Hardback, ebook, audiobook
Original Publication Date: June 21, 2016
It is in the darkest hours of a universe’s past that their legends are born and their heroes rise…
No one knows exactly how much heart they have until their mettle is put to the hazard and they reach the lowest point of hell. There, they have only two choices. Lie down and die. Or find the strength to push themselves to their feet and fight back with everything they have.
In the words of Trajan Thaumarturgus:
Every great legend begins with one hero giving his finger to destiny and fate.
For those who have read Born of Betrayal, Dagger is the alias that is used by Ushara’s husband, and the father of the twins, who is on the run for his life. This is his story and shows how he became a member of the Tavali and what happens to them...
A member of the Gorturnum Nation, Dagger has a price on his head that is truly staggering. With no family or past that he will discuss with anyone, he has survived by his wits and skills, and with a wicked sense of sarcasm that should be registered as a lethal weapon. He is not what he seems and should never be underestimated. He, alone, has earned Trajen's trust and survived a treacherous past that would have killed a lesser being. We all...View Character Profile
Born one of the exceptionally rare Fyrebloods of Andaria, Ushara and her family barely escaped the purging that annihilated almost all of their species. A proud member of the Tavali Nation, she is the Vice Admiral for the Gorturnum and holds her place among her adopted people sacred. With the call sign Star Skream, she has been known to make seasoned League assassins run in terror at the prospect of facing her in battle. She takes no mercy and...View Character Profile
While writing Born of Betrayal, this was one of those characters and stories that grabbed a hold of me and threw me to the ground and said, "Hey, Sherri, you HAVE to tell my story. It's time." I fought it. I denied it. But in the end, I lost. The hero ripped my heart out and made me feel for him. Most of all, he made me root for him. It answers a lot of questions and I am so glad I lost my battle and gave in.
Holding his hands up, Dagger turned around slowly to face the Tavali behind him. From the way the Tavali had spoken, he’d expected to recognize the pirate.
He didn’t. If their paths had ever crossed, Dagger had no recollection of it. From the size and smell of the male, and the patches on his battlesuit, he was also a chiller. One of the larger of that breed who’d been trained to hunt and kill Trisani. They were as lethal as League assassins. Lucky for Dagger, the chiller, like everyone else, underestimated him.
But like the rest of Dagger’s enemies, he was about to learn that the only beings who kicked Dagger’s ass were the ones he allowed to kick it.
Or the ones lucky enough to get a blind shot off first.
“Titana tu, chiran.” Dagger grabbed the blaster faster than the chiller could react. It discharged, proving the chiller had intended to kill him.
That effectively quelled his conscience.
All charity and reservation gone, Dagger wasted no time unbalancing the larger male, slamming him to the ground, and snapping his neck.
Unfortunately, the chiller screamed out before he died and brought his friends running. Dagger scrambled for the blaster and was on his feet before they came in with Sheila behind them.
“Whoa!” she shouted as they held each other at an armed stand-off. “What the hell happened?”
Dagger didn’t take his eyes off the others as he toed the carcass at his feet. “He came at me.”
“Bullshit!” the crew’s captain snarled. “Larl wouldn’t have done that.” He started toward Dagger.
Dagger shot just over his shoulder. “Don’t, slag. Next shot won’t be a warning.”
Sheila waved her hands at them. “Everyone, calm down. We’ll get this squared.”
The captain shook his head. “I want his life for my crewman. He’s not even Tavali. You know the Code.”
Dagger frowned. “What’s the Code?”
Sheila sighed as she met Dagger’s gaze. “The Tavali who brought you here is responsible for whatever you do. You can admit guilt and submit to the captain’s justice, or if you don’t your sponsor has to go to Calibrim for you.”
“Test of arms,” Sheila explained. “She’d have to fight the captain. Similar to an Andarion Ring fight.”
Dagger cursed under his breath. Oh hell no. It wasn’t Ushara’s fault he hadn’t bothered to read the Tavali rule book before he’d defended himself.
Whatever. He wasn’t about to allow her to risk her life or get hurt because of him. Not when she had a son to raise. He definitely wasn’t worth it.
Dagger loosened his hold on the blaster and spun it in his hand so that he could offer the grip to the captain.
He grabbed it from Dagger’s hand.
Relegated to his fate, Dagger put his hands behind his head and laced his fingers together, then surrendered to their custody. At least they didn’t seem to know his identity. Maybe they’d kill him quickly.
Ushara let out an irritated groan at the sound of Sheila’s voice through her door. She was so tired of dealing with crap today. As she was texting Zellen to tell him to brush Sheila away with an excuse, her door opened.
“Ma’am, it’s Dagger. You have to come fast before they kill him. Please!”
The color drained from her face. “What?”
“He killed one of the Razor’s crew. Said it was self-defense. When I told him you’d have to fight for him, he surrendered to them and they took him.”
“Son of a bitch,” she breathed. Grabbing her link, she rushed for the door. “Take me to them.” She called Trajen to alert him of the situation as they ran for the bay as fast as they could.
By the time they reached the ship, they were locked out. Ushara hailed for entrance.
No one answered her call.
Panic and fury combined inside her to a dangerous level. And she wasn’t the only one. Sheila pulled her blaster out and started to fire it at the hull. Ushara barely caught her arm before she pulled the trigger. “What are you doing?”
“Kicking their asses! This ain’t right. He was doing me a favor by helping them degenerate ass wipes, in the first place. I know he didn’t do nothing wrong. Dagger’s a decent guy, Admiral. He’s the only one what don’t get mad or upset at me at the things I say. He understands me, you know what I mean? Everyone else is an effing asshole.”
“Everyone?” Trajen arched brow at her as he joined them.
Sheila shrank away without comment.
Ushara returned Sheila’s blaster to her. “They’ve locked us out.”
“Oh no, Mama, you didn’t,” Trajen said in the feigned accent of a teenaged girl. “Not on my base, bitches.”
Using his powers, he blew the door completely off their ship. It went flying thirty feet into the air to land with a deafening clatter a full fifty yards away.
Trajen turned to Sheila who stood gaping at him. “Damn blast charge. Used too much.”
She didn’t say a word as she stepped back and put more distance between her and Trajen.
“You should probably wait out here for us, Sheila.” And with that, he led Ushara on board while Sheila decided that it was best to stay put.
Wide-eyed, Ushara was stunned that he’d used his powers like that. Trajen never exposed his Trisani origins to anyone, for any reason. But she was glad he’d made an exception as they wended their way through the dark ship.
With Trajen’s massive psionic tracking abilities, it didn’t take long to find them. The crew was in the cargo area with Dagger, on the verge of gutting him. They even had him tied shirtless on a piece of damaged cargo like some kind of sacrifice to an angry god.
When Ushara started forward, they turned and drew weapons.
Placing his hand on her shoulder to hold her in place, Trajen burst out laughing at the sight of them.
She, however, wasn’t so amused.
“Well, I’m glad I brought cheer to someone before I died,” Dagger said churlishly.
Trajen continued to laugh. “Yeah, that you did, punkin’.” He wiped at his eyes. “Boy, we have got to quit meeting like this. You get yourself into more shit. They have no idea who you are. What you’re worth.” He started laughing again. “Oh dear gods . . . this may be the dumbest group to ever live.” He looked at Ushara. “It’s tempting to kill them just on those grounds, alone.”
“What the hell is this?” The captain stepped forward. “Get off my ship!”
That sobered Trajen instantly. He let go of Ushara and straightened as a look of feral death settled in his dark eyes. “You better find another tone, slag. Fast.” He passed a pointed stare to the ones closest to Dagger. “Step away from my friend or your fondest body parts are going to start hitting the floor. And you will miss them. Trust me.”
Dagger’s ties came loose and his shirt returned to him. That instantly told them who and what Trajen was.
And it told Ushara a lot about Dagger’s own persuasive powers and charisma over others. Trajen didn’t lightly expose himself to anyone. Honestly, she hadn’t expected him to help her rescue Dagger. She’d only alerted him as a matter of protocol.
The fact he was here . . .
That was impressive.
For him to call Dagger friend was unprecedented. In all the years she’d known Trajen, she’d never heard him laugh. Maybe a slight chuckle.
The captain stiffened. “Do you know who I am?”
“Yes and my buddy behind you iced a chiller you brought on board my station. Do you really think I give a flying fuck who you are, who your father is or anything else?” Trajen stepped aside. “Ushara? Take Dagger and leave. Now.”
She didn’t hesitate to obey.
Dagger was another matter. He only went as far as Trajen’s shoulder and stopped. “Don’t do it.”
Trajen scowled at him. “Excuse me? Boy . . . this is not your concern. Not the time or the place.”
Dagger refused to back down or flinch. “And you heard me, old man. Let them go.”
Arching one feral brow, Trajen crossed his arms over his chest. “Rather difficult as their door is currently lying in the center of my bay.”
“They have the Caronese battleship they hauled in. It’s fully functional. Let them fly it out.”
Something strange was passing between them. Ushara could feel it with every instinct she possessed. Yet she had no idea what it was.
After a few seconds, Trajen conceded. “Very well. There you have it, slags. Get off my station and be grateful for my mercy. I never want to see your faces again.” He turned toward her. “Shara? Summon the HC to escort them to the edges of our territory and make sure they leave us without harm.”
Dagger kept her shielded with his body until they were clear of the ship.
Once they were in the bay, she paused to call the Hadean Corpsmen, then turned toward Dagger who was working at a kiosk. “What did I just miss?”
“Hang on a sec, there’s a few things I need to take care of, real quick.”
Trajen didn’t join them until after the crew was on board the Caronese ship, under heavy armed escort, and they were going through the launch clearance. “What exactly did you do?” he asked Dagger.
Dagger shrugged. “Deactivated their HD and LD. Reactivated the homing beacons on the ship. Sent out a hidden distress call on the Caronese EDB. By the time they hit the outer edge of Gorturnum space, the Caronese should have a full welcoming party for them. Since Senator Nylan’s son was the ship’s commander and they killed him while capturing it, he’ll be hellbent on revenge. They won’t make it back to Caron alive. And you don’t have their blood on your hands, and have broken no Tavalian Code or law that you have to answer for with the UTC.”
“You are one devious little bastard.” Trajen shook his head. “Don’t know if I should be impressed or afraid.”
“Bit of both.”
“Yeah . . .” Trajen glanced over to the door he’d ripped off their ship. “Guess we both have unresolved childhood anger issues.”
“Yeah and I don’t believe in burning bridges. Rather I bomb those mothers to the ground and toast marshmallows over their smouldering remains.”
“I’m going to remember that.”
They fell silent as the Caronese ship launched.
Sheila came out of her office completely distressed . . . until she saw Dagger standing at the kiosk. Then she ran at him, and to Ushara’s complete shock, she threw herself into his arms. “Oh thank God! You’re all right.”
He looked as baffled as Ushara felt. “Um, yeah.”
Sheila patted him on the back. “Well don’t be so stupid next time, shithead.”
“Honestly, I was trying not to be so stupid this time. You see how it turned out. Perhaps next time I should try for an all-out moron. That might actually work for me.”
Laughing, she sighed. “No one else understand me like you do, boy. So stop being an idiot. If you’re late for work tomorrow, I’m going to kick your ass.”
He checked his watch. “Well, it’s been a good fifteen minutes since my last ass-kicking. I should be due a new one by morning. I shall look forward to it, mu tara.”
With one last growl at Dagger, Sheila chucked him on the arm and left.
Ushara grimaced at him as Sheila crossed the bay and returned to her office. “How can you stand the way she talks to you?”
“What? That? I think she’s hilarious.”
“You’re not serious?”
Yet he was. She could see the sincerity in his eyes. “Trust me, I know the difference between someone who’s churlish by nature because they’re trying to protect themselves from being harmed by others, and someone whose barbs are meant to let blood. Sadly for her, others can’t distinguish it. And so she does more harm to herself by trying to form a protective barrier from strangers than she would if she’d just be nice. But I understand the need to strike the first blow before they do. I certainly don’t hold it against her, and I know she doesn’t mean it. Besides my ego isn’t that fragile. It would require that I actually possess one.”
Trajen snorted. “Anyway . . .” He jerked his chin toward the abandoned ship. “It appears we have a spare vessel. Would you like it, Lord Dagger? Seems only fair since they were planning to gut you on it?”
“Don’t need that piece of shit. Can’t fly it after some thoughtless bastard ripped the door off its hinges.” He passed an amused stare toward Trajen. “I’m thinking it should go to Sheila since she didn’t get her payment for the work they’d commissioned from her. Besides, her daughter’s treatments run high. I don’t have any dependents. I drink rather cheap, as in free, tap water these days.”
“Yeah, but you could replace those shitty boots.” Trajen raked a sneer over them.
Dagger arched a brow. “Why? I like these boots. They’re broken in. And they come with free air-conditioning. I hear they’re even trying to patent this idea in the Oksana desert region, only there, they’re called sandals. It’s true. Look it up, if you don’t believe me. It’s the latest fashion craze.”
Laughing again, Trajen shoved at him. “Shut the hell up.” With an irritated growl, he started away from them, then stopped to look back with a fierce frown. “Why do I like you, again?”
“It’s the fangs. It makes us look all cute and cuddly.”
“Yeah. That must be it.” And with that, Trajen wandered off.
Ushara cocked her head as she looked down at Dagger’s ragged footwear. “Why don’t you replace your boots?”
He shrugged. “Don’t know. Guess I’m too busy wasting creds on frivolous things like food, power and rent.”
“And my sister’s ship?”
“Your sister has four daughters to feed.”
“Then why don’t you let me replace your boots?”
He wrinkled his nose at her. “Nah, see I know how this goes. It’s called progressive entrapment. Come here, little boy. I got a piece of candy for you. Get in my shuttle . . . next thing I know, I’m drunk and naked in your bed. You’re having your wicked way with me. My mama warned me all about females like you and taking candy from strangers.”
She laughed at him. “I think I’d have a hard time getting away with that.”
“Sadly, I doubt you would. Pretty sure I’d be an easy fool for you, which is why I have to pass on the boots. Besides, I hate shopping. If you took me, you’d see the beast that lives inside me and I’d rather you live with the myth of this noble hero for awhile longer.”
Ushara tsked at him and that adorable grin on his face. “You are so incredibly charming.”
“Not really. I’m told I’m a giant asshole by most.”
He screwed his face up. “Oh that is a frightfully long list. Terabytes of data, point of fact.”
“They don’t know you.”
“They would all argue that they do.”
“And what do you say?”
Sobering, he glanced away. “Maybe they know me better than I do, really. Are we not all a thousand characters in millions of plays throughout our lifetime? Is Ushara the mother the same character as Ushara the daughter? Or Ushara the admiral the same as Ushara the older sister? Or the younger sister? Did your husband not know a different side of you than anyone else in your life? What about the male who knows Ushara the testicle-launcher? I’m sure he would paint a very different image of you than I would. Who among us is not ever-changing? Ever evolving into someone new? Maybe someone better . . . or someone worse.”
Dear gods, he was incredibly astute. “And who do you want to be, Dagger?”
“Honestly? I would sell whatever is left of my used up, blackened soul to be the hero Vasili sees whenever he looks at me and not the piece of worthless shit I know for a fact I truly am.” And with those barely audible words, he turned and walked away with that sexy predator’s lope that was uniquely his.
Tears choked her as she watched him go. He was exactly the male Vasili thought him to be. If only he could see it.
But sadly, his past was too brutal for that. And his conscience too riddled with guilt. Yet one day, she hoped he could find the ability to judge himself with the same compassion that he used when he looked at others. Cause the gods knew, while he wasn’t perfect, he was as caring and kind as anyone she’d ever known. And if ever anyone deserved a second chance in their life, it was definitely him.
She just hoped he realized it before it was too late.
Sighing, she headed back for her office.
