MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
This looked like a damn good place to die. And at least it wasn’t blistering hot.
Grimacing in pain, Dagger Ixur pressed his hand against the wound that was slowly killing him and stepped inside the dive hole where some of the worst vermin of the Nine Worlds had crawled to find refuge from the blistering binary suns of Steradore.
His breathing labored, he hid his agony behind a mask of steeled boredom and made his way to a back table where he sat down, making sure to keep his wound concealed. Like rabid animals, the creatures here would attack en masse should they suspect for even the hair of a nanosecond he was incapable of defending himself.
Especially given the massive bounty on his head.
Hell, if he had a brain, he’d turn himself in for that amount of cred. At least it would get him a good meal for the first time in four years.
But then, he couldn’t spend it if he was dead.
“There’s a thirty crona minimum to occupy this space. You got thirty cronas, slag?”
Dagger sneered at the smug purple-skinned humanoid waitress. She had no idea that she was talking to a former prince who’d once been heir to two of the largest fortunes in the universe.
But that was years ago.
Today, he was heir of shit and shit’s second cousin. And if he wasn’t on the brink of death, he wouldn’t have thirty cronas to waste on the watered-down, fifth-rate, synthetic hooch they no doubt served here.
Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the coins and tossed them on the table. “Tondarion Fire.”
She swept the creds into her palm and examined them to make sure they weren’t counterfeit. Then without a word, she went to fetch his drink.
Adjusting his dark red-tinted glasses to make sure they kept his betraying eyes concealed, Dagger expelled an exhausted breath, hoping he lived long enough to taste the knock-off garbage he’d just ordered. At the rate he was bleeding …
It won’t hurt much longer.
Sadly, he didn’t know what burned his blackened soul more. The poisoned knife wound or the raw fact that as he sat here bleeding out, he had no one to call and say a final goodbye to. No one who would give a single shit that he would be dead in less than half an hour.
A scuffle to his right drew his attention.
Immediately on alert, he reached with his left hand for his blaster, expecting it to be more enforcers or assassins after him.
He relaxed as he saw nothing more than two filthy humans and an alien hauling a scraggly boy in chains. From the looks of it, the kid was probably a crew member being punished or a prisoner being transferred.
No more than fifteen or sixteen, the boy with white-blond hair jerked away from a much larger and older male. Hissing, he exposed a set of fangs in a specific, insulting manner that was known as fanging someone. Dagger frowned at that particular defiant and aggressive gesture.
The boy was Andarion with that hair color?
For a full minute, Dagger thought he was hallucinating from blood loss as he saw in his mind not the child in front of him, but his own fraternal twin brother, Nykyrian. Though there were legends of other blond Andarions who had existed at one time, Nykyrian was the only white-haired Andarion Dagger had ever seen in the flesh. The rest of that breed had been brutally put to death long before he and his brother had been born. Hunted down and exterminated for that trait and any other ability or skill their grandmother had deemed an inherent threat to her reign and authority.
Because yeah, really, she was that insecure a bitch.
The larger alien slugged the boy.
“Don’t bruise my merchandise!” the buyer snarled. “I’ll only pay half the creds he’s worth if he’s damaged.”
Dagger winced at those harsh words. Slavers out to make a quick profit off the poor kid’s innocence and beauty.
Like the other occupants who didn’t seem to care at all, he started to stay out of it. But then, he’d lived his whole life in selfish fear surrounded by those who were only out for themselves. And what had it gotten him?
An early death on a backwater planet, bleeding out alone.
No friends. No family.
Once he was dead and gone, these maggots would raid his corpse for his meager creds, weapons, and ring, and dump his remains like forgotten garbage.
He was going to die. That was a given.
But he did have a choice in whether he went quietly …
Or fighting his way to the gods, doing some good for a scared child who might have a future out of this. A boy who needed to be at home with his family and friends. Not in the hands of these callous, money-grubbing bastards.
Four years ago when Dagger had finally faced the truth in a broken mirror of a filthy bathroom, and stood sober for the first time in over a decade, he’d seen what a piece of shit he really was. In that instant, he’d forever buried the selfish, terrified prince who’d been bullied and cowed by everyone around him, and been reborn that night as the fearless survivor Dagger Ixur who was done taking orders and trying to please his worthless, back-stabbing family.
