call me what you will."
Metallica, "Wherever I May Roam"
In the Ukraine, part of the former Soviet Republic, there is a city called Odessa. It sets on the shores of the Black Sea, where the salt wind warms the town and the bodies of bathers. Under the tsars, it was a thriving resort, but war and economic hardship had cost it some of its luster.
Wedge was glad to see that the city seemed to be regaining some of its former glory. He remembered when the shores were swarming with people, men and women apart from each others, bathing in their underclothes. He supposed that they still did, but the underclothes had shrunk a bit and most of the swimming took place at public pools and health spas. A few people still walked in the surf, watching the sailors at the nearby naval base. A young woman with pale brown hair stood in the sand, looking up at the stars.
Something bumped Wedge from behind, and he turned and looked up. And up.
A swarthy, dark-haired man stood behind the Rogue, glowering down from his lofty height. Wedge guessed that the man was maybe a head shorter than a full-grown Wookiee. Muscles bulged under the sleeves of his tee-shirt and a puckered scar ran down one cheek. Two other men stood behind him, both tall though not abnormally large, both dark, wearing identical scowls.
Without asking, Wedge knew they were members of the pugilistic Brujah clan. And they were cranky.
The big man chattered in Russian, and it took Wedge a moment to translate. "I don't know you."
"No, you don't," Wedge replied cautiously. "I just got here."
"Have you seen the Prince?" It was one of the Traditions for all travelers to declare themselves to the Prince of any city they came to, and to ask for safe passage and hunting rights.
"I'm on my way now." That was true; Wedge *had* been on his way when he stopped for a moment at the seaside.
The big man's two enforcers flanked Wedge and crossed their arms as their leader continued to glare. "You can't hunt here without permission, Outlander."
Wedge stepped back and fought to keep his face neutral. No need to antagonize them, not when he wasn't planning to stay and didn't need to establish rank. "I'm not hunting. I'm going to see the Prince."
"You were looking at one of our women."
"That's not hunting. That's admiring." Wedge felt his temper flare and glanced over at the woman in the sand. She was watching them, as were several other people on the shore.
The Brujah leaned down and poked his finger into Wedge's chest. "Watch yourself, little man."
Wedge kept his voice low. "Don't touch me."
The backup on Wedge's left spoke up nervously. "Ivan, there are mortals out. You can get into big trouble if they get suspicious."
Ivan gave him a most unfriendly grin. "I don't have to break the Masquerade to deal with this insect."
Wedge held up in hands. "You don't have to deal with me at all. Your friend is right; people are watching. Let's go to your Prince and get everything settled there."
For a moment, Wedge thought the other man might listen. Brujah liked to stick to their guns, but they weren't stupid. No more than anyone else.
The first punch doubled him over, leaving him unable to block the second blow that connected with his jaw. Wedge staggered backward, into the arms of one of Ivan's friends. The larger man pushed him away, and Wedge stumbled but managed to keep his balance. Already the pain was fading. Ivan was big, but he wasn't very old. He hadn't yet learned how to harness his Potence.
"Come on, wolf boy." Ivan taunted. "Give me your best shot."
Not again. I'm not doing this again just to heal my pride. I can take a few punches, no big deal, let it go. Let. It. Go.
Wedge straightened and looked Ivan in the eye, then turned and began to walk away. He anticipated the next blow and stepped out of the way as Ivan came bellowing after him. The Rogue kept his hands up defensively, but didn't strike as the larger man swung a huge fist at his face.
The reasonable Brujah stepped up and grabbed Ivan's arm. "He's Gangrel, Ivan. Don't start with him. I won't put my life on the line to pull you out again."
"Then stay back, Hamet," Ivan growled, pushing the other Kindred away. He turned back to Wedge. "Gangrel? I've never met a pacifist wolf. Maybe you're a lapdog, eh? Or maybe you're just a Toreador in wolf's clothing."
The Beast was already too close to the surface, and this insinuation, that he was one of those effete bastards, pushed Wedge over. He struck out once, smashing the left side of the Brujah's rib cage. He felt the bones crack and heard the larger man howl in pain, the senses drawing him back into himself. Regret flooded Wedge's body; there was no way out now, and no way to avoid being seen. Best to finish it quickly.