It is in the darkest hours of a universe’s past that their legends are born and their heroes rise…
No one knows exactly how much heart they have until their mettle is put to the hazard and they reach the lowest point of hell. There, they have only two choices. Lie down and die. Or find the strength to push themselves to their feet and fight back with everything they have.
In the words of Trajan Thaumarturgus:
Every great legend begins with one hero giving his finger to destiny and fate.
For those who have read Born of Betrayal, Dagger is the alias that is used by Ushara’s husband, and the father of the twins, who is on the run for his life. This is his story and shows how he became a member of the Tavali and what happens to them after Born of Betrayal ends.
“It’s official Take a Psycho to Work Day. Why else would I be here?”
Hunted. Hated. Betrayed. Dagger Ixur is on the run for his life. As one of the most recognizable members of his royal house, he has a bounty on his head that guarantees him no quarter from any friend or even family. But surrender isn’t in him. He will fight to the bitter end. A resolve that is sorely tested when he narrowly escapes a trap that leaves him severely wounded. With what he believes is his dying breath, he saves a boy born to an extinct race from a group out to enslave the kid for his legendary abilities.
Ushara Altaan has spent her entire life hating those born to nobility. After all, it was a royal house that drove her entire species into virtual extinction. As a rare Andarion Fyreblood, she is sworn to end the existence of any royal she finds. But when Dagger saves her son’s life, she is torn between her people and a debt that can never be repaid.
Yet worse than Dagger’s family that’s still out to end hers, are the League assassins after him who will stop at nothing to claim the lives of her Tavali family. The only hope she has to save them all is to put their future and her faith into the hands of the very enemy whose grandmother personally extinguished Ushara’s legendary lineage. But how can she ever trust Dagger when he is a disinherited outlaw whose real name is synonymous with betrayal?
Hear a sample of the audiobook here:
While writing Born of Betrayal, this was one of those characters and stories that grabbed a hold of me and threw me to the ground and said, "Hey, Sherri, you HAVE to tell my story. It's time." I fought it. I denied it. But in the end, I lost. The hero ripped my heart out and made me feel for him. Most of all, he made me root for him. It answers a lot of questions and I am so glad I lost my battle and gave in.
First, Ushara checked the blaster. It had a biolock that had been deactivated. Fully charged. Unlike the one they’d picked up that the prince had aimed at her. That one had been drained completely. No shots in it whatsoever. He’d left himself defenseless and given her son a fully charged blaster for his protection.
Ballsy, and for that, she could forgive the prince a lot of sin. Any male who would willingly sacrifice his own life to protect a child he didn’t know . . .
It said a lot about him.
Curious, she turned the link on, expecting it to be locked, yet it wasn’t. But then, there was no need since there were no numbers programmed into it. According to the log, no one had called the prince.
Neither friend, nor family. The only outgoing transmissions had been for random information. Impersonal calls. Mostly hunting for work or transportation. Very cheap places to stay. The kind of dives that served the homeless and charity cases.
She paused as she noticed the link’s background photo. Clicking to the album, she realized it was the only picture in it. And it was the last thing she would have expected. Rather than being of the prince or a female of his, it was of a much younger Tadara Cairistiona of Andaria and Emperor Aros of Triosa— the tiziran’s parents when they were young. Teenagers in fact. Embracing, the two of them were staring into each others' eyes. It was actually a very touching couples photo.
Strange that he’d carry this one picture, and no other photos at all. Music either. There was nothing personal in the link. It was cold and sterile.
Turning the link off, she opened his wallet. Like the link, it was basically bare. Less than twenty credits. No cards or identification of any sort. Only a strange bump in the coin area. She opened it to find a royal Andarion signet ring. Her jaw dropped at the sight of something worth a fortune. “He gave this to you?”
Vasili nodded. “He said there would be enough inside it to see me home to my parents.”
The antique ring was more than enough. In fact, it could probably buy a small planet. The joke of it said the ring was worth the tiziran’s weight in gold, and given what Jullien eton Anatole was reported to weigh . . . that was a lot of creds.
Stunned past rational thought, she closed it and carefully put them in her pocket. “Stay here, Vas. I’ll be right back.”
Not sure what she’d find, she headed for the infirmary where Marshal was cleaning up from having tended the prince. He glanced at her as she entered the room.
“How’s your patient?”
“Now that Gavin’s flying us, much better.”
She rolled her eyes at him. “Not you, too.”
He grinned before he answered her question. “He took a bad knife wound. Poisoned blade. Luckily, it was an indy strike and not a League assassin. Had we not found him, he wouldn’t have made it another half hour before the poison finished off shutting down his vitals.”
“Should pull through. I think I got it all cleaned out.” He left her.
Alone with the tiziran, Ushara headed to the bed where Jullien lay unconscious. For the first time, she allowed herself to see his features. He was much better looking than he’d been in the old royal photo they’d shown her on screen, and more so than she’d realized in the bar where they’d met.
Of course, then she’d been more focused on her son and those out to harm him. Jullien had been the last thing on her mind.
Now, however . . .
He was exquisite. Tall, but lean from too many missed meals, the former tiziran was incredibly ripped. Every part of his tawny flesh was cut and defined. Every single muscle in his entire body was sculpted and honed like an athlete in training. Yet that being said, he was riddled with vicious, intersecting scars . . . knives, blaster wounds, claws— even bite marks. It appeared as if every type of creature imaginable had done its best to end him.
Sympathy choked her hard as she realized that he’d been forced to fight hard for his life.
Before she could stop herself, she stepped closer and touched the deepest jagged scar that ran so close to his heart it was a miracle that it’d missed it. There was another that ran along his collarbone, and a series of faint, faded smaller ones across his right rib cage. They were unlike any she’d ever seen before and she couldn’t imagine what had caused them.
How peculiar for a tiziran to be so marred when Andarions valued physical beauty above all else. Indeed, this much damage could cause an Andarion son to be disinherited, shunned and ridiculed.
And he had definitely been disowned. There was no missing the marks that crisscrossed his shoulders in a distinctive pattern where his mother had slashed his lineage and marked him Outcast. A harsh punishment for his kind that forever severed him from his birthright and exiled him from any Andarion territory or outpost.
“Ouch,” she breathed as more sympathy for him choked her. No matter what he’d done, she couldn’t imagine how any mother could be so cruel to her own child as to cast him out of his lineage and banish him from his home and family.
From everything he’d ever known.
Curious about this enigma before her, she dropped her hand to his and examined it. Like the rest of his body, his knuckles were scarred and bruised from fights. His claws torn and ragged, not the manicured hands of a spoiled aristocrat. Rather he had rough calluses and healing scuffs that said he’d been doing hard labor for some time now. Living hand-to-mouth like a savage animal.
On the inside of his left forearm, from wrist to elbow, was a tattoo of a sword piercing a bleeding heart, flanked with wings. The blood appeared to drip down his arm to his wrist. At the bottom of the heart was a rocker banner with a single Andarion word. Indurari. I endure or I am strengthened or hardened, depending on context. It was an ancient warrior’s symbol that had once decorated the battleshields and war helms of the mighty War Hauk family. That word signified that through hardship and conflict, their warriors were honed for battle and made better and stronger. Forever strengthened by adversity. Ironic that he’d choose such a symbol given that the Hauks were the mortal enemies of the Anatoles, and had been since the beginning of Andarion civilized history. Even though the two families were related, the Hauk lineage hated Jullien’s bloodline even more than hers did.
Not to mention tattoos were profaned by the darkheart Andarions unless they were done to pay tribute to or honor your own family.
For a darkheart tiziran to have one . . .
His royal family must have loved that.
Bemused, Ushara returned his hand to the mattress and checked the bandage to see how he’d been wounded. It’d been a low strike, near his hip and close to his groin. From the downward angle of it, she’d guess the assassin had been going for his femoral artery when the tiziran had countered his assault.
“If you want to move your hand over a bit more to the left and lower, I won’t protest.”
Heat scalded her cheeks as she realized that there was a sudden large bulge under the sheet very close to her hand and in the exact location he’d described. Gasping, she looked up to meet a pair of suspicious yet eerie hazel brownish-green eyes, rimmed with red.
Those weren’t Andarion eyes.
They were human in appearance. No wonder he’d worn dark red sunglasses to conceal them. But what stunned her most was how much unexpected and unwanted heat those eyes sent through her body. . . .
Dagger started to smile at the beautiful blonde angel until he realized how many weapons were strapped to her black battlesuit.
Shit. Dressed like that, she was either an assassin or bounty hunter.
Out of habit, he reached for his own blaster, only to find bare skin under the sheet. He started off the bed, but she grabbed him and gently pushed him back.
“It’s all right. You don’t need to move with that wound.”
Yeah, uh-huh. Yet if she was taking him in, why was he still alive? Why bother? They would pay just as much for his dead body as they would for his living one.
More, in fact.
Calming down a degree to a milder paranoia, he narrowed his eyes on her. “I’m not in custody?”
She shook her head. “Do you remember what happened?”
Vaguely. There was only one thing he could recall with any clarity . . .
“The kid. Did he make it out?”
“My son. Yes. Is that all you remember?”
Dagger scowled as he tried to think of other details. But all he could recall was the pain. Same pain he felt right now. Looking down, he saw the blood that was quickly saturating his bandage.
The female Andarion glanced down and cursed. “You’ve pulled your sutures open. Lie back.”
“I need to go. Where are my clothes?”
“There’s nowhere for you to go. We’ve already launched.”
She pointed to the metal walls. “You’re on board our ship.”
Fury burned through him as he gathered the sheet around his waist and sprang from the bed. “I won’t let you hand me over to The League,” he growled.
Ushara stepped back as she saw the feral, determined fury in his eyes that reminded her of a beast about to attack. She’d dealt with enough desperate beings in her life to recognize how dangerous the tiziran was in this state. Holding her hands up, she tried to reassure him. “That’s not my intent. If it was, I’d have surrendered you to the authorities before we left when they demanded I do so.”
Confusion furrowed his brow. “Pardon?”
She moved slowly toward the wall monitor. “Here. I’ll show you.” She called up the feed to replay what he’d missed while he’d been unconscious.
As he watched it, his jaw went slack. By the look on his face, it was obvious he wasn’t used to anyone standing up for him. He turned to stare at her in disbelief. “Why would you risk your crew for me?”
“Why did you save my son?”
“I didn’t think anyone else would. I just wanted to make sure he got home safely.”
The honesty of his unexpected answer floored her. “Well, you have yourself to thank for not being in custody or dead. That decision is the only reason you’re here. You saved him and we saved you. We’ll drop you off at the nearest station, then—”
“If you don’t mind, I’d rather you just jettison me somewhere unpopulated. I only ask that it has a breathable atmosphere.”
He nodded and wiped at the perspiration on his brow. His tanned skin had a sudden grayish tint to it.
Concern furrowed her brow. “You need to get back in bed and rest.”
He shook it off. “I’ll be fine. I just need my clothes.”
Like her husband, he was a stubborn Andarion male. Knowing she couldn’t win against him, Ushara went to the cabinet to retrieve his gear. She hesitated as she saw the poor, threadbare condition it was in. His boots were worn so thin, the left one had a hole in the toe of it that was packed with taped-in plastic to keep it watertight. Though he kept his clothes meticulously clean, his pants were patched and faded. The once black, now dark grayish shirt was stretched out from overuse and age.
Feeling bad for him, she held them out so that he could take them from her. “Can I get you anything else?”
He gathered his clothes and glanced about sheepishly. “Might I ask a favor, Ger Tarra?”
“It’s mu tara,” she corrected the Andarion term, letting him know that she wasn’t married. Though why she did so, she wasn’t exactly sure. “What?”
“Is there a shower on board that I may use?”
She gestured toward the door on her right. “Through there. You’ll find soaps, razor and towels as well.”
He gave her a very regal bow. “Thank you.” The sincere gratitude in those words was startling as he headed for the bathroom. He left his boots, weapons and coat on the bed.
Ushara took a moment to reexamine them, especially the numerous bloodstains on the worn dark brown coat that Jullien had attempted to clean off and yet the stains stubbornly remained as bitter reminders of how many had tried to kill him.
Repeatedly. Their grim determination was a testament to his own resolute will to stay alive in spite of their best efforts.
The leather showed remnants of dozens of burn marks left behind from blaster wounds, as well as slashes from knives and other weapons where he’d repaired the leather with patches and jagged stitches as best he could.
“Damn,” she breathed. Did he not have anyone in the universe who cared about him?
For that matter, who’d issued the death warrant on him? His mother was the tadara of the Andarion empire. His father ruled the Triosans, which meant Jullien would have cousins in power, ruling other empires and governments throughout the universe, as well. He would have to be related to most emperors, and have ties to the rest. His twin brother, Nykyrian Quiakides, was one of the leaders of the Sentella, a military organization that rivaled the League for power. Not to mention, he was married to the only child of the Gourish president.
Tahrs Nykyrian’s political ties were terrifying. Princess Kiara’s even more so.
Surely one of them could rescind a kill warrant for Jullien. After all, Emperor Aros had forced the League to pull the one they’d had issued for years against Nykyrian, and Nykyrian had gone Rogue on the League— a cardinal sin in their eyes. If that could be done, why could they not repeal the one for Jullien?
Unless his parents had condoned it. Or gods forbid, they were the ones who’d actually issued the warrant against his life.
Was it possible?
They had disinherited him for some reason . . .
Extremely curious, she pulled up the warrant on her link to see. Many Thrill-Kill contracts were done anonymously— which was honestly what she’d expected to find. But when the file loaded and she saw the name of the issuer, she gasped audibly.
Eriadne eton Anatole.
His own grandmother?
And both his parents and brother had allowed it to stand? Dear gods . . . why?
The answer was at the bottom of the warrant, written in plain Universal.
Jullien eton Anatole.
Wanted dead, violated, desecrated, and in pieces. Thrill-Kill warrant.
Acts: Murder. Kidnapping. Conspiracy. Attempted murder. Theft. High treason against the Andarion empire and race.
Bounty to be paid by former tadara upon delivery of his head to Her Former Majesty. Bonus to be paid for delivery of his heart and Andarion signet ring.
Suddenly, a shadow fell over her. Looking up, she saw the dark, deadly glower on Jullien’s face as he caught a glimpse of what she’d been reading.
He pulled the link from her hand and clicked it off before he casually returned it to her. His expression was completely stoic and unreadable. “To answer your unspoken question, mu tara. Yes, I deserve it. And yes, I’m that big an asshole.”
“Admiral? We have a matter on deck.”
Ushara glanced to the monitor where Gavin was paging her. “Can you patch it through?”
Gavin glanced to Jullien. “It’s a transmission we’re picking up, but none of us can translate it, and the ship’s translation software can’t ID the language. We’re concerned The League or another force might be tracking us.”
“Patch it to me.”
Finally, he played it.
Ushara scowled. It was pretty, but . . . “No idea. Pull back and—”
“Gyron Force code,” Jullien said without hesitation. “Nothing to do with you. They have troops heading to Aluran C for training. They’re getting ready to start some crap with their neighbors soon. It’s a routine transmission from command to their leader, with orders for mission parameters.”
They both gaped at Jullien.
“What?” he asked defensively. “I had cousins who were Gyron Force. One a major. The other a captain. Their uncle was the Commander General before he murdered them all in a coup, and took his brother’s place as emperor . . . and my chickenshit father refused to retaliate. Anyway, when we were kids, Barnabas used to take me out on maneuvers to quote— whip me into shape— every time I dared breathe his airspace. Personally, I think he was attempting to send me into cardiac arrest. But whatever. I grew up on that military code crap. It still sends me into PTSD whenever I hear it.”
Ushara snorted at his dry, sarcastic tone. “Well, there you go, Captain. Nothing to worry about, then.”
“You trust him?”
“Since he has more to fear than we do should we run into the authorities, I think so.”
The screen went blank.
She turned toward Jullien with an arched brow. “Is that the truth?”
“Want me to show you more scars?” He reached to undo his pants.