Someone who wasn’t a total scabbing bastard.
While the chemically-numbed Jullien eton Anatole would have walked away and not cared what happened to the boy, the stone-cold killer Dagger damn sure wouldn’t.
Rising to his feet, Dagger slowly slid his coat back, and moved his hand to his blaster grip to show them clearly that the clock on their lives had begun to click down. The only way to stop it now was for them to make the right decision. “Let the kid go.”
The larger thug who was planning to buy the boy, turned to sneer at him. “Well … what have we here? Aren’t you a fancy one?”
Dagger arched a brow. “What? Because I bathed a week ago? Really?” He was filthy, sweating and bleeding, and wearing clothes that should have been burned a year ago, at least. He smelled like the back end of something dead and rotten. Disgusting truthfully. Even he was offended by his stench. How in the universe would anyone consider this fancy?
Then again, if one considered the source …
Yeah, he was rather fancy, after all.
“Just shoot him, Eben, and get it over with.”
When Eben moved to comply with his accomplice, Dagger drew his blaster lightning fast and shot first. The blast landed right between the man’s eyes with unerring aim.
While Dagger might not be the trained League assassin his brother was, he’d always been an incredibly accurate shot—thanks to too many years of a VR shooter gaming addiction, and a need to feed his obsessive paranoia that one day one of his many obloquious cousins would find the nerve to take aim for his back.
Chaos erupted as patrons screamed and ran, and the owner and bouncers moved in to control them, and disarm Dagger.
Yeah, like that would happen so long as he was alive.
Ducking, he shot three more of them.
The other human attacked. Dagger caught the man and kicked him sideways at the same time their alien rodent-shaped friend came for his back. He knocked him away and quickly unshackled the boy.
Dagger took a second to make sure the kid wasn’t hurt before he handed him his link, and wallet that contained his royal Andarion signet ring. It was the only thing of monetary value he had left from his past. The only thing he hadn’t pawned or outright sold. He had no idea why he’d kept it—honestly, he wasn’t sentimental. Yet he hadn’t been able to part with it for some unknown reason.
Lastly, he reached to the holster at the small of his back and gave the kid the one thing he owned that meant anything to him.
His fully charged reserve blaster.
The boy scowled as Dagger closed the kid’s hands around the items. He released the biolock on the blaster’s trigger so the boy could shoot it if he had to.
Dagger inclined his head to him. “There’s enough in there to get you home to your parents. Make sure you call and let them know you’re safe. Shoot anyone who tries to hurt or stop you. Anyone. You get home, chizzi. Whatever it takes. Conscience be damned. I mean it. Don’t stop for anything. Let no one do you harm.”
He saw the others rising to come for them. “Run!” he snapped at the kid before he grabbed a chair and swung it at the smelly rodent.
The boy didn’t go far. Rather, he doubled back and grabbed Dagger’s coat. “You better follow me or they’ll have you for sure.”
“What do you mean?”
The boy leaned in to whisper. “I know who you are … tiziran.”
Dagger stepped back out of habit, then caught himself. Why he bothered, he had no idea. There was nothing more the boy could do to him. He couldn’t believe he was still alive. Especially given the way his heart was pounding poison through his body and how profusely he kept bleeding.
As they neared the door, another group of outlaws came in, armed and ready for war.
By their gear, they were Tavali pirates. Shit …
Bad timing and bad luck were still courting him like the last male on an all-matron planet. The Tavali were only about profit. They would gut him even faster than the derelicts in this bar. And there was no telling what they’d do to the chizzi.
Dagger pulled the boy behind him, ready to fight them to the bitter end to keep the kid safe. Even though he doubted he had another charge left on his main blaster, he angled it for their female leader, who took aim at his head.
“Stop! Don’t shoot!” Before Dagger could prevent it, the boy ran out from behind him and put himself between them. “He saved me, Mum.”
The targeting dot lowered to hover over Dagger’s heart, unwavering. “What?”
“It’s true.” The boy gestured at the bodies on the ground. “He freed me and was helping me escape.”
