Authors: Lindsey Piper
Tags: #Dragon Kings#1
“Why is that?” Nynn asked, jarring Leto’s thoughts.
“Initiation is no pretty process,” Hark said. “My screams may have been a tad less
than manly. Maybe just a bit. I try to be as studly as the rest of these meatheads,
but of course, there’s no keeping up with so much testosterone. I have to taunt them
with the fact I’m getting laid more than once a month.”
Silence sighed softly, as if vexed by his chatter.
“I haven’t wished for any of this.” Nynn lifted her chin and stared the jester down.
“But now it is my privilege. My right.”
“This is never going to work,” Hark muttered to Silence. He played with two shards
of black rock as if they were three-dimensional puzzle pieces. “You know that, right?
It’s impossible.” Only when she rolled her eyes and took the pieces did Hark return
to Nynn. “Anyway, wanting it or not doesn’t mean it won’t hurt. ’Cuz that thing is
Lamot, another elder who’d retired from the Cages in the good grace of the Asters,
arrived with his equipment. Nynn’s confident expression wavered only once, as she
glanced toward Leto. He met her where Lamot prepared the needle and ink.
“I have a tattoo.” Leto could not remember the feel of her silken hair in his hands,
but he would never forget her fingertips along his scalp. “Now you’ll have one, too.
The emblem of the Asters.”
She raised her brows to his shorn hair. “Didn’t that hurt?”
Her eyes added to that unfinished sentence.
Didn’t that hurt . . . considering your gift?
“Hark didn’t lie. It will hurt. Our physiology means it’s a more aggressive process
than with humans. More like scarification, infused with ink.”
“And this is the reward I get for having flattened Weil?”
“Lucky shot, neophyte,” came Weil’s reply.
Nynn turned deadly cold eyes on her. “A win’s a win.”
The woman cleared her throat and returned to a conversation she may or may not have
been having with Fam.
“Choose.” Lamot motioned to his special chair, which was outfitted with various restraints
and clasps. “Then sit.”
She eyed the chair with obvious trepidation, but she didn’t hesitate in her choice.
“My shoulder blade. Left. Armor won’t conceal it.”
Lamot nodded. As Nynn sat, he set about fastening her into a position where her upper
body was immobilized. Leto knelt before her. He took her hand. “You deserve this.
Breathe into the pain. Take it into yourself. You’ve already done and survived worse.”
Keep this woman safe.
Ulia, that twice-evil Indranan witch, had told him that. He wanted to set it aside
as the strange babble of a mad meddler, but Leto could not. A strengthening part of
to set it aside.
One day, she would be released from her captivity. He harbored no further doubts that
she could and would survive another eleven months and regain custody of her son. When
that day came, she would be released from the mental block that kept her sanity intact
and her gift contained. When she awoke, she would find her golden skin marred with
yet another scar bestowed by the Asters—their serpent on her shoulder.
He moved to stand.
She grasped his wrist. “Don’t. Stay.”
“I will. Breathe with you, remember?”
Leto no longer cared who heard or what they made
of his relationship with his neophyte.
No, not neophyte.
She was his protégé now. His partner. That meant keeping her safe. That meant keeping
her safe from a future where the Asters would scar her forever. He remained proud
to wear the symbol of their house, but Nynn would take a blade to her own skin rather
than live with their brand.
He gave her hand another squeeze before pulling free of her grip. As Lamot readied
the soldering gun and well of ink, Leto whispered in the man’s ear. “Not a serpent.
Give her the mark of the Dragon.”
eto held a bottle of
to her lips, but Nynn refused another drink. She could endure the pain more than
she could endure the embarrassment of vomiting in front of her new comrades. The strong
drink would’ve knocked a human being unconscious after a few ounces, but for Nynn,
for a Dragon King—they needed to drink it like water before feeling the numbing effects.
The warm withdrawal from her body began at her toes and crept upward. Her shoulder
blade would be among the last parts of her body to be anesthetized.
“I want to be awake,” she said to Leto, who knelt before her. The harsh lines of his
face had not eased since their exit from the Cage. Deeper in his eyes, however, she
found something like concern. He looked on her as if nothing mattered more than ensuring
that she would not only survive, but become stronger for it.
She was bent over a wide, flat attachment to the front of the chair, as if leaning
over the top of a taller, rounded student desk like . . . “Jack . . . ?” Nynn mumbled.
The first burn of the cauterizing needle scattered thought. She bit her lower lip
until she tasted blood, and
she sucked air through her nose. She would
cry out. Only hours before, Nynn had been chained to Leto and they had both emerged
victorious. There was no place for weakness in their world.
That didn’t mean the pain was easy to absorb. She flinched against it. Her body wanted
to be in charge. No wonder Lamot had strapped her to the strange chair. Those who
held any reservations about receiving the mark of their fellow warriors would’ve fled
with the first touch of the stinging needle.