Ushara quickly stopped him and laughed. “You are so not what I expected from a tiziran.”
He scoffed. “Trust me, we don’t hold the market share on asshole. There’s plenty of that to go ‘round.”
Sadly, he was right about that. Ushara moved so that she could pick up the tray. “Are you still hungry.”
“Want the polite answer or the truth?”
“I haven’t eaten in almost five days. Where do you think the hole in my boot came from? Notice it’s the same size and shape as my fangs?”
Smiling at his flippant answer, she didn’t want to be charmed by him. Yet . . .
“Come with me.”
As they left the infirmary, she almost collided with Vasili who was walking briskly toward her. He backed up sheepishly.
“Vas . . . what are you doing?”
“I, um . . . um. . . .” Her precious baby glanced around as if searching for an answer she’d buy.
She loved whenever he tried to lie. He was so bad at it.
Vasili looked up at Jullien. “Are you all right, Highness?”
“Call me Dagger, and I’m fine. How ‘bout you, luden? They didn’t hurt you, did they?”
“Nah. But Mom almost killed me with her flying. Were you awake when we escaped?”
“No, I missed that.”
“Be grateful. Half the crew is still upchucking from it.”
Ushara rolled her eyes.
“But Ma, you should have seen the tiziran fight. It was awesome! He kicks more butt than you do.”
She arched her brow. “Gyron Force, you said?”
“Uh, no. Their prepubescent sister, actually. I got rather tired of her flushing my head in the toilets whenever she visited. Worst part about living in a palace? Turbo flush. Toilets so powerful, you fear they’re going to suck out a kidney if you’re still on them when you pull the handle. Quite certain I lost a few brain cells before I learned to beat her off me.”
His delivery was so dry and deadpan that she wasn’t quite sure if he was serious or not.
He arched a regal brow. “Would one ever joke about turbo flush, commode shampoos, missing brain cells or Amazonian cousins? What kind of beings do you typically associate with?”
“Really? Lot of normal sign on with The Tavali, do they?”
She went cold at his question. “Who said anything about The Tavali?”
He gave her the most arrogant cock of his head. “No one. Certainly not me.”
Damn, he was perceptive. Unnerved by it, she led him to the galley where she set the tray down on the counter.
Jullien pulled back to shadow the doorway as he saw that the room was occupied.
Ushara inclined her head at the cook. Short and round with blue skin and bright green eyes, Daryn had been a member of Gavin’s crew for a number of years. “Daryn. How’s it going?”
He wiped his hands on his apron before he took the tray. “Better with Gavin at the helm.”
“Would you stop?” She turned toward Jullien. “What would you like?”
All friendliness and teasing were now gone. His handsome features stern and deadly, Jullien lingered his hand on his blaster as he eyed the cook warily. “I’m good. Thank you.” With his back to the wall, he drifted into the hallway.
Confused by his sudden turn around, Ushara left Vasili in the galley to follow after the prince, who was already halfway to the infirmary. “Jullien?”
He slowed his long stride. “Yes?”
“I thought you were hungry?”
“I can make do. Thank you, though, mu tara. How much longer till you jettison me?”
“Why are you so nervous?”
“Not nervous. Circumspect.” He handed her his link with the bounty sheet on it again. “For that amount cred, I’m lucky I can trust myself not to shoot me in the back. Therefore, I prefer to stay in areas where I don’t tempt others.”
“You have a point.”
“Yes. And it’s not just the one on top of my head.” Without so much as a whisper of a boot click, he drifted into the shadows and returned to the infirmary.
Ushara couldn’t believe that she actually felt sorry for a member of the aristocracy. The Andarion aristocracy, no less. She’d been raised to hate them with everything she had.
And yet . . .
She couldn’t get the sight of his scars out of her mind. His shoddy, bedraggled clothes. The tired resignation and torment in his hazel eyes. Or his quirky humor that kept catching her off guard.
She turned at the sound of Vasili’s voice. “You need something?”
“Where did the tiziran go?”
“He wasn’t feeling well.”
“Oh. Should I take him some food?”
She frowned at the uncharacteristic question. It wasn’t like Vasili to care about a stranger. While her son was a good boy, he was normally very cautious and fearful around others.
Ever since his father’s death, he’d been withdrawn from the world. A shadow of the vibrant child who’d worshiped every breath Chaz had drawn. They had been so close that after Chaz’s death, Vas hadn’t spoken for almost a year. He’d been so traumatized and forlorn by the event that she’d begun to fear she’d never see her son again.
Now, after one encounter with the prince, Vasili was almost the boy she remembered.
How strange that Jullien had sparked something inside him and brought back his trust . . .
“Sure. And can I ask a question?”
Vasili scratched at his nose. “Okay.”
“Why are you so attached to the tiziran?”
Shrugging, Vasili screwed up his face. “He had no reason to care, Mum. And he did. He gave me his link, blaster and wallet to go home to you and then was willing to die so that I could get away. I don’t know. It just meant something to me the way he did it. No one but you has ever stood and fought for me like that before. He was like a real life hero. Like the War Hauks you used to read to me about.”
And that meant everything to her. Smiling, she drew Vasili into her arms and kissed his head. “You’re getting so tall. Soon I’ll be looking up at you.”
“Gods, I hope so. I’d hate to be this short as a grown-up. You think I’ll be as tall as Basha Dimitri?”
He smiled. “I’ll go get the tiziran some food.”
“Okay, and Vas?”
He paused to look back at her.
“You probably shouldn’t keep calling him that. It could get him into trouble. Just call him Dagger like he said, okay?”
Nodding, he headed for the galley while she went to the infirmary to check on their guest.
As she opened the door, she caught Jullien with his shirt pulled up, examining his wound. “Is everything all right?”
He jerked the shirt over it. “Fine.”
She didn’t believe that for an instant. “How bad is it?” She crossed the room and reached to see for herself.
He stepped out of her way. “It’s fine.”
“Let me see what you’ve done.”
“I’d rather you not.”
With an irritated growl, Jullien turned her to face the small mirror over the sink. The anguished pain in his eyes was searing as he met her gaze. “I have enough reminders of things I can’t have. The last thing I need or want is to feel the hands of a beautiful female touching me when I know how repugnant I am to you, especially that intimately. I’d rather bleed to death first.” He glanced down at her hair with such bitter longing that it actually brought a lump to her throat before he stepped back and looked away.
Sitting down, he pulled out his link and stared at it. “Just let me know when it’s time to leave.”
“You’re not repugnant.”
He snorted a rude contradiction.
“What’s that about?”
“It means I don’t believe you, mu tara. I have much evidence to the contrary, including the way your lip involuntarily curls every time you glance in my general direction, as if I’m a pile of flaming excrement someone has lit on fire and placed on your doorstep.”
Ushara hated how much those words made her ache for him. Worse? She hated the fact that she’d done that to him, at all. And here she’d thought she’d been hiding her distaste for his birthright and family. Apparently, she was as bad as everyone else, and just as quick to judge.
She swept her gaze over his long, lean body. Over his clean, shoddy clothes that were so old and torn, and yet he wore them with masculine swagger and wounded pride.
Only he could carry off something that shabby and still make it look sexy and lethal.
“When was the last time you slept in an actual bed?”
The fact he had to stop and consider it broke her heart. But not as much as the answer. “I don’t know.”
He sighed before he answered. “Longer. . . . at least.”
She winced at his whispered words. And before she could stop herself, her sympathy spoke for her. “Then how about you come back with us?”
He scowled up at her. “Back where?”
“To our base. You can find work there. Safe housing where no one will hunt you. Do you have any skills?”
He gave her a cocky grin. “I’m particularly skilled at pissing off everyone around me. Quite exceptional at it, point of fact. Been known to do so by merely entering a room.”
She laughed. “Anything more marketable?”
“Yeah. Engineering and mechanics. If it has a motherboard, or electronics, I can run it, design it, or repair it.”
Impressive. If he wasn’t lying. “We can always use those skills. Ever worked on ships?”
“Custom-built my first fighter from the ground up.”
She gaped at him. “Seriously?”
He slid his link into his pocket and gave her a bemused stare. “Given how many individuals passionately hate my guts, most of them very close relatives in line for my throne, you honestly think I’d trust anyone to touch something with mechanical moving parts and fuel injection systems that could horrendously explode with me trapped inside it, and it look like an easy accident where I’m burned beyond all recognition? Really?”
With an arrogant arch of his brow, he snorted derisively. “Second most hated being on all of Andaria. Most hated prince in the entire history of the Triosan empire— that’s not my boasting, they actually took polls and wrote articles about it. I won. Hands down. No contest. Ten years straight on Andaria. And let me reiterate that my own grandmother murdered my grandfather during a PMS hissy fit, the majority of her family, my twin brother when we were only five— or at least tried to, and my mother slaughtered a number of her own siblings, including my doppelgänger . . . Paranoia, insomnia, and an overly high degree of extreme flexibility and peripheral vision are the only reasons I’m still breathing. Go me.” His tone was drier than the Oksanan desert.
But it left her with one question. “What did you do to the Triosans that they would hate you so much?”
He sighed wearily. “I have the grave misfortunate of being born to an Andarion mother.”
Yeah, right. “Seriously, what did you do to them?”
“I have an Andarion birth mother,” he repeated in a slow, steady tone. “Seriously. They embrace Nykyrian because he looks like our father and somehow that allows them to see past his fangs. I have dark hair and favor no one they know. Just enough red in my eyes that it throws them. Somehow that makes all the difference to remind them that I’m Andarion, and therefore am unfit to be part of the Triosan royal family.”
“And your father?”
He lifted his head to pin her with an irritated smirk. “Is this my therapy session? Yes, Doctor Tavali, I have father issues. And mother issues. I didn’t bond with either parent during my formative years. Brace yourself. I had no positive role-models growing up, and therefore I react badly in most social situations. Tend to act out in extreme, self-destructive ways. In short, I’m an abrasive, unlovable asshole with antisocial tendencies. It’s all my fault that I ended up like this. I accept it fully. I don’t blame my parents for how I turned out. There’s no need. Since they weren’t there during my childhood, I don’t see how they’re responsible for my adulthood. I’m the one who raised me and I sucked at it. Never could keep a pet for long either. They always bonded to someone else and left me. Even my pet fish jumped from their bowls to commit suicide rather than suffer my boorish company.”
Vasili opened the door and brought in another tray.
Instantly, Jullien’s entire demeanor changed. And for the first time, she realized that he always buried his stern glower whenever Vasili was around. He softened his features to a much kinder expression. Brotherly and tolerant.
“I brought you some food, High . . . J-J-Jullien?”
He smiled. “Jullien’s fine. Thanks, luden. You shouldn’t have troubled yourself.”
“No trouble. Do you like cookies?”
Jullien sat up. “Are you kidding? They’re the best. You’re going to share them with me, though, right?”
“Um, sure.” Vasili sat beside him and picked up a cookie from the tray.
Ushara took a moment to watch the two of them. Jullien was far kinder with Vasili than anyone else. Though there was still a trace of the regal tiziran in his movements, he was much more approachable.
“So are you interested in the job?” she asked, turning their conversation back to her offer.
Vasili glanced up with wide eyes. “Job?”
“I offered the tiziran work at the base.”
Jullien hesitated as he ate. Swallowing, he reached for his drink. “I have to be paid in hard notes or cronas. Nothing traceable. Same for housing.”
Vasili blinked with a hopeful expression. “Please come work for us! You’ll love it there!”
Jullien gave him an adorable grin. “Okay. I’ll try it.”
“Good. Let me tell Gavin to change our course. You two stay out of trouble.” On her way out the door, Ushara didn’t miss the sight of Jullien handing the last cookie off to Vasili for him to eat. Even though she knew Jullien was starving, he still gave it to her son who had no idea how ragged the male’s clothes were. How long the tiziran had gone without anything to eat.
Mystified and touched by Jullien’s unexpected kindness toward her child, she headed for the bridge to tell them.
While she expected some resistance from her cousin, the all-out anger from him was rather unwarranted.
“Are you out of your mind, Shara? Do you know he is?”
“No, I don’t think you do.” Gavin pulled Jullien’s warrant file up on the monitor.
“I already saw it.”
“Did you see this?” He showed her Jullien’s Andarion criminal court records. And she had to admit, it was quite a lengthy file. “He’s been in and out of lock-up since he was ten years old. Only reason he hasn’t done time is his last name. Apparently, Mummy spent a lot of time pulling strings and dragging his entitled ass out of trouble.”
Ushara scrolled through the charges and Jullien’s old mugshots. She barely recognized the young tiziran as the same grown male in her infirmary. Ignoring the fact that he’d been extremely overweight back then, his face was battered in most of them. Black eyes. Busted nose and lips. Scratches. His pale skin sallow, and eyes sunken. Even though he stood with an arrogant pride, the boy in those pictures appeared haunted, soul-weary, and bitterly angry.
This was not the lethal, wary male who’d cut through trained killers while wounded to save her son.
As for the arrests . . . most were for fighting and public intoxication, but the rest were possession, destruction of public property, perjury, breaking-and-entering into government buildings, vandalism— apparently he’d once defaced his grandmother’s image, resisting arrest, misuse of public vehicles, indecency, and one charge for urinating on law enforcement equipment. That she could almost respect, depending on the events that had led up to it. “You know, your juvenile records are worse than this.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t graduate to murder, treason, espionage and kidnapping.”
She noticed Gavin made no mention of his own theft charges. But then, they were pirates.
Frowning, she read through the file until she saw the specifics of his current warrant.
Damn. Jullien had aided in the kidnapping of his sister-in-law. That was also part of his treason charge. He’d murdered a cousin and several Andarion guards while escaping custody. Had given out information on the former queen that had led to her arrest and overthrow so that his mother could take the throne, hence the rest of the treason and espionage charges. Ratted out some cousins named Merrell, Chrisen and Nyran to the rebels, and had helped another named Parisa escape. Then he’d set her up to be captured by the new regime.
Yeah, it was all rather bad. None of it made him particularly sympathetic or trustworthy.
Ushara winced as she saw that his aunt Tylie, as acting tadara, was the one who’d signed the orders for him to be arrested originally on Andaria and exiled from their territory, and that his grandmother was the one who’d sent the orders to the League with a request for an execution warrant and bounty. As well as the orders for his Outcast status.
But the form that made her sickest of all was the one his Triosan attorneys had filed on his behalf, requesting political asylum and protection from his father anywhere within the Triosan empire.
Anywhere. Even on one of their colonial outposts.
One word, in bold red letters from his father’s personal royal office, carrying the emperor’s royal seal.
Tears stung her throat as she tried to imagine how badly that had to have burned for his father to refuse any semblance of safety. There were more denials from other family members in other empires, including Kirovar. Not one single aunt, uncle or cousin would allow him shelter.
She scrolled back to the pictures of Jullien as a battered child as she remembered what he’d said to her about his parents not being there, and how they’d raised him.
No, his family hadn’t spared him a moment of their cruelty. From the looks of it, he’d been in the center of their backbiting madness, and their uncaring depravity had been his normal everyday routine and diet. An unprotected child left to fend for himself, while no one gave a single shit about him at all.
“Are you safe from harm, boy?”
No wonder he’d been so adamant to ensure Vasili’s welfare before he passed out. Why he’d given the last cookie to her son, even while he starved. Because he knew the cost of it all. How much it hurt to be alone in the universe, without friend or family. With no one willing to look out for you when you had no one else who cared.
And in that moment, her mind was set.
A solid tic started in Gavin’s jaw. “Trajen will have a shit-fit when he hears of this. You’ll be lucky if he doesn’t strip your Canting over it.”
“I’ll deal with Trajen.”
“And what are you going to do when that royal viper prick strikes us all down?”
“You’re being ridiculous.”