His legs suddenly weak, Dagger tried to stay steady as a loud buzzing began in his ears, but he couldn’t. Anymore than he could continue to hold his blaster that had instantly gained a hundred pounds and aim it. Instead, he focused on the only thing that mattered to him. “Are you safe from harm, akam?”
Nodding, he lowered his arm, dropped his blaster, then sank to the floor before everything went dark.
* * *
Relieved to find her son alive, Ushara blinked back tears and holstered her blaster as she saw the huge, muscled Andarion male go down without a fight. She visually checked the remaining threat level, which was currently minimal.
But that wouldn’t last. They’d violated too many laws in her quest to find her only child and it could get hot in here fast. Not that she’d cared. Her boy had been threatened—for Vasili’s life, she’d violate any law, any where, any time.
And raze this entire planet to a crisp.
Her baby had been all that had mattered to her. And it was still her priority. Vasili’s tracker had been on its last bar. Another five minutes and they’d have lost him completely. Had his kidnappers moved him one more time, she’d have never found him.
Tears and panic filled her and threatened to overwhelm her as she realized how close she’d come to never seeing her baby boy again. She still couldn’t breathe for it.
But they had to get out of here before they were all taken and jailed. She’d tremble and fall apart later. Right now she had to secure everyone’s safety. “Vas! We need to go. Now!”
Her son knelt by the male’s side. “Not without him.”
Her stubborn little progeny had the audacity to jut his chin out and defy her. “He saved me, Mum. Risked his own life to do it. For no reason at all. We help those who help us. That’s what you’ve always told me, isn’t it?”
“Don’t you dare throw my words in my face. Not right now.”
“It’s not enough that we voice good intentions. We must back them with action.”
She growled at her child and his stubborn defiance. He had far too much of his father in his blood.
Worse? He had far too much of her in him. A fact brought home as her brother, who stood at her back, dared to laugh at Vasili’s defiant stubbornness.
“Fine!” Growling, she gestured at the lump on the floor and ordered her brother to claim it as part of their clean up of this very bad situation. “Drag him to the ship and be quick about it. We don’t want to be here when any authorities arrive.”
They’d moved so fast to get to this backwoods rock to find her baby, they still wore Tavali markings and gear. As well as had stolen cargo on board the fastest ship that had been docked in their station. When word had come that Vasili had been kidnapped by slavers, she’d recklessly commandeered that ship for this venture. And if they were caught, they could all be executed for it.
For that matter, it wasn’t even her ship or crew. Rather, they were a united force of stray Tavali consisting of volunteers from her brothers’, cousin’s, and sisters’ crews and any pirate willing to help rescue her child.
They were far from Tavali friendly territory, and flying with no allies or backup. What the lot of them had done was all kinds of stupid. They hadn’t even done preliminary or safety checks on the ship to ensure it was space-worthy before taking off. All they’d known was that Vas was in trouble and they had a sort-of location for him, and a very limited amount of time to find him before he was lost forever.
Yeah, in retrospect, bad idea.
Trajen was right. When it came to her son, she had no common sense.
“Hey!” the owner called as they started for the door. “What about the mess in my bar?”
Ushara turned on the man with a glower, aghast at his indignation. “You allowed those scabs to use your establishment as a place to sell my child, and you think I owe you payment for what happened during his rescue?” She glanced back to her precious blond-haired baby. Barely thirteen, he looked older to those who didn’t know better.
Just a child that they had planned to rob of his innocence. Sell for things that enraged her to a level she couldn’t even begin to calm down from.
“You’re right. I do owe you.” She shot him where his heart should have been, then followed after her crew.
Zellen met her at the door with a fierce grimace. “That was unwise.”
“Don’t you dare lecture me, Gondarion. In the mood I’m in, I’ll shoot you, too. Besides, killing anyone who’d sell a child is a public service. I should get a medal.”
Her adjutant wisely held his hands up and stepped out of her path. Which wasn’t something he did lightly or often. In his late forties, the bald human male was still ripped and physically able to outmaneuver or outfight most anyone half his age—yet not even he wanted to tangle with Ushara when she was this angry and it involved the well-being of her one, sacred child.
The only reason Zellen was grounded these days came from an injury he’d sustained a decade ago that had severely limited his peripheral vision. That single injury kept him from flying. But not from fighting, or being one of her most valued staff members.