If Ivan would allow that. The Brujah recovered quickly and threw another punch that Wedge barely managed to dodge. The larger man's eyes were blazing; if possible, he was more angry than before, and determined to redeem himself. He was apparently used to fighting people his own size, though, and Wedge had the advantage of being small and quick.
As he ducked another blow, Wedge remembered a film he'd seen years before, where a giant was fighting a masked man in black. The giant was unable to use his usual methods of mayhem, and the man in black had jumped onto his back and strangled him. Trouble was, Ivan didn't need air, so he couldn't suffocate. New plan.
Wedge soaked a punch to his face, a blow that should have broken his jaw, and blinked as his head clouded. He yelped as a pair of arms closed around him, lifting him off the ground, tossing him several yards away to land in a heap in the sand. Exclamations and murmurs filled the air. Shit. The humans knew.
And so did the Police. They pushed through the crowd, yelling loudly, guns out and pointed at Ivan and Wedge. Ivan turned toward the uniformed officers and smiled, a slow, benevolent spread of lips, then reached out his hand to the official nearest him. Before the man could react, Ivan had him by the throat, fingers ripping at the mortal's vulnerable flesh as blood ran down his muscular arm.
The other officer stood in shock, unable to fire his pistol as Ivan swung around to face him, fangs bared. Before the huge Brujah could attack, Wedge leapt onto his back, unsheathed his claws, and dragged them down Ivan's chest. The Kindred screamed, dropped the Policeman, and grabbed for Wedge. The claws took Ivan across the face
this time, splitting his right cheek, opening his right eyesocket.
The screams were deafening. The humans scattered in all directions, none curious enough to stick around. Wedge felt himself being lifted away from Ivan, and he struggled, but a hand forced his head around until he stared into deep brown eyes.
Wedge didn't fight. The command had worn off, but he was too tired and worried to struggle any more. It wasn't worth the effort, anyway; he was in the Prince's council chamber, surrounded by guards. Impossible to escape.
Impossible is what Rogues do best.
Tycho's voice echoed in his head, and Wedge looked down, blinking back tears. What would his old friend, his second in command, think of him now? He was an animal, a predator, a... a thing that attacked to heal his own pride and endangered mortals to avenge himself.
"And what do you have to say for yourself, Outlander?"
Wedge looked up at the Prince's angry face. Power radiated from the man, power and rage, and in his ecclesiastical robes, seated on a massive wooden throne, he seemed almost godlike. Wedge fought the overwhelming compulsion to kneel at his feet and beg for forgiveness.
"I have nothing to say, sir," he finally managed. "Only that I meant no harm."
"Meant no harm? You bared your claws in public."
"He was going to kill the officer."
"You should have let him." The Prince's voice was cold. "The Police are not under my control. If that officer had gotten word back to the others... but my servants are wise enough to rid me of such potential problems."
"You killed him anyway?!" Wedge was outraged. "And all the mortal witnesses? Did you murder them as well?"
The Prince shifted in his seat, his eyes growing dark as he glared at the recalcitrant Gangrel. "I protect my people. If I must kill to do so, I will."
He stood and waved toward the men standing behind Wedge. The Rogue suddenly found himself held down by four pairs of hands. He struggled with all his strength, but couldn't free himself.
"As I must kill you now." The Prince's voice floated through the air as he strode across the chamber toward Wedge. "You endangered my people with your little display, and you must suffer the consequences." Another gesture brought a slender, golden-haired man forward to stand before Wedge, a wooden stake in one hand.
Sithspit! Backup, I need backup. Ideas ricocheted around Wedge's mind as he fought against the men holding him. Once he was staked, he wouldn't be able to do anything. They could leave him in the sun or throw him on a fire, or just keep him immobile for centuries until the wood rotted. What I'd give to have Tycho swoop in here with a half-squad of X-Wings.
The Prince stood directly in front of him. "Might I have the honor of your name, before I have you run through?"
The blonde man raised the stake. Wedge was out of ideas.
"Commander Wedge Antilles. Starfighter Command." That's it, shock them.
The stake descended toward his heart, but the Prince's arm swooped down in a blur and stopped it.
"What did you say?"
Wedge trembled as his exhausted muscles tried to relax. "My name is Wedge Antilles."
The Prince stared at him for a moment, then thrust the stake and the man holding it away from him. "It seems there is someone who wants you even more than I do." He nodded to one of the men holding Wedge. "Bind him."
On to Chapter Nine