Chapter 4 (SPOILER Warning)
“Yeah, we all get embarrassing call signs in the beginning, but they normally fade after a fight or two. Seldom do they make it onto our ships.”
Felicia arched a brow at Talyn. “So yours wasn’t always Pit Viper?”
“No. It was Mongrel-Ass until I got fed up with the giant, arrogant bastard who gave it to me. He was mocking me as usual and then made the mistake of speaking ill about my mother. I froze mid step and, without warning, took him down with one punch. Hence the name. When I go stock still, you need to run. Means I’m taking aim and about to strike . . . with fatal consequences.”
She fed him more ice. “So Blister is the only thing you recall from the whole fight, huh? I think I need to do a psych eval on you about that.”
Grinning at her playful teasing, he glanced away. Until he did recall something. “Now that you mention that, I think I was talking to Syndrome when my ship went up.”
Felicia went cold at the name. “Syndrome?”
“A female in my squad . . . why are you so mad?”
She tried to suppress her anger, but it was impossible. A part of her wanted to beat him.
Most of all, she wanted to find this female and make sure she understood in no uncertain terms that Talyn had someone in his life.
With a jerk of her chin, she indicated the bouquets of flowers and balloons that lined the shelf in front of his window. “Syndrome sent those to you . . . a new one every day you’ve been here. She must really like you.”
Talyn rubbed his head as he struggled to remember. “Not really. She usually growls out an insult if I so much as glance in her general direction.” There was a ghost of something about Syndrome in the outer fringes of his mind, but he couldn’t quite pull it. “I must have taken a blast for her. Or something slammed into me. Maybe.”
“You were shot,” his mother said as she rejoined them. “You really didn’t hear the alarms to warn you you’d been sighted?”
He shook his head. “I would have taken evasive action had they done so.”
“What does that mean?” Felicia asked his mother.
Talyn explained for her. “Whenever an enemy’s targeting system locks on us, our alarms go off to warn us we’re about to be fired on, so that we can get out of the way.”
“Did they malfunction?”
His mother crossed her arms over her chest. “I spoke to the ground crew who combed the wreckage of your ship yesterday. They were pretty sure and clear that you were hit by friendly fire.”
Still, he couldn’t believe it. “How? Our systems can’t lock on each other, or fire. They’re blocked from it.”
His mother wasn’t willing to let it go. “It’s been known to happen, from time to time.”
“Could The Tavali be using our armada system?” Felicia asked. “Maybe it really was them.”
He shook his head, again. “There’s a special fight program we use. Even if they had one of our systems, it wouldn’t provide the right code to silence the alarms on my fighter. Every battle has a new and unique code that isn’t generated until we launch for that specific fight.”
Fury darkened his mother’s gaze. “When I find out who fired on you, there will be blood shed for it.”
Talyn stared at the wall without responding. There was only one Andarion who’d have dared it.
He had no idea why that bastard had such a hard-on for him. But he did. And there was nothing his mother could do. She couldn’t even get Talyn reassigned to another post. So he said nothing. All the truth would do was upset her. She’d never handled it well whenever something was out of her control. Especially when it involved him and his well-being. Then her guilt kicked in and Talyn hated seeing that in her eyes.
It wasn’t her fault that his father had abandoned her while she’d been pregnant. That was solely on Fain Hauk’s shoulders. He was the irresponsible bastard who’d impregnated her and walked away without looking back.
The only thing she’d done wrong was give up her life and prestige to keep Talyn. While there were times he wished he’d never been born, he’d never regretted his mother staying with him. His life would have been infinitely worse had she given him up. While Orphans with no paternal or maternal lineages were technically above his Caste in their rigid society, they were completely ineligible for the military. His role would have been that of an opinionless servant, forced into the most menial of jobs.
Taking his mother’s hand, he held it to his heart.
“I love you, Talyn,” she whispered, kissing his temple.
Talyn tightened his grip on his mother’s hand, but didn’t speak. His gratitude to her was too great to be trivialized by words that couldn’t convey the depth of what he really felt.
He reached for Felicia and took her hand, too. “My two munataras. I couldn’t ask for better company.”
“Well, look at this . . . and here I was feeling sorry for your rotten ass. Hell, for two such gorgeous females to dote on me, I’d set myself on fire, too.”
Snorting, Talyn glanced to the door to see Erix joining them. “Sure you would. You cry over a hangnail.”
With his arms crossed over his chest, Erix moved to stand at the foot of the bed so that he could scowl at Talyn. “How you feeling, kid?”
“Like I’ve gone a few too many rounds with you.”
Erix tsked at him. “Flattery will only get you an extra hour of laps.”
“You always threaten that, but you never do it.”
“‘Cause you’re so pretty, you remind me of my daughter.” Erix glanced over to Talyn’s mother. “Any word on when they might release him?”