“Am I? The entire history of our race has been written in the blood feuds of the Anatole family. Their insatiable quest for power and their willingness to cut the throat of anyone who got in their way. They chased us at blasterpoint to the farthest corners of the universe and now you dare bring one of them into our last place of refuge? Forget Trajen, it’ll be the Fyrebloods who skin you alive for it.”
Now that . . . that was a very real possibility.
And her own father would most likely be the one who led the lynch mob for her throat.
All friendliness died instantly on Trajen Scalera’s face. For a moment, Jullien feared he’d crossed the line and was about to have his brain melted by the man’s superhuman psionic powers.
But after a long minute, Trajen leaned back and narrowed his dark eyes on him. “How the hell do you know that?”
“Start from the top.”
“When we crossed to the booths, everyone skittered out of your way as if terrified of catching your attention, and no offense, you’re no taller than I am, and not as muscular. And you’re not the one who’s fanged. Being more obviously Andarion, I’m the one who usually freaks the humans out.” He jerked his chin toward the wait staff. “Only one who’s approached you was the waitress, who knew exactly what you wanted, and it’s the really good and expensive shit— not this watered down swill I’m drinking. And she didn’t ask for payment on delivery, which means you’re more important than the owner of this less than refined establishment.”
Jullien spread his hands out to indicate the food between them. “The booth magically vacated for you the moment you appeared, and no one else went for it . . . and not just any table. The only one that has a clear view of every entrance and exit from where you’re sitting, which you check as much as I do. There are two guards on each door, who keep eye-balling me and deferring to you for any cues on what to do. Your uniform, while understated is custom and made from the best materials to be found. As are your weapons and boots. And while I don’t know your Canting, I do know the Gorturnum flag when I see it. Something you’re not afraid to openly flaunt. There are plenty of creatures in this bar for you to waste time with much better looking and far more entertaining than I am, yet you honed in on the one stray Ushara just dragged in and planted here to grill tonight. Put it together, it makes you head badass of the Gorturnum Nation, wanting to see if you should allow me to stay or jettison my sorry ass out the nearest airlock.”
Trajen nodded with an irritated grimace. “Impressive. What makes you think I’m Trisani?”
“You don’t have the typical eyes of one, which means you have mastered the absolute shit out of your powers and can camouflage all traces of your heritage— kudos on that, by the way. I don’t even want to know what that cost you mentally and physically. But I’m guessing it’s why the ancient Trisani word Thaumarturgus, or warlock, is stitched above your Canting. While you have buried the accent nicely, it slips every now and again on certain words and phrases. And like you, I’m a fallen prince. No matter how hard we try, we can’t shake the mannerisms and decorum that were beaten in to us from the cradle. I swear to the gods, I think it’s a genetic defect at times.”
“Minsid hell. You always this astute?”
“You grow up with everyone around you plotting to set you up for embarrassment, punishment or death, you learn fast to pay attention to small details.”
“You must be hell at Squerin, then.”
“Not really. I only played for the snacks.”
Trajen laughed. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“You didn’t answer mine.”
He tilted his ale at Jullien. “As I said, you’re a sharp one. And no. Only my VA knows who and what I am. It’s something I suggest you keep to yourself.”
“No worries. Keeping secrets is what I do best.”
“And now it’s your turn. I know you were a user and that you were tempted.”
“True.” Jullien reached for more nuts. “I had a moment when the Korilon whispered in my ear.”
“Luckily, I lost all hearing in that ear when my brother slapped me upside my head years ago. Didn’t hear a thing.”
Trajen snorted. “That’s not an answer.”
Jullien sighed. “I know. Truth is, it took me too long to get away from it. I have no interest in going back down that dusty, dead end road. I didn’t like the gutter-hole where I ended up on it. Never really cared for waking up, covered in vomit anyway.”
Nodding, Trajen folded his arms across his chest. “Tell you what . . . Dagger. You stay clean and out of trouble, keep a good a record at work for the next year, and I’ll sponsor you for citizenship candidacy.”
That offer stunned him. “Don’t fuck with me and make false promises.”
“I’m not your grandmother, Andarion. I don’t play those games with others. While I am not without my sins, insincerity isn’t one of them. Like you said, we’re fallen princes. I know what it’s like to be without friend, family or country. Hunted and alone. Hated and hurting. Checking every exit and entrance, knowing the next one through it could be an assassin who’s gunning for me. . . . Sucks.”
Jullien twisted the glass in his hand, as he debated Trajen’s offer.
Not like he had a plethora of them to choose from.
Or any, really.
Trajen snorted. “You know I hear your thoughts, right?”
“Yeah. You’re wondering why I would care or even want to help you when no one ever has. Honestly? I have no idea. I don’t really care. I just understand. A long time ago, a Tavali helped me out of a bad situation, and I still have no idea why he bothered to pull me out of the slag-mire when I wasn’t worth it. But had he not done it, I’d be dead now. Either by my own hand or someone else’s. You have him to thank for this, and yourself. Because as I sit here, looking at you, I keep thinking about him and what he did for me when a sane man would have walked away and left me to rot. . . . And the fact that you helped my VA when you had no reason to, and every reason to stay out of it. For that single selfless act, you bought yourself a chance to make something out of your life again.”
Trajen manifested a Tavali Gorturnum cock badge out of thin air and pushed it toward Jullien. “The one thing about being Tavali, we are equal in our Nation. The only limits here are what you put on yourself. You rise and fall on your own merit and loyalty. No one else’s. From this moment on, your slate is wiped clean. You have no past that matters. Anyone fucks with you, they answer to me. I’m not your grandmother. I don’t work on hearsay or rumors. I will trust you until you give me a reason not to. Just don’t abuse my trust, because I won’t give you a second chance, and your life is what I will take when you break it. Understood?”
“You accept my terms?”
Jullien nodded. “Thank you.”
Trajen inclined his head to him. “Don’t thank me. Like I said, I’m paying forward a kindness that was once done for me. And you earned this by what you did for Vasili and Ushara. Keep making the right decisions and you’ll go far in the Gorturnum Nation. Do wrong and I’ll bury you.” And with that, Trajen got up and left him alone with the badge.
Jullien pulled it toward him and swallowed. The black patch had the ghostly image of a screaming skull. Legend said the Canting symbol was originally chosen by the Stitches who founded the Tavalian League to represent the sound their souls had made when they learned their daughter and her crew had been wrongfully seized and slaughtered by a corrupt government who’d wanted their cargo.
He knew that sound. His own soul had made it the night he’d been in bed and had awakened to the shrieks of his mother. Drowsy and confused, he’d left his room, desperate to find out what was wrong.
“Matarra? What’s happened?”
Screaming with hysteria, she’d turned on him with a vengeance. “My precious Nykyrian is dead! It should have been you who died, but you’re too stupid to have gone to school with him. You couldn’t even get in! So instead, I’m left with you for a son! God help this empire with you as emperor!”
Stunned, he’d stood there as a mere, innocent child, trying to process those words and the heartbreaking grief in his heart, while his mother had continued to rail against him.
His twin was dead?
Bitter agony had stolen his tongue as his soul screamed out for his brother. Nykyrian couldn’t be dead. They were twins. They were supposed to live out their lives together. Forever. That was what was twins did.
Wouldn’t he know if something had happened to his brother? Weren’t they supposed to be so close that he’d feel it in his bones if his brother had died?
Then Tylie had turned her own wroth on him. She’d slapped him so hard, he could still feel the sting of her hand. “Where are your tears for your brother? Do you feel nothing for him? He was your twin!”
Still, he couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. It was as if all the breath had been violently sucked out his body.
Hissing, Tylie had wrenched him by the arm to drag him from the room.
“Matarra!” he’d cried, trying to reach his mother.
She’d turned her back on him as Tylie had shoved him into the hallway and slammed the door in his face, and locked it.
Then the tears had come. Fast and furious until he was sick from them. He’d wanted to go to school with Nykyrian. But as his mother had said, he was too stupid to get in. Even though he’d studied and taken the admissions test three times, he hadn’t been good enough. He’d never been as good as Nykyrian, at anything. No matter how hard he’d tried. He’d always been lacking. Always second best.
“Don’t you dare cry for that hybrid bastard!”
Jullien had shrank away as his grandmother and cousin Parisa had neared him. Knowing better than to let her see his weakness, he’d wiped his tears and drawn a ragged breath. “M-m-my brother’s dead.”
“I know. Who do you think killed him?”
Eyes wide with cold-blooded terror, he’d looked from his grandmother to Parisa and back again.
“That’s right,” his grandmother had said without any feeling whatsoever. “And if you don’t behave and do just what I say, it’ll be Parisa’s son I see on my throne. Do you understand?”
“Yes, mu tadara.” Horrified past any rational thought other than survival, he’d started for his room.
He’d paused to look back at her.
“You breathe one word of this to either Tylie or Cairistiona and I will see you buried in the crypt beside Nykyrian. And your death won’t be nearly as painless. That I promise you. You will die in pieces, screaming in agony.”
Wincing at the memory, Jullien took another drink as he tried to put his grandmother and her never-ending threats out of his mind.
Ironically, he’d never wanted that minsid throne. All he’d wanted was his parents’ time, and to stay alive.
He’d gotten half that wish. Though in retrospect, he should have just let them have his life, too. It didn’t seem worth the pain of it most days.
His thoughts drifting, he glanced down at the tattoo on his arm.
Indurari. Through blood misery we conquer and endure. Out of the bad, comes the good. By our challenges, we are strengthened. Ever strong. Forever onward. That was the War Hauk legend and family motto, which was certainly better than his family’s– lie and murder your way to the top. Take whatever you can grab. Fuck everyone who gets in your way.
And as he stared at the patch, another image came to his mind. For once, it wasn’t the horrors of his past. It was the image of a beautiful blond angel with silvery-white eyes and lips that tasted sweeter than honied nectar. One with hair of the softest silk. Even though he knew there could never be anything between them, that he wasn’t worthy of someone so untainted and beautiful, it didn’t stop his fantasies from torturing him with a dream he knew could never be.
Females like Ushara always chose males like his brother. Celebrated heroes who were respected. Those who’d been wanted and treasured by the world. Everyone followed Nykyrian. They listened to him when he spoke. Jullien was too scarred and broken— he always had been. No one had ever listened to him. And his past sins were far too grievous to be forgiven. The stories for his kind were always the same.
Horrible life. Bad decisions. Grisly demise at an early age.
Unforgiven by everyone around him.
Creatures like him were never allowed a way out. They always died horribly, either by their own hand, or someone else’s.
A dog returns to its vomit. That was what his grandmother had quoted and used to justify her evil against others. Why she never gave anyone a second chance.
Why she’d always been so hard on him.
You’re just a worthless, half-human byblow.
Still, he wanted to change. He was sober now. No longer a pawn or a victim of Merrell and Chrisen, or Nyran. He’d broken away from his grandmother’s stranglehold.
For the first time, his life was his own.
Yeah and you’ve done such a stellar job with it. Homeless. Broke. Wandering and lost. Starving.
He reached for the bottle, then stopped himself. Any more and he’d be loaded. He knew from experience that would lead him to a fight and lock-up.
Belligerent when sober, he became obnoxiously belligerent while drunk. Worse, he tended to turn his self-hatred into acts of violence against those charged with enforcement roles, or anyone with an ounce of authority.
Make the right decision.
Jullien capped the bottle, got up and put the badge in his pocket. With one last, longing glance at the alcohol, he headed back to his meager accommodations and went to bed so that he could get up early and clean his only set of clothes for his new job.
Dripping wet, Jullien froze as he heard a knock on his door. He drew his weapon from the counter by his side before it dawned on him that assassins didn’t knock. They just attacked.
Still . . .
No one ever “visited” him. That would require him to actually make and have a friend. What the hell?
Convinced it was a mistake, he ignored it and finished rinsing off.
Until they knocked again.
His heart sped up at the lilting sound of Ushara’s sultry voice though the door. And it sent the blood crashing to his groin.
Damn. He was so hard, it was painful. Growling at the aggravation, he got out of the shower and pulled on his clothes, then double checked that his erection wasn’t too obvious before he went to the front door and opened it. Then wished he hadn’t as the sight of her beautiful face in the hallway light only made him even harder and hornier. Something he wouldn’t have thought possible.
“Hi.” Holding a large bag in her arms like a small child, she smiled up at him.
It took a second for enough blood to return to his brain that he could answer such an unexpected, friendly greeting. “Morning.” He frowned at her. “What are you doing here?”
She held the bag toward him. “I thought you might like some fresh clothes to wear when you start your new job. I guessed your size, but if they don’t fit, the clerk assured me there wouldn’t be any problem exchanging them.”
Stunned by her gift, Jullien sputtered. He wasn’t used to anyone giving him anything, other than a hard time. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“I know. Brace yourself, Jullien . . . that’s the whole point of a gift. You don’t do it because you have to. You do it because you want to.”
Yeah and that was why he couldn’t believe this was happening. No one had ever wanted to do anything for him before. Except kick his ass and insult him.
Ushara hesitated at the sincerely shocked expression on his handsome face as he continued to stare at her in utter disbelief. Cocking her head, she frowned. “Gracious, you act as if you’ve never been given a present before.”
“I haven’t. At least . . . not like this.” His hand actually trembled as he took the bag and true appreciation shone in his eyes. “Thank you, Admiral.”
Suddenly bashful, he cradled the bag awkwardly to his chest and inclined his head to her.
She glanced around his cramped quarters. While clean, it was so paltry and meager. And though he was thin from starvation, he was still a large Andarion male. It had to be hard for him to move around in such a small living space.
Even so, he didn’t say a word of complaint. If anything, he really did appear grateful for it.
“Have you had any breakfast?”
“Um . . . no. I just got out of the shower.”
She nodded. “I was headed that way before my shift. Would you care to join me? I can show you where the dining areas and shops are in the mall district.”
Suspicion furrowed his brow. “Why are you being nice to me when there’s nothing to gain from it? You’ve already repaid whatever debt you think you might owe for what I did for your son.”
Ushara snorted at his tone. “Am I not supposed to like you?”
Wow, that baffled look on his face was something else. How could anyone be so stunned that someone like them?
“You’d be the first in history to do so.”
She laughed, until she realized he was quite serious. “C’mon, Highness. You have friends and family who like you . . . right?”
He rubbed at his ear in a gesture of discomfort. “Then I must have been taught the wrong definition for that word. ‘Cause I always thought it meant that you had a fondness for something.”
Sobering, she wasn’t sure what to make of that. Surely, he was teasing. “No one has any fondness for you, at all? Seriously?”
“Well, they all liked one thing about me.”
“And that is?”
Ushara started to force him to deny it until she remembered that he had no record of any calls on his link.
None. And that his own family had issued a death warrant on him and abandoned him to it. He truly had no one in the entire universe who cared about him.
Leaning forward, she whispered in his ear. “I have fondness for you, Jullien. Come and join me for breakfast. I’ll wait for you outside.”
Jullien couldn’t breathe as he watched her withdraw from his small quarters and close the door.
I have fondness for you . . .
No one had ever said anything like that to him before. Definitely no one who possessed female body parts.
Baffled and amazed, he opened the bag to find two pairs of black pants and gray shirts and a new pair of socks. He quickly tried the clothes on. They were a little baggy on him– something new for him over the last couple of years since he’d been on the run.
As far back as he could remember, he’d always been overweight. And had been mocked relentlessly for it.
Even his father. He’d tried to lose weight to get them off his back. But the starvation diets invariably ended with him eating twice as much, and gaining more. A vicious circle of physical and psychological abuse that still left him cringing anytime he neared a mirror of any kind.
For that matter, dull pots and spoons, or anything with a reflective surface gave him hives.
Jullien reached into his coat pocket and pulled out his broken comb for his damp hair. Unlike other Andarions, he’d never been allowed to braid his. As a despised hybrid and bastard child, he was forbidden from joining their military. It didn’t matter that he’d been prince or heir.