Without a word, Zellen followed her back to the bay and on board the ship where Vasili was waiting.
While the crew quickly prepared the launch and stowed the Andarion male in the infirmary, she examined her boy, to make sure no one had harmed him. She hugged him close, then cupped his chin in her palm. “Did they hurt you?”
“Mum, stop! Not a baby. I’m fine. Really. Thanks to the male who saved me. Where is he?”
“Where you don’t need to worry about him. You’ve caused enough stress and problems for one lifetime. Harness yourself in for the launch.”
“Don’t Mom me, Vas. Get in your seat.”
Rolling his eyes, Vasili obeyed while mumbling a complaint under his breath.
Ushara fanged her child behind his back so that he wouldn’t know exactly how upset she was at him right now for the dangerous position he’d put them all in.
It was a good thing she’d struggled to birth him, otherwise the urge to strangle him would be enough that she might give in to it. This was the second time she’d almost lost him in his lifetime. The second time her world had tilted on its axis and left her feeling out of control. And she knew for a fact that if something had happened to Vasili, she wouldn’t survive it.
As strong as she liked to think she was, she knew the bitter truth. It would emotionally kill her to stand over the grave of her child. Vasili was everything to her. The mere thought of losing him left her in a state of hysteria that terrified her to unspeakable levels.
She was still shaking from the news that Vas had been taken. Honestly, she didn’t know if she’d ever stop at this point. She was so glad to have him safe with her again. To know they’d gotten here in time.
Thanks to that unknown Andarion male they now had possession of. A few minutes more and the auction for her son would have been completed—then Vas would have been lost to her forever.
But now to bring a stranger back home with them …
Trajen’s going to kill me.
Her boss didn’t like unknown variables of any kind and dragging a guest into any of their bases or territory was definitely a variable that would piss him off to no uncertain end. While necessity and high bounties had taught them all to be extremely xenophobic, Trajen made the rest of them look downright reckless in comparison to his extreme paranoia.
“Admiral? We need you on deck. They’re being pissy with us about granting launch clearance.”
Of course they were. Not like she and her crew weren’t here on forged papers, in a stolen ship, with stolen cargo and hadn’t just blasted their way into a bar and killed its owner. Gee? You’d think they’d give them the key to the city. Right?
Bitterly amused, she double checked Vas’s harness, then looked to Zellen. “Make sure he stays put.”
Zellen buckled himself in beside Vas and glowered at him. “He’s not moving, Admiral.”
Satisfied her child was quelled and secure, she went to deal with the next round of fun.
As she stepped onto the flight deck, she tapped her earlink. “This is Vice Admiral Ushara Altaan. May I ask why we haven’t been given clearance?”
“Um … Admiral, we were told that you took a fugitive on board your ship without proper clearance or warrants.”
Oh wait, this was a new, unexpected twist. Ushara glared at the man on the monitor in front of her. “Don’t be ridiculous. My son—”
“Not your son, Admiral. The Andarion prince.”
Oh, okay. The comptroller was obviously high.
She laughed at the absurdity. “I didn’t bring any prince on board. Are you out of your mind?”
The comptroller shot a photo up on her screen of a much cleaner and rotund version of the scrappy vagabond who’d just saved her son’s life from the slavers. “Jullien eton Anatole. Andarion tiziran and former heir. Has an outstanding League bounty. Thrill-Kill termination warrant.” Then he showed footage of them in the bar. “Is this not the same male you carried on board your ship?”
Of course it was. ’Cause the gods had had it out for her since the day she was born.
But as she stared at the photo on her screen of a tall arrogant prince full of regal snobbery, all she could think about was the way the determined male had looked as he stood ready to defend her child with his last breath. His words to Vas—are you safe, boy—before he allowed himself to surrender to his injuries.
Don’t be stupid, Shara. He’s a prince of the family that destroyed your race. Hand him over and be done with it. Give him what he deserves. What all Anatoles deserve. A brutal death, in the worst way imaginable.
They should all be put to death, in screaming agony. That was what they did to everyone else.
It was what she should do.
She glanced to the monitor that showed Vas biting nervously at his nails as he held a small stack of items in his lap.
