Torma rubbed his chin. “You want a slave, eh?  I thought that was illegal in Arkebis.  Regardless, I cannot give you one.  I need them.  As you guessed, we lost many crew members capturing the Githrox.  I don’t have enough hands left to fully man my ship.  We barely made it into Arkebis, and some of the men decided they were cowards and quit.  I couldn’t find many volunteers.” He shook his head. “No, these are needed.” 

      The box with the Githrox shook again, more violently than before.  One of the lamps set on the crate fell to its side.  It rolled to the edge before falling off and smashing into the ground with an electric crackle.  The metal bands on the box groaned.  Several smugglers stepped back nervously.  Nobody volunteered to pick up the remains of the sparking lamp.

      Kal forced himself not to pay attention to the Githrox.  No time to worry about that.  He folded his arms and spoke, “I didn’t say I needed all of them, just one of them.  That one.” Kal pointed at Obrin.  Obrin’s head popped up, cautious hope dawning on his face.

      “Why do you want that one?  He’s strong maybe, but I think a drowned rat would have more steel in its spine.”  Torma laughed, and a few smugglers joined in.  “Is he an attunweiyld?  Not a very good one if we managed to catch him so easily.”

      “He isn’t, and neither are his parents.  But they are Aleph members, and they want him back.”

      Torma’s eyebrows shot up in surprise, but he mastered himself and continued, “Do you know how I found that one?” He jabbed a finger at the Obrin, anger blossoming in his voice.  “I caught him and his friends sneaking on board my ship.  They were trying to rob me.  They injured two of my men before we captured them.  Very, very foolish.”

      Kal laughed. “Foolish?  More like monumentally stupid.  All the same, his parents want him back and so do I.”

      “All the same, I need him to man my ship.”

      Kal reached slowly for his belt, careful not to put his hand near his weapons and produced his money chain.  The circular cord was strung with blue and green lacquered disks.  The selvens laced along the chain didn’t add up to a fortune, but they did represent everything Obrin’s parents and the local Aleph office could scrape together on short notice.  Not much money, but dear money.  He tossed the chain on the table with a thump.  Time for a gambit.

      “Here’s some money.  It’s not enough to pay for a slave but more than enough for your trouble.  You might be able to use it to hire a real crew member, much better than a drowned rat to be sure.  If you don’t, well, we don’t want any trouble.”  Kal shifted his weight just enough to ensure that Torma could see his saber and pistol.  He held his expression neutral.  There it was, money for a carrot and an implied threat for a pin.  Torma would know of the Aleph’s reputation.  Their willingness to use violence to protect their own.  One potential recruit wasn’t worth the men Kal would kill before he went down.  Even a handful would be disaster, likely collapsing what little authority Torma held over his crew.  Let him stew on that.  Kal held his breath, waiting.

      Torma pursed his lips in thought.  No way to be sure which way he was going to jump.  Kal forced his muscles to relax.  He needed to be ready.  Control you breathing, order your thoughts.  He exhaled slowly and remembered.  He was nineteen, picking up his younger brother Laiyn.  Laiyn was still a boy.  He’d lost his apprenticeship and, in turn, the room he slept in at his former master’s house.  He needed a place to live.  Kal remembered coming to meet Laiyn, remembered watching him shuffle out to the street, his few meager possessions held in a cloth sack.  This was his brother.  He needed shelter, a protector.  Kal remembered swelling with fierce resolve, determined to be that protector, proud that he could be.

      The weiyld of Pyrel, the second sun, rushed into view.  It ran in tightly controlled angles around everything in the cavern, covering and protecting.  It plowed into Kal, drawn to his memories and emotions.  He felt its energy, heavy and solid like an ancient oak tree, wearing its scars with pride, contemptuous of the wind and rain that beat against it.  Defend, protect, resist.  The weiyld wove itself into his armor and body, hardening them against attack.  Whatever happened, he was ready.

      Torma turned back to him and opened his mouth to speak.  Kal never learned what he was going to say.  The Githrox’s crate shook a third time, now accompanied by the rasp of heavy claws on wood.  The entire crate heaved.  Metal bands screeched in protest.  Finally, with a crash of splintering wood accompanied by a triumphant howl, the crate burst asunder.