And since he couldn’t be a warrior like his mother, his grandmother had insisted he keep his hair cut shorter than other males— just below his collar— another way to embarrass him for his mother’s crime of screwing a human male. Another way to segregate Jullien from his peers and to remind them all that Jullien wasn’t like them.
As if they’d ever let him forget the fact that he was half human.
Sighing, he slid the comb back into his pocket and belted his blaster to his hips. He shrugged the coat on and left the small condo to find Ushara waiting for him just outside the door.
Ushara froze at the sight of Jullien in fresh clothes. Damn, he was edible. With sharp, patrician features, he had a quiet elegance to him. And at the same time, a boyish quality. A beguiling dichotomy of arrogant bashfulness. Confident insecurity. Her large male was a walking contradiction.
And she found him completely irresistible.
Before she could stop herself, she stepped forward to straighten his oversized coat around his body.
An adorable blush stained his dark cheeks. “Am I acceptable now, Matarra?”
She laughed at the Andarion word for mother. “Sorry. I can’t help it. Vasili does the same thing. He always shrugs his coat on sideways, and leaves part of the collar up, part of it tucked under . . . just like you.” Her smiled faded as she accidentally brushed her hand against his chest and the hardness of his muscles there. She was completely unprepared for the sudden and overwhelming jolt of desire it sent through her entire body. Clearing her throat, she stamped that down immediately. “The clothes are a bit large. Sorry about that.”
“Don’t be. I’m extremely grateful to have something fresh and new to wear. It’s been a long time since I’ve had anything that didn’t come out of a charity donation bin.”
Because a regular store would want an ID for purchase, and they’d have cameras and imprints that could be used by assassins to trace him. Things she didn’t have to think about. But they could end his life.
“How have you survived so long on your own?”
He shrugged. “Carefully, and with a great deal of skill.”
She rolled her eyes at his sarcasm. Then her gaze dipped to the neck of his shirt that fell low to show off how defined his pecs were. Even worse, they were dusted with an inviting amount of dark hair. Not too thick, just enough to be masculine and sexy, but not so much as to be off-putting or gross. She’d always been a sucker for males with chests like that. Chaz’s had been bare like all Andarions.
But Jullien’s . . .
Forcing her thoughts away, she stepped back as he wrapped his scarf around his neck.
“The first restaurant district is this way.” She led him toward the hangar and to the east. “You’re in luck that it isn’t very far from here, and one of my favorite restaurants is just on the corner.”
He didn’t speak as he trailed along after her. Yet she was well aware of his seductive lope. The way he kept his thumb hitched in his belt, near his blaster so that he could quickly draw it should he need to. He kept his head down, yet missed nothing around him.
A true predator.
It sent chills over her, especially given the massive size of him. Standing a bit over six feet herself, she was used to meeting most Andarion males at eye level whenever she wore her heeled boots. And she towered over the majority of human men. Jullien was a full head taller than her, and made her feel tiny in comparison.
She liked it a lot more than she should have.
When they reached the restaurant, he stepped around her to open the door so that she could enter first.
He inclined his head to her.
Ushara greeted the cook and hostess as she grabbed two menus from the holder near the register and made her way to her usual table.
When she started to sit, Jullien hesitated. “Would you mind if we sat over there?”
She frowned until she realized why he wanted it. “Back to the wall where you have clear line-of-sight for the entire restaurant, but no one can see you sitting at the table. You’ve got eyes on both doors to know who’s coming and going, and you’re underneath the security camera?”
Without another word, he unlocked his holster before he sat down and made sure his coat didn’t block his access to it. Likewise, he kept one leg out so that he could spring out of the booth if he had to.
Sadness choked her over his hyper vigilance. “You ever relax your guard?”
“I’m still breathing.” He didn’t even look down at the menu, except in quick glances.
“Hi, Misha.” Ushara smiled at the waiter as he joined them.
“Admiral . . . you got first shift again, I take it.”
“Do indeed. This is my friend, Dagger. He’s new to our party, so I’m showing him around. I trust he’ll be treated well here.”
“Oh absolutely. Any friend of yours is family to us. I’ll make sure and tell Petya. I know she’ll want to meet him.” He pulled out an e-tablet. “What can I get for you?”
“My usual. Dagger?”
“Unopened bottled water. Uncut canolay fruit.”
Misha hesitated. “And?”
Ushara scowled at the paltry order. “Breakfast is my treat.”
“Thank you. But that’s all I want.” He handed the menu to Misha.
Passing a wide-eyed stare at her, Misha gathered their electronic menus and left them.
Jullien stroked his whiskers before he caught the expression on her face that must have betrayed her shocked thoughts. “What?”
“You can’t live on that. No wonder you’re so thin. Why didn’t you order anything else?”
“Have you any idea how many times I’ve had my food poisoned or tampered with? I’m lucky if they just spit in it.”
“You’re the tiziran.”
“Yeah. The most hated tahrs in the history of Andaria and Triosa, combined. Remember? They took a poll. I won hands down. Ten years in a row on Andaria. If not for Justicale Cruel and my grandmother, I’d probably be the most hated royal in all Ichidian history. Which is weird given that my cousins committed far worse crimes than I ever did. I mostly assaulted inanimate objects. I never raped anyone or shot someone’s dog, but what the hell? Why discriminate based on belligerent drunk and disorderly?”
Misha brought their drinks, and, grimacing, set Jullien’s unopened water down in front of him.
“Thank you.” Jullien carefully checked the seal before he opened it.
“Thank you, Misha.”
He nodded, then left them alone again.
Even though Jullien had checked the seal, he still smelled the water and placed his finger inside to dip it in a bit of the water to taste for poison or pollution. Then, he pulled a small vial from his pocket and placed two drops in the water and swirled it.
“It turns purple if there’s any poison present. Blue if there’s a paralytic. Yellow for hallucinogens.”
Ushara gaped. “You do this every time you eat?”
“Only if I don’t prepare it.” He slid the vial back into his pocket and waited several minutes before he finally sipped the water.
“You didn’t do this on board my ship.”
“I was too hungry to care, then. Besides, I was already in your custody and at your mercy. Not like you couldn’t have thrown me out an airlock had you wanted me dead.”
He had a point, but still . . . “Were you always like this?”
Jullien shook his head as he continued to study his water. “No. I was suicidal at one time. Didn’t care if they killed me or not. A part of me was hoping they’d succeed. The only reason I care now is I’m not about to let some asshole become a millionaire off my back because I laid down and let them cut my throat. They take me in, bastard’s gonna earn it and I’m taking an equal amount of his ass to the grave with me.” He gave her a lop-sided grin. “I’m a contrary prick that way.”
She leaned back as Misha brought out her food and put it in front of her. He grimaced as he placed the melon in front of Jullien. “Would you like me to bring you a knife for that?”
Jullien pulled his own out, and twirled it open. “No, thanks. I have it.”
Misha beat a hasty retreat.
Ushara suppressed a laugh at Misha’s reaction to Jullien’s impressive knife skills. “Let me guess . . . fear of a poisoned blade?”
“That’s what led me to you, is it not?”
Yet another very valid point. Ushara watched as he carefully examined the smooth shell of the melon. And by that, she meant carefully. “Is something wrong with it?”
“Looking for needle marks. Making sure nothing was injected into it.”
Her heart sank at his matter-of-fact tone. It was a miracle he ever ate anything, given this amount of paranoia.
Finally satisfied, he cut up his melon. And as with the water, he still examined each piece before he cautiously ate it.
“You sure you don’t want some of mine?”
Jullien hesitated. The hungry longing in his eyes was searing. “I would kill for it. But it’s not worth the chance of getting sick.”
Because he had no one to care for him, and no way to seek medical help. First thing any doctor or nurse would do was run his DNA and prints for medical records. And the moment they did that, it would pop up his warrant and notify them that he was a fugitive. They would be required by law to turn him in.
Aching for the way he was forced to live, she took a bite of her bread, then held it out toward him. “I’ll be your food taster.”
Jullien paused. Before he could stop himself, he opened his mouth and allowed her to feed him a bite.
She smiled warmly at him, then wiped at his chin. “See? It’s delicious, isn’t it?”
Honestly? He didn’t taste a bit of it. All he could focus on was how beautiful she was and how warm her touch made him feel inside.
She held her fork up and fed him some of her breakfast scramble.
Inclining her head, she took a bite herself.
His cock jerked as he watched her eat and his thoughts went to a place he knew they shouldn’t. But he couldn’t help it. No one had ever been this kind to him. All his life, he’d wondered what it would be like to have someone who was nice to him for the hell of it. Not because they wanted something or a favor from his grandmother.
Nice because they liked him.
It was what had made him so mean to others, especially in school. In retrospect, he regretted how he’d treated a lot of his classmates, especially Dancer Hauk. But he still remembered that first day of school when Dancer had shown up and his mother had intentionally sat them together.
“Remember Dancer, this is the tahrs. Be nice to him and he can do a lot of things for you and our family. I want you two to be best friends.”
Jullien would give Endine Hauk credit. At least she’d been open about it. Most weren’t quite so blatant with their ass-kissing. But then, she was a distant cousin of his mother’s. That kind of self-serving, backbiting bullshit ran thick in their genes.
And from that moment on, he’d been hard on Dancer. Suspicious and cold. Never trusting that Dancer was there for any reason other than the fact that Endine had made him tolerate Jullien’s presence.
But no one had told Ushara to be nice to him. She had nothing to gain by sitting here. He had no more political ties to use. No strings to pull.
She cut up her ham and held it out for him. When he opened his lips, she playfully jerked it away and ate it instead. “Ha! Fooled you!”
Jullien laughed as her pale eyes sparkled with humor. Shaking his head, he held a piece of melon out to her. “Eat this with it. The juices will enhance the flavor.”
Leaning forward she ate it from his hand. His breath faltered as her tongue skimmed the flesh of his fingers and sent another wave of desire through him unlike anything he’d ever felt before.
Holy gods . . .
“Mmmm,” she breathed. “You’re right. It’s delicious. How did you know?”
He shrugged. “I spent a lot of time in the kitchen when I was a kid.”
“Really? Not exactly the place I would imagine for an Andarion tiziran.”
Snorting, he cut more melon. “Haven’t you seen the pictures of me when I was Prince Ponderous?”
She choked on her food. “Excuse me?”
“Oh c’mon. You’re not going to hurt my feelings. Not like I could miss it. The headlines were in every tabloid and newsfeed the universe over. Tahrs Tub-of-lard. Jiggly Jullien. Prince Jerkllien. Jolt-Head Jullien. And of course my personal fave, Tahrs Junkie eat-it-all Asshole. Whenever I was trying to stay sober, I sought refuge at the bottom of a barrel of cake batter. It was the only safe place I had in the entire palace where no one bothered me.” He licked his fingers.
“Don’t be. Best memories of my life were sitting in the kitchen with our cook while she worked. I know she didn’t really like me either, but at least she wasn’t openly mean to me.”
“Then how do you know she didn’t like you?”
“Andarion hearing and I moved like a shadow for a fat kid. Heard a lot of things no one knew I did. But at least, Karna quit complaining about me after awhile. Sometimes she almost even smiled when I came in. And at least she knew by the girth of my abundant ass that I appreciated her hard work.”
Ushara offered him another piece of ham and this time, she didn’t pull it away.
“So what about you?” he asked.
“What about me?”
“Who raised you?”
She tried not to react to something he really shouldn’t have to ask. The fact that he was sincere with that inquiry said a lot about his world. “My parents. They’re Tavali so I was raised here.” She took a drink of her juice. “They’re both still alive and my father continues to make some runs, but not too many. In fact, that’s where Vasili is this morning. He spent last night with them after we got home. And he’ll be with them all day. We’re not letting him out of our sights for days to come.”
“Really?” His voice was filled with disbelief. “He likes them?”
“Most beings like their grandparents, Jullien.”
She laughed at his genuinely shocked tone. “Yes. I promise.”
But the expression on his face said that he couldn’t quite wrap his mind around the concept of it. How tragic for him.
He wiped his hands. “Do you have siblings?”
“A large number of them. Three brothers and four sisters.”
His eyes widened.
“And brace yourself . . . we love each other. Get along famously, most days. In fact, we live in a cluster together, within walking distance of each other’s homes. Two of my brothers were even on board the ship that brought you here. The big, giant who scowled at the door of the bar when I entered to get Vasili? That was my brother Axl.”
“I have no ability whatsoever to relate to anything you’ve just said. I believe you spoke in Universal, but really, all I heard was bleh, blar, blurr, blah, bleakly, blar, blar.”
She laughed at his gibberish. “It’s true.”
“I kind of, almost believe you. Of course I still believe in St. Daner who uses a pair of magical boots to bring presents to kids on Gal Day, too. So what the hell?” The laughter died in his eyes as he looked past her and his gaze sharpened and fastened on someone behind her.
She turned to see what had caught his attention. Crap . . . Speaking of her family. Her cousin Lev was headed toward them with his crew. They must have just come in from their latest run. And he didn’t appear particularly happy.
With his thumbs in his holster, Lev paused beside her and eyed Jullien suspiciously. “Kyzu,” he said in greeting. “I wasn’t expecting to see you here . . . with a new . . . servant.”
Jullien leaned back in his seat. It appeared relaxed, but Ushara recognized it for what it was. He cleared the way for a clean shot at her cousin should he need it, under the table.
“Dagger,” she said quickly, “May I introduce you to my kyzi Lev.”
Jullien’s eyes narrowed in disappointment before he returned his hand to rest on the table, letting her know that his finger was off the trigger. He passed her an irritated smirk. “Nice to meet you.”
“You look familiar. Do you I know you?”
Jullien shrugged. “I have one of those faces.”
“Lev . . .” Ushara drew his attention back to her. “Is there something you needed?”
Before he could answer, her link went off. She checked it and cursed. “Sorry. I have to take this.” Scooting out of the booth, she headed toward the bathroom for privacy.
Jullien didn’t move as the large, blond Fyreblood Andarion blocked him in. Because Jullien had yet to expose his fangs or stand up and he’d removed his sunglasses while talking to Ushara, Lev thought he was towering over a man and intimidating him. Dumbass.
“Do you know who she is, schânkefrel?”
Two other Fyrebloods moved in to flank Lev, while he glared down at Jullien. “We don’t like outsiders here. No one encroaches on our females. You don’t touch an Andarion, schânkefrel. They’re off limits to the likes of you. Understood?”
“I’m familiar with the culture.”
The three of them stepped back as Ushara returned. Sighing, she grabbed a quick drink. “Sorry, they need me in my office. I have to go.”
Jullien inclined his head to her. “It’s fine. Thank you for the conversation this morning. And for the gifts.”
Her features softened. “Good luck today. Try to make some friends.” Then to his greatest shock, she leaned down and kissed his cheek. Turning around, she eyed her cousin and his crew. “Play nice.”
But as soon as she was gone, they returned to glower at him.
Jullien let out a tired sigh. “Do I really have to kick your asses my first day here?”
“Lev,” the female owner said in warning. “No fire in my restaurant.”
“Don’t worry, Petya. I don’t need it to teach this piece of human waste a lesson.”
“Ass-kicking it is.” Jullien stood slowly. “Last chance to walk out of here on your own.”
Lev hesitated as he realized that Jullien was taller than he’d assumed.
For some reason, no one seemed to appreciate his size. He’d never understood why that was. He towered over most beings and yet they didn’t seem to comprehend that fact until it was too late.
Refusing to back down and lose face with his crew, Lev reached for him.
In one fluid movement, Jullien caught him in the solar plexus, which would preclude him from making fire. Then he punched him in the throat. Catching him, he spun and set Lev into the booth before going after the next one.
Jullien punched and caught him fast, dropping him straight to the floor. When he went for the third, that one wisely stepped back and held his hands up.
“I’m got no problem with you, brother.”
Jullien cast his gaze around to make sure there were no other threats.
Misha and Petya stared at him, slack-jawed.
“You said you didn’t want a mess in your place.”