“Once they ease him back on solid food for a full day without any complications, they’ll let him go home.”
He nodded. “I’ll have Ferrick reschedule a few fights.”
“Ferrick’s going to kill me.”
Erix scoffed. “Don’t worry about that old buzzard. I’ll take care of him. You focus on getting better.”
Talyn nodded. “I’ll get out of here as soon as possible.” He had no intention of staying in this bed one minute longer than was absolutely necessary. But as he listened to his mother and Erix talk, his memory began to slowly fill in details of his mission.
More than that, he remembered why Syndrome had sent him flowers.
Anatole was seriously abusing his power and Talyn had challenged him. Apparently, this was how the royal prick answered a legitimate invitation.
Fine, bitch. If Anatole didn’t want to face him in the Ring like a true Andarion, Talyn would go over his head and report him.
One way or another, he’d end this.
Alone in his room, Talyn sneered at the news report that covered their battle against The Tavali.
“Colonel Anatole emerged as the hero of the day. With seven kills, he single-handedly saved his unit and the lives of every Andarion who fought beside him. Andaria owes a tremendous debt to the royal family member. We’re lucky to have one such as he on our side.”
Talyn turned it off before he threw-up, just on principal. Ridiculous.
His link buzzed. Thinking it was his mother or Felicia checking in with him, he answered without reviewing the ID.
It was Command. “Major Batur, we have received your report and the prime commander has gone over it. We wanted to make sure that you are willing to stand by what you’ve written as it seriously contradicts what Colonels Anatole and Pinara have reported.”
He scowled. “What do you mean?”
A file popped up on his link. “They claim that you are the one who has been propositioning the females in your squad, and Colonel Anatole has sworn testimony from six different females who say that you have behaved inappropriately with them. The commander is currently reviewing the rest of your file to see if a demotion is in order. So again, I ask you, do you wish to submit your report and have it part of your record?”
Talyn couldn’t breathe as those words sank in and he realized Syndrome had thrown him to the wolves for daring to help her. “What exactly did Colonel Pinara say?”
“She claims you have accosted her on two separate occasions, and that she’s seen you expose yourself to other females in your squad.”
Talyn ground his teeth. So, he’d put his ass on the line for Syndrome and she’d sold him out. Minsid hell.
Why was he even surprised?
“Do you wish to proceed with your report, Major?”
The suicidal part of Talyn was ready to see it through, but the saner half of his brain knew better. He was a lack-Vest bastard. Without corroboration, no one would ever believe him. Not against a member of the royal family.
The nail that stands out gets hammered down. The old Andarion proverb went through his head. And he was tired of taking those blows.
Screw this shit.
“No. Please destroy the report.”
“Very well. You should know that when you return to duty, the commander wants you to report to his office for disciplinary action.”
Of course he did. “Duly noted.” Talyn hung up and fought the urge to destroy his link.
This was bullshit.
He’d just put his link away when it rang with the armada’s tone. What fresh hell is this? There was no way it could be good.
His gut knotted, he answered it to find Anatole on the other end.
“You think you’re smart, mongrel? You’re lucky I caught this. And I promise you that as bad as you think you’ve had it, it’s nothing compared to what you’re going to face when you’re cleared for duty again. I swear, you will regret the day you ever decided to don an Andarion uniform. End of the day, I own your sorry ass. And I intend to make you bow down to your betters and lick my boots.” Anatole hung up.
Talyn growled low in his throat as reality kicked him hard. Why had he bothered to stand up for someone else?
Now . . .
He was going down in flames and no one would be there to help him through this. No one.
Born in sin.
No matter what, you’ll never win . . .
In that moment, he wanted the throat of every Andarion ever born. But none more so than his own father’s.
And that of every member of the Anatole blood line.
“Thank the gods, you’re here.”
Felicia frowned at the nurse as she left the lift and approached their station in the hallway. Her heart pounded in fear. She’d only left Talyn long enough to go to her final. Had he taken a turn for the worse during her absence?
I should have never left him.
Her face a mask of horror, the nurse gestured toward Talyn’s room. “That . . . male is the most infuriating, surly, nasty beast to ever breathe! We’re down to drawing straws to see who has to go in to check his vitals.”
Felicia gaped at the female. “What?”
“You know he signed the orders yesterday that we couldn’t give him anything without his express approval?”
“Well now, he’s in extreme pain and he refuses to eat. He can’t sleep. He takes the head off anyone who goes near him. And if we don’t get food into him, we’re going to have reinsert a feeding tube. And none of us want to do that, for fear of what he’ll do to us to retaliate. . . . The doctor’s in a meeting, right now, trying to overturn Batur’s right to refuse treatment or get him kicked out.”
Felicia was aghast. “Where’s his mother?”
“She had to leave not long after you did. He’s been impossible ever since.”
