the suspect to tell the truth.
"The results have cleared Strongsea of your accusations. He submitted to a full questioning regarding this matter as well as some others that have caused concern. I must admit that I had some reservations about him when he first took leadership, but they have been eradicated. He is a most worthy and respectable man."
Darkrock drew a deep breath. His fingers gripped the chair arms so hard that his nails sank into the wood, yet he tried to appear calm and collected. This was completely unexpected and most unsettling.
"I suggest you question your intelligence staff closely, particularly those who provided you with the false information about Strongsea. I fear if there is an assassination being planned, it won't be coming from another sector, but will be internal," Ridgeback said.
Darkrock nodded, his jaw tight. "It seems you may be right."
"My praise of Strongsea doesn't mean that I find him to be a perfect leader," Ridgeback continued. "Nor do my reprimands toward you mean that I am not pleased with your performance. On the contrary, I have always found you to be one of the strongest and most honorable leaders on Shandra."
Darkrock wasn't moved by pandering--not that he felt the Tri-Ruler was being untruthful. Sugar coating anything wasn't Ridgeback's style and that was a quality Darkrock respected.
"The problems between your sectors have always been a source of concern on Shandra. Now that it again has you on the brink of war--and has driven you into a leadership battle--I am compelled to step in. I sanctioned this morning's battle only because I hoped it would put an end to your rivalry and bring peace to Shandra. When the battle ended in a draw, I realized you are equally matched in many ways, but also complement each other. The best decision for Shandra won't be to choose one of you over the other, but to merge your sectors."
"Merge?" Darkrock said, his control close to snapping.
"As in they become a single sector?" Strongsea demanded, his peaceful expression fading, replaced by the same tension Darkrock had seen during the leadership battle.
"Exactly," Ridgeback said. "You can learn much from each other and will balance each other well. Strongsea, you are a modern man of new ideas and fresh insights. Darkrock, you are rooted in tradition. Together you can improve Shandra as surely as you would destroy it fighting each other."
"Which of us will be the leader?" Darkrock asked, almost afraid of what the answer would be.
"Neither. You will have equal control."
"And if we don't agree to this?" Darkrock said.
"Then you relinquish your position and a new representative of your former sector will be chosen to share leadership."
"I'll have to rule with him?" Strongsea said, his wide-set blue eyes narrowing almost to slits as he glared at Darkrock.
"More than that," Ridgeback said. "You and Darkrock will be joined in matrimony. You will select a wife to be shared between you, and your heirs will be of the new sector."