Petya inclined her head to him. “Appreciate it.”
Jullien pulled out his wallet and left half his money, hoping the tip would cover the inconvenience. Keeping his back away from the third crewman, he made his way from the restaurant and hoped that he hadn’t just signed his own death warrant with that outburst.
If he had . . .
His grandmother would be celebrating over his corpse tonight.
As he headed for his new job, he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the store windows and winced.
No wonder they’d attacked him. He looked like the worst sort of vagrant dog. Yeah, he was clean. But ragged as hell. Baggy clothes. Second-hand, stained coat that had been patched and repatched to the point he looked like he should be huddled over a flaming barrel with a bottle of hooch near some abandoned factory somewhere. Boots that were held together with electrical tape. He looked down at his bruised hands and torn claws.
You’re disgusting! A disgrace to the entire lineage of eton Anatole! No wonder your mother won’t come out of her room. Who can blame her? I wouldn’t sober up either if I had to face you as my son!
It wouldn’t have burned nearly as much had it not been the truth.
Pushing his aunt’s harsh criticisms away, he turned the collar of his ragged coat up and headed toward the hangar for work.
When he went inside the office, he caught the clerk’s sneer of revulsion, until she focused on his face. Then her look turned a bit more welcoming. “Can I help you?”
“Gunnar told me to report for work this morning.”
“Oh . . . you must be Dagger. Hold a minute.” She got up and went to another office.
When she returned, she was leading a blond male who slowed his walk as he focused on Jullien’s form. He raked a calculating stare from the tips of Jullien’s scuffed boots to the top of his head. “I was told to make sure and give you a thorough introduction of how we do things. Gunnar said that you knew about ships?”
“How much you know about Tavali?”
“General information. Nothing specific.”
“If you’ll follow me . . . I’ll show you where you can change into work overalls and store your gear.”
Jullien headed into the back with him. As he started to remove his blaster, a bad feeling went through him. Honestly? He’d rather give up a testicle than his weaponry. Testicles he could live without.
Weapons . . .
You’re being paranoid.
“You can’t work in the bay armed. It’s against all regulations.”
Yeah, that was what he figured. Still . . .
Jullien placed his holster and weapons in the locker and followed his manager to the hangar. “Are you the OOD?”
“Yeah. And let me give you a quick tutorial on Tavalian culture and how things work around here. See this . . .” He pointed to his sleeve where the Tavali wore their national flags, individual Canting and ranks. “Designates the Nation we fly for. The solid black flag with the screaming skull is for the True Black Flag Nation, Gorturnum. That’s us. We were the first of the Tavali Nations ever created. The patch under it is my personal Canting, then my rank. These three things mean that I’m a Tavali citizen with rights in this Nation. Notice you don’t have any Canting, flag or rank.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“No, I don’t think you do. See, what that blank sleeve on your arm means is that you are a slag. Without rank or citizenship. You’re not even a cock. So you don’t speak to Tavali unless we speak to you. You don’t count in our world, and you don’t exist. You’re a ghost here with no voice and no rights.”
Jullien froze as he saw a group of Tavali moving in to form a circle around him.
“You damn sure don’t dine with one of our admirals like you hold rank. You don’t even look at our females.”
“Yeah,” another Tavali said behind him. “And you damn sure don’t attack a commander, slag. Because you attack one of us. You attack us all. That’s what being Tavali means.”
“And you ain’t Tavali, dog.”
Jullien silently winced as he mentally did the math in his head. Not that he needed to. One to twenty . . .
This would hurt if they were planning to do it barehanded. The fact they were picking up tools for his beating . . .
He swept his gaze around the group and smiled at them. “Well hell, boys. If I’d known you were throwing me a welcome party, I’d have brought some beer.”
Darling shook his head.
A tear fell down Aros’s cheek as he ran his hand over the gouged-out marks in the wall where Jullien had chronicled his name and days, trying to stay sane. The depth of them told just how frustrated and angry the boy had been. “All the times he begged to come stay with me because he didn’t want to be here, and I coldly turned him down. . . . Told him to suck it up and act like a man.”
Tylie let out a bitter, angry laugh. “You? You don’t want to know the cruel things I’ve said to him. How many times I blamed him for Nykyrian being gone and for Cairie’s condition. I had no idea he was in this kind of pain. He never said anything.”
“We didn’t listen,” Cairie whispered. “He was acting out, trying to get our attention. And we ignored him, utterly.”
Sick to his stomach, Darling left the cell to find that Jullien had returned. He was outside in the larger area with Kiara and her twin sons, who’d been crying nonstop with their two older brothers since they’d been awakened and rushed to flee with their nurse and big sister.
Jullien smiled patiently at the dark-haired twins, who were dressed in matching footed pajamas. “You’re what? Four?”
With his curly hair tousled around his head, Taryn nodded and sniffed.
“I have twin daughters who are almost the same exact age you are. Want to see them?”
Sniffing, too, and rubbing his eyes, Tiernan sat forward. “You do?”
“I do.” Jullien pulled his link out and turned it on. “They’re named Mira and Viv.”
Tiernan gasped. “They look like us!”
“I know, right? What’s your name?”
“I’m Tiernan, and this is my brother Taryn.”
“Taryn? That’s the name of my Mira’s favorite doll.”
Taryn finally stopped crying. “It is?”
“Yeah, she’s holding him in her picture. See?”
Taryn smiled at the picture.
“And you know what else? My girls and my son are what we Tavali call Fetchyns. Have you ever heard that term?”
They, and their brothers Adron and Jayce, who’d crawled closer to listen, shook their heads.
“Fetchyns are young honorary Tavali. And I’m a field admiral, which means that I’m the third highest-ranking member of my Nation. And your aunt Ushara and uncle Trajen are the vice admiral and high admiral of the Gorturnum Nation. That means they’re my bosses. And that gives me the authority to swear you in as Fetchyn Tavalians, so I can make you pirates, too. Would you like that?”
They sucked their breaths in excitedly.
“Really?” Taryn clapped his hands together. “I can be a pirate?”
“Yes, you can. But . . . here’s the thing. Pirates don’t cry. And you’ll have to stay strong to watch over your mother, brothers, and sisters. You think you can do that?”
Taryn glanced to Shahara’s son, Devyn, who was still upset that his mecha unit had been smashed when a wall came down on it, and then to his brothers. “Yes! Dev? You want to be a Tavali Fetchyn, too?”
Devyn shook his head. “No, I’m a Dagan smuggler. We don’t play with Tavali.”
Jullien laughed. “Well . . . sometimes you do. We’ve been known to fly with the Dagans quite a few times, right, Kasen?”
“He’s right,” his aunt concurred. “We do rely on them sometimes. They can be really important to us on our missions. And they’ve saved our hides a few times—like tonight.”
Jullien turned back to his nephews. “So are you in?”
“Okay.” Jullien held his hand out. “Put your hands on mine. And repeat after me. . . . Tavali is an honor that comes with obligation. Hem me never.”
The boys repeated it.
“United in purpose. United by bond. Forever Tavali.” Jullien waited until they’d responded with those words. “Very good, my Fetchyns. It’s my solemn honor to welcome you in as official Tavali youth citizens.” He pulled the patches from his sleeves and pinned one to Taryn’s shirt first. “This is my personal Canting that only I have so that all the Tavali know when they see it who I am and what Nation I belong to. When you wear it, they will all know that you are my Fetchyn and that if they dare touch you or harm you in any way, they will have to answer to me.”
Davel snorted. “Yeah, and there ain’t nobody who wants to be on the bad side of Dagger’s temper. Ever. Believe you me. He makes the baddest of bad flinch.”
Taryn scowled at Jullien’s flag. “It looks like a bug.”
Jullien grinned. “Yeah, it kind of does. Tells you what my boss thinks of me most days.” He winked at his nephew. “I’m just a big old bug up his butt, irritating him.”
They burst out laughing.
Jullien ruffled Taryn’s hair. “My call sign is Dagger Ixur. But you, I dub Demonax.”
Jullien nodded. “He was the son of Nemesis, and one of the fiercest of the Kadurr. Fearless in battle.” Next, he pinned his Canting to Tiernan. “And you I shall call Daktyloi.”
He screwed his face up. “Daktyloi? Why? Is he the twin of cool-sounding name?”
“No. Daktyloi was the first armed warrior created by the gods to guard their infant son from their enemies who wanted to eat him. His job was to create a frenzied dance with his shield and sword whenever the baby cried so as to drown the sounds out and keep him hidden. And to fight to the death to protect the baby should he be found.”
Tiernan’s whole face lit up as Jullien pinned the patch to his nightshirt. “Thank you for giving me my own! Nobody ever does that. Sometimes I think I’m just Taryn’s spare part.”
“You’re very welcome. And I know what you mean. I felt the same way when I was a kid, with your paka. It’s hard to be the younger twin. And my Viv complains about that with her older sister. So we always make sure she knows that she’s not.” He turned to Jayce, who appeared around six years old.
“Can I just have the patch ’cause it’s cool? I’m going to grow up and be an assassin like my dad was.”
“You’re not going to grow up and be an assassin,” Kiara said sharply. “I don’t know why you keep saying that. It is never going to happen.”
Laughing, Jullien motioned for Davel to give up his patches for the kids. “Sure.”
When he went to give one to Adron, who was about two years older, the boy leaned in to whisper, “Same here. I’m going to be an assassin, too.”
“Gotcha.” Jullien pinned it to his arm.
But it was Taryn who was the most infatuated with his patch. He ran over to Ture and his infant son. “Look, Uncle Ture! Will you let Terek be on my crew when he’s big?”
“I don’t know, Terry. I’d rather he stay in my kitchen with me and be a chef. But if it’s what he wants . . . sure.”
Of course, for now, all Terek could do was teethe on the patch.
Kiara met Jullien’s gaze. “Thank you for calming them down, and giving them something else to focus on.”
She jerked her chin toward his link. “May I see your daughters?”
Jullien hesitated. He wasn’t sure why, other than Kiara had never been particularly interested in anything other than putting as much space as she could between them—as quickly as possible. And this was as personal to him as showing someone the most naked part of his body or soul. Mainly because his family was the part of him that left him vulnerable and weak. They were the key to his utter destruction.
But they were also his greatest strength and the only thing in life he took pride in. In a lifetime marked with wrong decisions and mistakes, they were the sole thing he’d ever done right.
So he glanced at the photo and smiled at their beautiful faces before he held it out to her. It was a picture of them with Ushara and Vasili from a few weeks ago.
Kiara looked down and gasped as if she’d half expected him to have been lying about having a family. “Your wife’s currently pregnant?”
“And the boy in the photograph?”
“Our son, Vasili.”
“They’re beautiful, Jullien.”
“Thank you.” He slid the link into his pocket, then stood. “We have some communications up. The good news is . . . we’re alive.”
“But your palace is gravel.”
He grimaced at his best friend. “Thank you, Thraix. Way to spread sunshine over the landscape.”
Completely unabashed, Thraix shrugged. “I did not want to be here. Let’s not lose sight of that one fact. I was drafted into this against my common sense and better judgment.”
Jullien cleared his throat. “Everyone in this room has officially been declared dead.”
They collectively gasped.
Jullien quickly tried to reassure all of them. “That’s actually good news. Because you’re not dead.”
“Thraix!” Jullien snapped. “Act like a Tris. They’re not going to die.”
“Unless I shoot them.”
“You, go stand in a corner until I finish.” He gave him a droll stare, unsure what had gotten into him. While Thraix was never the most optimistic to have around, he wasn’t normally quite this cantankerous. “Anyway . . . we need to contact Nyk and the Alliance, and let them know our status before Nyk and The Sentella do something profoundly stupid to retaliate in their grief. And yes, Desideria, that was directed primarily at your husband.”
Kasen cleared her throat. “Hey! I take exception with that. Caillen is also my brother.”
“And mine,” Shahara added.
“I wouldn’t claim that moron,” Davel said under his breath.
Jullien agreed, but didn’t comment on that. Instead, he spoke to his Tavali group so that they would understand the dynamics and importance of the people in the room with them. “Desideria’s brother is also our family member and friend, Psycho Bunny. And we don’t need Chayden on a suicide run. We have enough trouble with him when his head’s on straight. Ture’s husband and the father of his baby is Maris Sulle, the Phrixian prince.”
Dimitri let out a low whistle. “Well, that explains why The League made this attack. What the hell were all you idiots thinking by being together in one place?”
“That we were in a palace with an army,” Darling said dryly.
“And how did that work for you, punkin’?” Thraix answered in an equally sarcastic tone. “Ever want to be schooled on the history of that stupidity, talk to my boy, Dr. Dagger, here.” He jerked his chin to Jullien. “You should read his dissertations on the fall of the Trisani Empire and the rise and fall of your own ancestor Justicale Cruel. While y’all might not think much of what you raised, Jules has one of the keenest political minds ever born.”
“Anyway,” Jullien said again, trying to keep them on the topic at hand. “We have a narrow window to get a message out before it will be detected by Eriadne or The League. Thraix? I need you to toss your shirt to me, real fast, so I can make a video to send to Shara, and she won’t see me bloody and panic. I don’t want to send her into labor. We’ll let them know we’re alive, and then we’ll work on getting out of here.”
Thraix pulled his shirt off.
Because he’d been married to Ushara for so long and she had never really reacted to his body, and her mother and Trajen had been treating his wounds for the last few years, Jullien had forgotten just how badly scarred he was.
Until he exposed his torso.
“Holy mother of the gods.” His mother covered her mouth with her hand.
Tylie retched while his father stared at him in absolute horror.
Sighing from the hurt and shame, Jullien exchanged shirts with Thraix.
His mother approached him with her eyes mirroring her sickened horror, but Jullien didn’t want to see it. He stepped away from her to tuck his shirt in.
“What caused all that?”
He glanced at her. “You’re my mother. Of all beings, you should know.”
“I didn’t mark you Outcast.”
“Sure you did, Matarra,” he said in a flat, emotionless tone. “The day you allowed your priests to refuse my exordiom, and then when you removed me from the royal family and had my name struck from the Anatole lineage, and a kill warrant issued for my life. Is that not the very definition of Outcast?”
With those words spoken, he put his helmet on and handed his link to Thraix to record.
Thraix gave him an arch stare. “Helmet? Really?
“Bite it and hit record.” Jullien patted his pockets. “No, wait!” Then he remembered Thraix wasn’t really Tavali and didn’t have patches on his gear, so he was fine. Ushara wouldn’t realize he had on someone else’s clothes. “Never mind. We’re good.”
“Yeah. Let’s do this.”
But the minute he started to speak, he realized that Thraix had been right. The helmet was a stupid idea. Not that he was going to ever say that to the Tris.
He’d been thinking to keep his identity a secret from Nyk. But that wasn’t going to work. His brother would have to know who Jullien was in order to cooperate with Shara and Trajen. Otherwise, he’d go off half-cocked and get himself killed.
Fine. Whatever. He pulled the skull-decorated blast helmet from his head to expose his thick black hair and whiskered face. Gods, I hope I don’t have any blood on my skin. Shara would die if she thought he’d been hurt in any way.
He should have checked. But it was too late.
**Edited for spoilers**
“Greetings, brother. I know I’m the last creature you want to see right now, but I had to let you know that everyone’s safe, and that I’m sorry I couldn’t forewarn you about The League attack on the palace. By the time I found out what Nyran and Eriadne had planned, there wasn’t enough time to call you or Matarra, and I wasn’t sure either of you’d even believe me. I didn’t know who else to trust. So I did the only thing I knew to do. I came myself to secure them.”
Jullien took his link from Thraix and panned it around to show his brother and the rest of The Sentella that their families were fine and unscathed, and in no danger whatsoever. Hopefully, that would be enough for them to not go after The Tavali or The League, or do anything else radically stupid.
Kind of asking a lot, but they had to trust in a miracle for this.