Felicia shook her head. “All right. I’ll deal with him. Where’s his food?”
The nurse went to her station and returned with a tray. She handed it to Felicia. “May the gods be with you.”
Unsure of what he’d do to her, she headed to his room and gently pushed the door open to find Talyn with his arm bent over his eyes.
“I told you, I didn’t want to be disturbed,” he snarled. “Get the fuck out!”
“Okay. If that’s really what you want. I’ll go.”
He immediately uncovered his eyes. “Licia?” he breathed her name like a prayer.
She stood in the doorway with the tray. “You want me to stay or go?”
Nearing his bed, she glanced to his monitors and cringed at what she saw there. She set the tray aside. “Oh sweetie, you need to take something for the pain.”
“I can’t. Once they release me, I can’t take anything. You know that. I need it out of my system as soon as possible.”
“Tay . . .”
“Lis, you know I can’t. Please, don’t nag me. I’m in enough pain.”
She placed her hand against his cheek. “Okay. Can I use pressure points with you?”
Swallowing hard at the sympathetic ache she felt for him, she sat on the bed and started rubbing his temples. A single tear slid from the corner of his eye. She kissed it away before she moved down to his neck so that she could massage him. He didn’t speak a single word while she worked.
Within a few minutes, she had his blood pressure almost back to a normal range.
“Breathe with me,” she whispered. “In deep. Hold. One. Two. Three. Now out.” She kept doing that until his res and heart rate were back down, too. “Good Hammer.”
He actually gave a half laugh at that.
She moved to rub his arm and shoulder while she continued to force him to breathe deeply. “Better?”
“No.” He grimaced irritably. “How much can one body hurt and not kill you?”
“A lot. But then you know that better than I do.”
He clenched his teeth.
“Breathe through it, baby.” She used the pressure point in his hand to distract his brain from whatever was hurting him.
He followed her lead.
“Now can you eat for me? If you don’t, you’ll have to go back and fight in the Mean Weight Division. Think of all the puny males you’ll have to go through to get back to Zoftiq.”
“You’re not funny.”
“I’m funny-looking. I have big ears. It’s why I keep my hair long and never wear it up.”
He lifted his hand to finger her lobe. “Your ears are perfect.”
“You’re delusional from your pain.”
He laughed again.
Felicia pulled the tray stand over to the bed and uncovered his food. “Let’s see what we have here. Hmm . . . it’s got to be better than the shite you normally eat.”
“I’ve never heard you swear before.”
“I don’t often.” She picked up the small pudding cup and fed him a bite. “How’s that?”
“Tastes like shit.”
She narrowed her eyes at his surly tone before she took a bite of it.
“I’m seeing for myself. And it’s quite good. I think the crap you call food has destroyed your tastebuds.”
Talyn stroked her cheek with the backs of his fingers. Since Anatole’s call, he’d felt like utter hell. But somehow, just her gentle presence made him feel better.
He’d give anything if he could just stay with her and forget everything else in his life.
But the gods had never been that merciful to him.
“How did your test go?”
“Pretty sure I aced it. Your mom is a great study partner. She really knows her stuff.”
“Yeah, she grew up in a hospital, with her parents.”
She fed him a bite of the soft sandwich before she ran her finger along the stubble on his chin. “They didn’t shave you?”
“I wouldn’t let them. I was such an ass that I feared they might slit my throat if I let them get that close to me with a razor.”
She snorted. “You shouldn’t be that way.”
“I know. I was trying to be good. But it hurts so much . . . and I don’t like them as much as I like you.”
“Yes, but you need to be nice to Andarions who give you shots.”
“If you say so.”
“Dear gods! What did you do? Perform an exorcism?”
Laughing, Felicia looked to the door to see his gaping doctor. “No. I just beat him down. I might be smaller, but I’m meaner.”
The doctor snorted as he came in to check Talyn’s vitals while she continued to feed him. “It’s a good thing your girlfriend came in when she did. I just went over your head to get permission to knock you unconscious if you get unmanageable again.”
The doctor gaped again. “He even apologizes. Holy Andaria.” He looked incredulously at Felicia. “That’s it. I’m calling your school and telling them to send a proctor over with your exams. You’re not allowed to leave until we release him. I’m dead serious. What school do you attend?”
“No wonder their tuition is so high.” The doctor scowled at Talyn’s vitals. “This is the best he’s been since we admitted him. Incredible. What did you do?”
“Basic trigger points. A little PT massage.”
“Keep it up. Can I get you anything else?”
She glanced to the tray. “He needs more protein than this and he likes citrus. Could you please put an order in for it?”
“Absolutely. If you need anything else, just let me know.”
Talyn pulled her hand to his lips so that he could nibble her fingertips. “Some privacy would be better.”
“You’re not well enough for that.”