To be rather than to seem. That was the motto her husband had lived by. The words he’d wanted her to impart to their son.
Worse, she heard her own father’s words in her head.
We do not repay mercy with murder. Kindness grows kindness, and you will reap the harvest of whatever seeds you sow.
Hitting mute, she turned her back to the screen so that she could speak to her crew. “Buckle up. Admiral at the helm.”
All around her, her crew exploded into acts of defiant protests, and with making quick religious gestures.
“Sacred Mother preserve us!”
“Sacred Father save us!”
“Saints have mercy!”
“I didn’t sign up for this shit!”
“Open the hatch! I want to surrender!”
Ushara rolled her eyes as they continued whining like small children. “Oh bite it, you big bunch of nancies. You’re supposed to be hardened pirates. Act like it.”
Even her brother was whimpering.
Her cousin, Gavin, who was actually the one who’d stolen this ship on his most recent Tavali raid, took up the guns. “We are, but damn, Shara … just damn.”
The only one who was smiling was her child. Through the monitor, she saw Vasili in his seat, grinning ear to ear as Ushara assumed the controls, while the comptroller continued to demand she release the prince to their custody.
Popping open the channel, Ushara cleared her throat. “Sorry, I was intentionally ignoring you as we armed up and took launch positions. Now, let me explain what’s going to happen. You will clear the way for us, or we’re blasting out and taking a shit-ton of your people with us as we go.”
“I don’t think you understand. We have canons aimed at you.”
“You mean, you did. They are now deactivated.” She continued to plow through their system as they tried to lock her out. Smiling, she shook her head. “Who programmed your security? An infant? My son was creating tougher protocols as a toddler.” She opened the door. “Back your patrols down. I don’t want to kill anyone for doing their jobs, but I will if they try to stop us.”
Ushara launched to the sound of her crew screaming in dire protest.
Ignoring them, she focused on the fighters that descended on them with ion canons, locked and loaded. She bolstered the shields and flew straight up, knowing the fighters would have a hard time matching the escape velocity of her much more nimble ship. Still, they fired. She rolled and dipped, then rose again and cut a sharp left before she came out of the spiral.
Gavin and his gunners returned fire while her engineers kept the power flowing through their engines without interruption. By the time they hit open space and she was able to release the hyperdrive, half her crew had broken into sweats.
Or passed out.
Irritated, she smirked at them. “Really?”
Gavin drew a ragged breath. “Here’s the problem, Star Skream. You say, Look at me, I’m a professional. You can trust me. I won’t screw up and slam you into anything or get you blown into atoms. But … if one of us dared to fly like you just did, you’d bust our asses to slag for it.”
Folding her arms over her chest, she arched a brow at him. “Your point?”
“No point. Just letting you know I need stain remover for both my paints and the seat.”
Ushara hated the fact that she actually laughed at him. “I don’t find you charming, Captain. Take your helm.”
“Gladly.” As he resumed his seat—by crawling to it in an overly exaggerated manner—there was a raucous cheer and applause that went through the crew that he’d relieved her.
“I hear all of you!” she called out.
Ushara shook her head. She’d be more offended if she didn’t consider them her family. With an aggravated sigh, she went to check on Vasili who was still buckled in next to Zellen. “Any complaints you want to file?”
Vas shook his head. “Proud of you, Ma. Thank you for not surrendering.”
She brushed the white-blond hair back from his forehead and placed a kiss there. “No problem. Now stay here and let me see about our guest.”
“Go easy on him, okay?”
Vasili handed her the stack on his lap. “When he freed me, he gave me these and told me to use them to get home. He said that I was to call my parents and tell you that I was safe so you wouldn’t worry. And that I wasn’t to stop. No matter what.” Vas handed her the blaster. “He gave up his weapon to me, Ma … while surrounded by enemies. Who does that for someone they don’t know?”
That level of thoughtfulness and sacrifice stunned her. It wasn’t often anything caught her off guard. But that did. She wouldn’t have credited an eton Anatole capable of such feelings for anyone other than themselves.
Unable to believe it, she took the items from his hand.
First she 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 as 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 other’s 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, 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? 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.”
Copyright © 2016 by Sherrilyn Kenyon