First, Jullien went to their parents, who stood together beside Tylie and her partner, Kelsei.
His mother smiled at the camera. “Mi tana, breathe easy. Jullien literally pulled us out minutes before everything went up in flames. We owe him our lives. I love you. Have no fear for us.”
Aros inclined his head. “She’s right. We’re all fine.” Their father stepped back to show Nyk’s kids, who were complaining about the toys that had been left behind, and Thia, who grumbled about a broken nail and not having a hairbrush. She was extremely distraught he dared film her in such a state.
Jullien smiled at something Ushara’s nieces would have done as well. He could just imagine Nadya’s reaction over it.
Exhausted from it all, Shahara and Zarya were now both napping on the floor, with their children nestled beside them while Ture changed Terek’s nappy as the baby gnawed on his fist.
Looking up, Ture smiled and waved. “I’m all right, Mare-bear. T, too. We just want you to be safe.” He held the freshly dressed Terek up to wave. “We love you.”
Darling paused in the middle of whatever he was working on. “Yeah, Nyk, I don’t trust your brother, either. He’s a bloody, traitorous bastard. We know it. But . . . he has given us one hell of a tactical advantage. The League thinks we’re dead and that you’re rattled and reactionary. So long as they think we’re dead, they’re not coming after us, and you can focus on kicking their asses with a clear head and single-minded focus. Use this to the best advantage possible, and don’t let either of my brothers do anything stupid while I’m gone. I know I’m asking a lot, but I’d like to still have an empire when I get out of here.” He cut his gaze back to Jullien. “And if your brother gets frisky, don’t worry. I will end him. Shahara will help. She already took two shots at him.”
Even more agitated at them, Jullien handed his link back to Thraix so that he could hold it while he addressed his brother. “Anyway, Nykyrian, I know you have absolutely no reason to trust me. And I know you’re fighting with one hand tied behind your back so long as you’re worried about whether or not I’m going to betray you when you least expect it. So as an act of good faith, to let you know that I understand that I hold in my hands everything in this universe you treasure, I’ve placed in your hands my very heart and soul. The very means by which to destroy me. And with you being a former League assassin, I know you won’t hesitate to do so if I fuck this up. . . . I have your wife and family in my custody. So I have sent to you my wife, daughters, and sons. Please protect them. . . . I can’t live without them, brother. They are all I have in this world. All that means anything to me. You are the only one I would ever trust them with.”
Jullien paused as fear finally overtook him and he realized how much he had on the line.
Tears choked him. “Shara, I love you, munatara a la frah. I’ll be home as soon as I can. Don’t you dare have Vidarri without me. And don’t let Vasili fight without my brother winging him. I swear I’ll loosen the noose on him soon, but he’s not as skilled a fighter as he thinks he is, and I don’t want to bury our son. He’s just not ready to fight in this war. Kiss the girls for me, and tell Mira to be brave for her paka.” He nodded at Thraix, who turned the link off and handed it to him.
Drawing a ragged breath, Jullien quickly sent the recording to Ushara with a note letting her know he was safe and that he would not break her heart. She was going to be stuck with him for the rest of her life.
Yeah, he was just that cruel.
He swallowed against the tears that gathered in his throat to choke him.
Thraix clapped him gently on the back. “Just breathe, little brother. You’ve been in worse predicaments. We both have.”
He snorted. “Not helping.” With a deep breath, he forced himself to focus on their immediate needs. Something hard to do, since Zarina kept fussing and crying.
Kiara couldn’t seem to quiet her. And the gods forbid his mother should step in to aid with her granddaughter.
After a few minutes of them attempting a discussion over it and failing due to the distraction, Jullien went to Kiara.
“I’m sorry. I fed her, but she gets horrible colic. It’s just her age, I’m told.”
“It’s not her age. Andarions are a bit different from humans.” He held his hands out for the baby. “May I?”
Nodding, she handed him her daughter.
Jullien tsked at his niece and spoke to her in his baby voice that always made Mira laugh whenever he used it. “What you doing, bytazifm? You trying to make Matarra lose her sanity?”
Kiara frowned at him. “Bytazifm?”
“Andarion word for ‘tender bit’ or ‘morsel.’” Jullien placed her so that she rested against his forearm. To keep her from squirming out and falling, he held her to his chest while he gently massaged her left side with two fingers until she finally belched and settled down to chew on his fingers. She instantly stopped crying.
Gaping, Kiara stared at him as if he’d just worked a miracle. “What did you do?”
“Our stomachs aren’t quite in the same place as a human’s. So when you attempt to burp an Andarion baby as you would a human, it doesn’t work as well. We do better on our bellies.”
Kiara reached for her daughter, but he was already across the room with Zarina. Sitting back, she tilted her head as she watched Jullien for a few minutes.
Desideria scooted next to her. “I know there’s some kind of bad history with Jullien and Nykyrian, but he doesn’t seem so horrible to me.”
Kiara shook her head. “Yeah . . . I never was around him all that much. He creeped me out when I was younger.”
“Well, he was gigantic, for one thing. I mean, he’s still huge—don’t get me wrong. But he was probably a good hundred and seventy pounds heavier, so he took up a lot of room, and it was extremely intimidating. Plus, he seemed to have a crush on me. Whenever he came around, he was all the time trying to ask me out or invite me to perform in his empires in a way that left me terrified I’d find myself locked up someplace like this, where no one would ever see me again. And then there was the small matter that he was forever surrounded with an entourage that bled cruelty. You looked at them, and it was like watching a pack of snakes slithering by. Not to mention, he wore these weird red glasses and was so condescending and snotty to everyone he spoke to.”
“He wasn’t condescending. That’s his defense mechanism whenever others are assholes to him first. I’ve never known him to pull that trigger without prior provocation.”
She jumped at the deep voice of the one Jullien called Thraix beside them. Dang, he moved as silently as her assassin husband.
He held two small bottled waters for them. “As for the glasses, he had to have them to be able to see. He still has to wear them in certain lighting conditions, or he gets vicious headaches.”
“You don’t know. You weren’t there.”
“I’m Trisani. Trust me, I can see your memories more clearly than you can because my view isn’t clouded by your emotional reference point. And you’re right. They were a pack of snakes around him, and he’d have sold his soul to break free from those bastards. Unfortunately, every time he tried, he was thrown back to them because none of you ever gave him a chance to escape.”
Desideria scowled at Jullien. “What’s he doing? Oh my God! I would kill to have Caillen do that without complaint!”
Turning his head to see what she was talking about, Thraix laughed while Jullien changed Zarina’s nappy without even pausing in his discussion with Davel and Darling. “He carries his own daughters around so much, he doesn’t think anything about it. Mira’s practically a symbiotic life-form who’s permanently attached to her father’s hip. And before them, his nieces used him as their own private jungle gym. Nadya basically claimed his shoulders and lap the first day they met and only grudgingly ceded them when his daughters were born. She still uses his shoulders to perch on for parades.” He headed back to Jullien.
Kiara sat there, stunned. Even more so when a few minutes later, Adron, Jayce, and Taryn nudged their way into the planning group.
Aros started to send them off, but Jullien pulled Taryn to sit on his knee while Davel allowed Adron to sit on his and Thraix took Jayce. It was obvious these Tavali thought nothing of having children around them as they discussed politics and battle strategy. They even took time to answer the boys’ questions and explain things to them.
Once Zarina was asleep and snuggled against Jullien’s chest while he attempted to awkwardly draw out their plans, Kiara went over to to retrieve her youngest child. “May I?” she teased.
He looked up in confusion. “What?” Then it must have dawned on him that he still had her daughter. “Oh!” Blushing, he gently held Zarina out to her. “Sorry.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t yelp when she bit into your hand earlier. In fact, you barely reacted, and I know she caught some flesh with her fangs.”
He shrugged nonchalantly. “My daughters do it all the time. Pretty sure the only teething ring Viv used was my fingers, knuckles, and thumb. Besides, it’s my cyberarm. The nerve endings aren’t as sharp in it.”
Kiara’s jaw went slack. “You lost an arm?”
All of them grew silent at her question, especially his parents.
Grimacing as if the question embarrassed him, Jullien sighed. “What can I say? I’m an annoying asshole. No one likes me. Some really don’t like me and try to kill me off.”
“Can I see it?” Taryn asked.
“Taryn!” Kiara growled at her son. “That’s rude. We don’t ask things like that.”
“It’s fine.” Jullien rolled his sleeve back and allowed his nephew to examine it.
Taryn oohed and ahhed. “You can’t tell.”
Jullien rubbed at his shoulder. “You can, where they attached it. There’s a lot of scarring. But you’re right. Down on the arm itself, it looks natural. It’s just a little darker than my normal skin.”
“Don’t you ever sleep?”
Jullien cursed as Trajen startled him while he worked. “Don’t you make any noise when you move?”
“No. I like that sound of horror people make when I sneak up on them.”
“You’re half people.”
Jullien snorted. “Is your sole purpose here to insult me?”
“Not my sole purpose. Just a nice bonus.”
“Awesome. Well since you are here, can you be useful and toss me that wrench over there?”
Trajen used his powers to teleport it to Jullien’s hand.
Jullien didn’t comment as he continued working on the Stormbringer while trying to ignore Trajen’s presence.
“So what happened tonight?”
Jullien growled in frustration. “You’re a Tris. Don’t think I have to relive it. Pretty sure you’ve already plucked all pertinent details from my mind. Among other things that I probably didn’t want you to know about.”
Trajen laughed. “I don’t intimidate or bother you at all, do I?”
Jullien crawled out of the panel and sat up on the ship’s stabilizer so that he could meet Trajen’s dark gaze. “Not really. I lived my whole life with everyone spying on my most intimate moments, every second of the day, right down to how often I jerked off. They all thought they knew what I was thinking. It’s actually refreshing to have someone who truly does. Besides, I’m not that complicated a creature. When pushed, I shove. When confronted, I attack. I rabidly protect what few things I care about. And I strive to be left alone. . . . Simple.”
“Yet if there’s trouble to be found, you sniff it out like pigs on truffles. And hump it like a dog on a fresh leg.”
Jullien let out a tired sigh at something that was all too true. “That I do.”
“Two massive fights in one day. You know that’s a record, even for this station.”
Jullien rooted through his toolbox and grabbed his water. “Can’t help it. Everywhere I go, there’s always an asshole.”
“Well you know the old saying?”
“If everyone’s an asshole, maybe the real asshole’s you?”
Trajen laughed again. “Paraphrased, but yeah, that’s the gist of what I was going for.”
Not really wanting to think about the truth of that statement, Jullien wiped his hands off and took a drink. “Yeah well, I resemble that remark, so I’m not even going to defend myself. Are you here to arrest me or ask me to leave?”
“Neither. Just wanted to give you a heads up.”
“The fact that the family you attacked to night is rather highly connected. They’re old Tavali and they don’t think much of Ushara as my vice admiral. In fact, a lot of the Gorturnum weren’t real happy with her as my choice of adjutant. They’ve always thought she was too young for that much responsibility, especially after the way her husband died.”
Jullien frowned at the odd note in Trajen’s voice. “How did he die?”
Trajen materialized to sit by Jullien’s side on the ship, and held his hand up, fingers spread.
Jullien hesitated. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to be that personal with Trajen. It was one thing for the Trisani to rifle through his thoughts without his consent or knowledge. It was another for him to lock in with Trajen’s and to share them and his emotions.
But he did want to understand what had happened with Ushara and Vasili, and he’d refrained from asking either of them since it would have forced them to remember the death of someone they loved. Having lost his brother, he knew how brutal those memories were. The guilt. The anguish. He’d always hated whenever someone asked him probing questions that brought up a bitter memory.
So he set his tools aside and placed his palm to Trajen’s. The instant their skin touched, he felt an electrical jolt as the Trisani’s mind merged with his. For a second, he thought he might vomit as everything spun around. It was extremely disorienting— like the worst sort of carnival ride.
He saw flashes of images he couldn’t place. Though some he was sure belonged to Trajen’s memories.
“Breathe steady, and focus.” Trajen’s voice soothed the churning in his gut. “Don’t fight me. Just follow my lead.”
Jullien took a deep breath. Suddenly, he was inside a Tavali freighter that was docked on a Starken outpost, alongside a large group of other Tavali ships. Most of them were Gorturnum by their Canting and flags, but a few were Wasternum. He had no idea which one was Chaz until he saw Vasili. Even though Vas was only five in this memory, he knew the boy instantly.
He was the perfect five-year-old male version of his mother, with bright, curious eyes and the happiest disposition Jullien had ever seen on any child. Vas was running mad circles around the adults, laughing while he did so.
“Vasili!” his father snarled. “Stop it, this instant!”
Freezing in place, he opened his mouth like a fish. “Like this, Paka?”
Jullien laughed at the boy’s game. But his father didn’t find it amusing. Instead, Chaz picked him up and spanked him for it. Then set him down hard in a seat to cry.
“Don’t move again. I mean it! And stop that noise, or else I’ll give you a real reason to weep!”
Fury shortened Jullien’s breath at those harsh words.
Ignoring his son, Chaz went back to the group that was meeting on the ship. He returned to the starchart.
***EDITED FOR MAJOR SPOILERS***
“Little bit.” Jullien rubbed his hand over his face. “And Vas? Does he remember any of that?”
“No. I made sure of it, but . . . my interference had unforseen consequences.”
“Mindwipes usually do.”
A tic started in Trajen’s jaw. “I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t leave the boy with that memory. Could you?”
“No. Trust me. You did right by him. Having been on the receiving end of many similar father-son exchanges, I’m a walking advertisement of what happens to sons whose fathers are in bitter need of parenting classes. We come out all kinds of effed up and arselings back.” Jullien narrowed his gaze on Trajen. “So if you weren’t interested in leading the Gorts, why did you battle to become their HAP?”
“I had my reasons.”
“So you did and they’re all yours and none of my concern. Gotcha, boss.”
Trajen snorted. “I can’t believe how much I strangely like you.” He pulled a flask from his pocket and handed it to Jullien. “You’re the only one, other than those who were there, who know the truth of what happened that night.”
Jullien was impressed by his compassion. “You left all of them with their memories?”
“You and Ryn Cruel are the only ones who know what happened that night.”
With a scoffing laugh, Jullien took a swig, then choked on the potent drink. “What the hell is in this thing? Ship fuel?”
Grinning, Trajen took it and knocked back a large gulp. “Trisani Starfyre. Forget that watered down shit the Tondarions make. We brewed the malt whisky that put hair not just on your chest, but on your knuckles and tongue.”
Jullien laughed as he continued to wheeze. “Is that legal?”
“Of course not. Outlawed by every known government. Melted the brains of lesser species.” He held the flask out toward him.
“Well then . . . gods know I never needed my brain activity. Pretty sure I was brain dead on arrival at birth.” More prepared this time, he drank it and let it burn its way through his system. It was toxic going down, but had a smooth aftertaste that mellowed into something very pleasant after a few minutes.
Trajen clapped him on the back. “I’ll make a Tris out of you yet, Andarion.”
Snorting, Jullien ran his thumb down his right fang. “So you’ve confided in me. Poisoned me . . . dare I ask why? Cause I got be honest, these little chats of ours scare the Tophet of out me.”
“You don’t believe in Tophet.”
“Not true. I currently live in it.”
Trajen confiscated his whisky for another swig. “Truthfully? I don’t know. I think it’s because I can’t hide from you. I still haven’t figured out how you saw me so clearly when no one else ever has. You see everyone.”
He locked gazes with Jullien. “And I see you, little brother. You’re as fucked up as I am. It’s why I wanted you to know the truth. I didn’t want you to keep comparing yourself to a ghost that never existed. You held Chaz up as this shining beacon of perfection in fatherhood and husbandry, when the truth is he didn’t give a shit. He took his wife for granted and ignored his son. I think it’s why Vas glommed on to you the way he did in that bar. You protected him when you didn’t have to. ***EDITED FOR MAJOR SPOILER***"
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
“It’s what we’re all afraid of. Love makes us weak. ‘Cause you know you’re no longer in control of anything. She is.”
