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.”