Jullien let out a tired breath at that single truth. “Swáhytsý, brother.”
Trajen capped his flask. “Congratulations, by the way.”
Jullien blinked as those words hung in the air between them. “Pardon? My what?”
“Ah. . . . Didn’t know, did you?”
Confused, Jullien stared at him. “Am I drunk?”
“I don’t know. Are you?”
Jullien scowled as he held his hands up to test their stability. No. He appeared sober. Everything was relatively right, except . . .
“What makes you think I’m married?”
“I don’t think anything.” Trajen pulled out his link and handed it over to Jullien. “Know it for fact. It’s how my favorite admiral kept your ass out of jail and off the bounty sheets after a certain family went to file formal charges on you behind her back. She done went and changed your name, lineage, bio and your address, and everything else in your files.”
Jullien’s jaw dropped as he read through his personnel files. Trajen wasn’t kidding and he wasn’t drunk. According to this, he did indeed have a wife, and a new last name.
Furious, he handed the link back to Trajen and jumped down from the ship.
“Hey! Where are you going?”
Jullien glared up at him. “To make myself a widower.”
MOTHER'S DAY EXCERPT
Suddenly suspicious, Jullien stepped back and looked around. “Who’s here?”
“Is it The League? You’re surrendering me, aren’t you?”
She gaped at his assumption. “No one’s here. Dear gods, Jullien. Really? You honestly think I’m lying about this? That I’m setting you up to hand you over to your enemies? What have they done to you that you can’t trust anyone? For anything?”
Jullien let out a bitter laugh as her question triggered several memories he hated most. “You really don’t want me to answer that.”
She caught his arm as he started to leave. “Talk to me.”
Where could he even begin? Seriously. There was so much pain. So much inside him that hurt and was broken. He’d been alone for so long, he didn’t even know how to be with someone else.
But as he stared into her pale eyes, there was one memory that always stood out above the others. One nightmare that he could never banish no matter how hard he tried. And before he knew it, he told her the one thing he’d never told another living soul.
“When we met you, you asked whose murder I was wanted for. Do you remember?”
Ushara nodded slowly as a bad feeling went over her. By his somber mood, she could tell this was going to be terrible. So she braced herself as best she could.
“It was the first life I took. You know how old I was?”
His laugh was even more bitter than the darkness in his eyes. “Seven.”
Horrified, she choked at the last number she’d have ever expected to come out of his mouth.
Was he serious?
“What?” she gasped.
His gaze haunted and tormented, he nodded. “I killed him in cold blood. He never saw it coming.”
A chill went down her spine as she struggled to comprehend what he was telling her, and the age he’d been when he’d done the most unspeakable crime. “Why would you do such a thing?”
Stepping away from her, he wiped his hand over his face as if he was trying to rid himself of the nightmare and couldn’t. “I just wanted to make sure my mother was okay. She’d been crying all day for my brother— like she would often do. Then all of a sudden, she was quiet for no reason.” He turned to face her. “It made my blood run cold.”
“I knew my grandmother was growing impatient with her. I’d been savagely beaten the year before for crying myself, so I knew better than to shed another tear for Nykyrian. I wasn’t about to risk my grandmother’s wrath again. Ever. Trust me. One of Eriadne’s beatings was enough to live long in anyone’s memory. But my mother had been spared it, so far. Yet I knew it was only a matter of time until my grandmother turned her wrath on her, too. And something about the way she’d stopped crying that night told me it wasn’t right. That this was the night my grandmother had had enough of it. It was a feeling deep in my gut. So I went to check on her. And when I pushed open the door to her room, I saw my grandmother’s personal guard smothering her in her bed.”
Ushara gasped in horror.
Jullien swallowed, but still showed no emotion whatsoever as he continued speaking in a whispered monotone. “I was so scared when I saw them, I didn’t know what to do. He was huge and I was so small in comparison. One blow and he could have killed me. Just like they were always threatening to do. But I couldn’t let him kill my mother. She was all I had left in the universe.”
He raked his hand through his hair. “Terrified. Freaking out. In a total panic, I saw my mother’s military Warsword on the wall, next to the door where I stood. Just a few inches from my hand. I was never to touch it because it was so sharp and dangerous. All my life, I’d been told that it could cut through flesh and bone like they were made of butter, and all I could think was that it would help me. So I grabbed it and cut his head off before I knew what I was doing. Before he even knew I was in the room with them. I had no idea anyone could bleed so much. And it was so hard to pull his body from my mother’s. He was so heavy and huge. I kept thinking his weight would crush her before I could get him off her and check to see if she still lived.”
Ushara couldn’t breathe at the tragic horror he described. “You didn’t call for help?”
“Who, Ushara?” His voice finally held his anger, guilt and turmoil. “It was my own grandmother, the tadara of Andaria, who’d sent that male to murder her while she lay in a drugged stupor. The same insidious creature who’d just ordered the death of my twin brother. The very one who’d cut the throat of my own grandfather in front of me and everyone else in my family. Who was going to help me, I ask you? Who was I supposed to call that night for help? Who? My father wouldn’t even take my calls. He was in mourning for my brother, and I was told that the sound of my voice was too mentally disturbing for him to deal with at that time.”
In that moment, the full horror of his childhood and situation hit her. He’d truly had no one in his life to turn to. Not for anything even as basic as comfort and safety. “Your father really wouldn’t take you in?”
“No. He refused to go to war for me. He told me as much. Repeatedly. His people mean more to him than a worthless, lying bastard son he can’t trust. That’s all I am to him. It’s all I’ve ever been. He never once even thought of me as his heir. Not really. Nyk was the only one of us he ever loved. He never cared for me.”
“So what did you do?”
“Once I made sure she was alive, I cleaned the blood from her as best I could and I sat there in shock for hours, holding the bloody towels in my lap, trying to think of what I should do. I ran so many scenarios through my mind, but I had no answers. All I knew was that my grandmother was as crazy as my mother. And that I was alone with them in that palace, with no one to help me. Worse, I knew my grandmother wouldn’t stop. Sooner or later, she’d try again to kill her. So I did the only thing I knew to. I finally grabbed the guard’s head and my mother’s sword, and in the wee hours of the morning, I made my way to my grandmother’s bedchamber.”
Ushara could imagine the elder tadara waking to find the young prince in her room in such a grisly state. “And?”
“I placed his head at her feet and stared at her without flinching. Then with all the courage I could muster, I confronted her and said that tonight is the last night you will threaten my mother. Ever. Because there is one truth as tahrs that I know about you, mu Tadara. You are as vain as you are cruel. And while you hate me and are ashamed of me, you would die before you ever allowed a lesser Anatole lineage to occupy your beloved throne. Since you have killed my brother, I am the sole heir of your direct bloodline. The very last of it. Therefore you are forced to endure me. But I am not forced to tolerate you. With one cut of this sword, I could take your throne as easily as I took your guard’s head. If you ever come at my mother again, I won’t hesitate to take my place as the Andarion tadar. My mother is all that keeps you alive. Guard her well and know that your life is dependent upon hers.”
Jullien sighed. “In retrospect, I should have speared her in that bed while I had the chance. That was my biggest mistake in life. . . . And my greatest regret.”
“Does your mother know about this?”
He shook his head. “She was passed out from her drugs and remembers none of it. Only my grandmother and I know about that night. Eriadne had it all cleansed and erased. I didn’t know any part of it had been kept as evidence until the warrants for my execution had been issued.”
“Bitch kept the clothes I was wearing that night that had the guard’s blood on them. Her version of the story omits his attack on my mother. With no corroborating witnesses . . .”
“You’re a murderer.”
“Wanted dead for it.”
“But if you went to your family and told them—”
He laughed bitterly. “They don’t care. My aunt Tylie’s partner was the one who shot me when I escaped Andaria the last time four years ago . . . on Tylie’s orders.”
“But your mother—”
“Would stand beside Tylie against me. She believes I’m as guilty as they do. If she thought me innocent, she’d have rescinded the contract. But notice, it stands and so I’m hunted without quarter. I can’t even get it reduced to a simple Bill-Kill. At least that would be a quick, painless death, instead of being tortured first.”
Ushara felt sick to her stomach for him. She couldn’t imagine how horrible he must have felt when his aunt ordered him shot.
Jullien let out a tired breath. “Look, don’t judge my mother. It’s not her fault. I’m not going to lie and say I was this perfect, pristine angel. I wasn’t. I cut the bastard’s head off with a single stroke while he had his back to me. I spent my entire childhood in a fit of bitter rage. And you didn’t want to be caught in my path when it exploded. Sometimes my actions were justified. Many times they weren’t. Whether they were or not, I still have to live with them all. That’s what’s hard.”
“And knowing all this about you, I still want to take you home.” She held her hand out to him.
Jullien hesitated. “Why?”
“Is it that hard to believe that I might like you?”
“You’d be the first.”
“Then let me be your first.”
Still aghast, Jullien stared at her. Why? But in the end, he couldn’t deny what she made him feel. She was offering him the one thing he wanted most. The one thing he’d never had.
A kind touch. Someone who didn’t look at him like he was utter shit.
Knowing this was probably as big a mistake as not taking his grandmother’s head, he placed his hand in hers and let the warmth of her skin soothe him.
Without another word of protest, he followed her back through the station to a small grocery store. She glanced about nervously. “I need to get a few things before we go to my place.”
“Okay.” He trailed along behind her as she grabbed a small basket.
“Do you have a meat preference?”
He shrugged. “I’ve learned not to be picky these last few years.” He took the basket from her so that he could carry it while she quickly filled it with dinner items.
“Wine?” she asked.
“Again, no preference.”
Ushara hesitated in the aisle. “Suggestions, then? I don’t usually drink.”
“I don’t need it, if you don’t want it.”
She grinned up at him. “I normally eat with a certain young one who isn’t old enough to imbibe. Since we’re adults, I would really like some. My husband was a male of simple tastes who didn’t care for it, but I have a feeling you are one who knows a really good vintage from a total waste of credits.”
“Ah . . . that I do. However, do you want a robust bargain or something decadently obscene that will leave your panties on the floor, your head in the clouds and your bank account screaming in agony?”
She laughed at his description. “Is there a happy compromise between those two options?”
Screwing his face up, he perused the shelves for a few minutes before he finally reached for a bottle. “This should meet your needs quite nicely with the flavors you’ve chosen for dinner.” He added it to the basket. “Is there anything else you require?”
She bit her lip as she glanced about and tried not to be completely mortified. “Um . . . there is one thing. Wait right here.” She tried to be subtle and fast.
Unfortunately and to her utter humiliation, Jullien followed after her. Damn it!
She really, really hated the amused cock of his brow as she placed the small box into the basket underneath the food.
When she started out of the aisle, toward the register, he didn’t move. Rather he cleared his throat to get her attention.
“Those won’t fit, you know.”
“They’re sized for human males. They’ll be too small and will probably break.”
Heat erupted over her face. “Are you serious?”
He nodded. “I would tell you to look on the box. But given the degree of redness on your face already, I’m rather sure you’d die on the spot of embarrassment.”
Grinding her teeth, she groaned under her breath. “I think you’re too late. I already have.”
He grinned at her. Then, in the most debonnaire manner befitting a prince, he kissed her hand. “Go back to your place and I’ll finish this and meet you there.”
“I have to pay for it.”
“I’m not a whore, Ushara. I can buy your dinner for you.”
“I wasn’t implying that you were.”
“Then go and I’ll meet you there. Unless you really want to shop for condoms with me.”
She let out an adorable squeak. “Fine, I’m out! I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
Jullien laughed at her hasty retreat. He found it precious and refreshing that a female so worldly and jaded could be embarrassed by something so ridiculously innocuous. It also told him a lot about her that she knew so very little about what she was buying, and how to pick them out.
Though why she’d waste time with him defied his imagination and humbled him.
In all his life, no matter how many times he’d tried, he’d never been able to convince a female to go with him on a date, of any kind. Not even a paid companion. They would accompany him to prearranged functions he’d contracted for, and he could visit the condos he furnished them for specified visitations hours or they would come to his palace rooms, but that was it.
Human women had always been terrified of his Andarion size, and fangs. So much so, that they’d cross the street at his approach or run from the room, even vacate an elevator. It’d given him a complex in his younger years.
Andarion females were far more cruel and unforgiving. His human eyes had caused them to view him as a deformed freak. That had been bad enough. Once he’d started gaining weight . . .
His Andarion social life had come to a screeching halt.
No female had ever looked at him the way Ushara did. They had never made him feel the things he felt whenever she met his gaze.
He couldn’t fathom it. Why would a female so beautiful and kind waste her time on him? It made no sense. But one thing was sure. Unlike other males, he wouldn’t squander this chance. He knew how rare and precious these moments were.
They might only have tonight. And all he had left to give her was his heart and respect.
But they were hers if she’d take them. And if she ultimately refused him and threw him aside like everyone else had, then he hoped she had the decency to kill him.
Ushara had just begun to worry that Jullien had lost his way to her condo when she heard the light knock on her door. She opened it to find him there with a huge bouquet of red and gold flowers in his arms.
And coiled in the center of them was a pair of thick purple socks. The kind that she adored.
“What did you do?”
He dipped his head down sheepishly to peer at her from behind the bouquet. “I called your herd of giggling sisters for a consultation. They said these were your favorite. The socks more than the flowers.”
Laughing, she pulled him inside to kiss his cheek. “They’re correct, but right now, the male holding them outranks them all in my affections.”
“I find that hard to believe. . . . The socks are much cuter.”
She bit her lip as she took the flowers from him and carried them to the kitchen. He followed her with the groceries and set them on the counter for her.
As Ushara turned, she caught the hungry look in his eyes. It was absolutely searing and it riveted her to the spot. No one had ever looked at her like that. As if she was the air he needed to breathe.
And yet he stood away from her, rigid and aloof. With all the regal dignity of a prince.
“You know I give you permission to touch me, Jullien.”
Still, he made no move to do so. It was so ingrained in Ixurian Andarion culture to respect each other’s personal space that they never reached out to lightly touch one another. Only the closest of family would do such.
Even then, seldom in public.
Fyrebloods were different. They’d never been like his kind. It had been one of many reasons they’d been persecuted and hated throughout the centuries on Andaria. They were far more open and free. And, not understanding why they were like that, the darkhearts had been suspicious of them.
Stepping closer to him, she reached up to trace the chiseled line of his smooth cheek. He looked so different without his beard and new haircut. Refined and elegant. Perfect, and even angelic. He was absolute masculine beauty. More akin to a Fyreblood’s leaner, sculpted features than the rugged ones of the Ixurians.
Her sisters had said that this was what had sent him over the edge. When he’d seen himself clean-shaven and stylishly dressed. Which made a lot of sense to her. In all the photos of him before he’d been disinherited, he’d been immaculately groomed, in the latest fashions. No hair out of place. No trace of a single stray whisker. It was if a valet and fashion consultant had traveled with him to keep every fiber of clothing and hair in line at all times. As if it’d been beaten into him that he must never appear in public unless he was perfectly coifed, and regally composed.
Rigid and imposing. Commanding and arrogant.
There were times when he still bore traces of that. But for the most part, he’d shed his aristocratic persona for that of a wary, watchful predator. One who was ever vigilant and on guard. Even now, when they were alone.
He’d still positioned himself so that his back was to the wall and he was facing the door. No one could see him from any window. And his holster was open, with his coat pulled back to clear it so that he could draw his weapon if he had to.
Yet he was more relaxed with her and Vas than anyone else. In their presence, he would cross his arms over his chest. Even put his hands in his pockets. Around others, he kept his left hand hovered near his blaster at all times. Either on the blaster’s grip, or his thumb hitched in the belt near it.
It made her feel incredibly special to know that she and Vasili, alone, held his trust.