The straps around her torso left her arms free. A comfort. She didn’t want to let
go of Leto’s hands. He was an amazing man. His fine, impressive armor no longer gleamed,
but the streaks of clay and blood added to his vitality. That armor wasn’t for show;
it was worn by a conqueror. The scar along his top lip was more proof. She remembered
the scars on his back, which stretched beneath crisscrossed straps of leather. For
a Dragon King to be scarred required a serious wound.
“Why do I have scars?”
Leto’s eyes widened briefly, before his stoic expression returned. He gripped her
hands more tightly and shook them, as if trying to restore feeling rather than deaden
her to the pain. “Focus. This will only get worse.”
“I don’t want to be numb.”
“That’s exactly what you’ll want. Soon.”
The straps bit into her lower back and across one shoulder. After that initial shock,
the other shoulder sizzled with slowly gathering agony. The scent of burning flesh
made her crinkle her nose, as if it emanated from someone else.
“No. I don’t want to be numb.” She hissed and shuddered. “I’ve been numb before, when . . .
Leto, why do I have scars?”
“All warriors have scars.”
She held a strangled sound in her throat. “How did you bear this? You with your senses?”
She looked for other distractions. The other warriors had resumed their relaxed celebrations,
but few kept their attention away from her for long. Flickers of interest. Curiosity
that couldn’t be contained by conversation. What sort of initiation was this, where
those she’d join treated her scarification as casual entertainment? Only Silence refused
to be bashful. She tipped her head to one side and kept her eerily black eyes trained
to where the needle dotted Nynn’s shoulder blade like never-ending bursts of fire.
What was it about the woman? Direct in her gaze, blank in her expression—in that calm
setting, she seemed like a living mannequin.
Yet she had a partner. Hark was hers, and she was his.
Nynn shut her eyes against a stab of envy that bit with the ferocity of the tattoo
“You want me to do well,” she whispered. For him. For them alone. “In all things.”
“Of course. Your success—”
“Come off it. All other reasons aside, you want me to do well. Why?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“You didn’t have to.”
was traveling up her spine. Rather than
giving Nynn the comfort she should’ve welcomed, it made her heart race faster. She
was leaving her body on a wave of panic that felt so familiar she could almost taste
fear—some old fear, like iron and lime on her tongue, mingled with the blood from
“I didn’t have to,” Leto said quietly, although she couldn’t be certain of that. Everything
sounded soft and shadowed at the edges. Her vision was covered over with shades of
coal and mud. “But I did for you.”
“Don’t want to go.” Peering through dank colors the opposite of her beautiful gift,
she saw how fiercely she gripped Leto’s hands. Her knuckles were white. They wouldn’t
be cold, not with his warmth to surround her. “They take him. If I go, they’ll take . . .”
She shuddered and hiccupped on a flash of pain that had nothing to do with the anguish
of the soldering gun.
Leto shook free of her grasp and framed her face with his hands. “Do you see me? Nynn,
look at me.”
His voice was less powerful when she was so far away, but his rumbling authority remained.
He had trained her. He had trusted her enough to fight beside him. She didn’t understand
what was happening—there in the complex, there in her mind—but she understood the
sound of his voice. What’s more, she responded to it.
“You want this,” he said. “You want a mark to prove who you are and what you’ve accomplished.
No one will ever take that from you.”
She grinned, although it felt sloppy across her lips. “You’d try if you thought it’d
make me listen.”
Leto didn’t grin. He didn’t alter the forceful hold of his hands—thumbs at her temples,
back into her hair and beneath her jaw. “Are you listening, Nynn?”
He bowed his head at that. The smallest dip. Yet his arresting stare remained fixed.
He wasn’t letting her go, not even with his gaze. “Sleep now, knowing this will be
the last time you’ll be numb. I won’t let it happen again. The pain is yours. The
pleasure is yours. I promise you that.”
She smiled again, feeling drunk, limp, gone. “You promise me pleasure?” The words
didn’t sound as if they came from her. So different. Liquid and subtle and inviting.
He lowered his mouth to her ear.
No one else can hear us,
she thought. Despite their combined efforts, she was losing him to the beckoning
darkness. Only a few more words made it through the fog. “Yes, Nynn. I promise you
♦ ♦ ♦
Leto nearly slumped with relief when Nynn passed out.
“Never seen that before,” Fam said conversationally. He lounged on one of the padded
benches, with his own bottle of
in his hand. Three empty bottles were lined up at his feet. “You sure she’s one of
With an ache in his legs borne of unfamiliar tension, Leto stood and stared down at
Fam. “She is.”
He didn’t wait to see the shorter man’s reaction, instead turning to assess Lamot’s
progress. “Nearly finished,” the old man said. “But—” He nodded toward Fam. “That
one’s not wrong. I’ve never seen anyone resist that strongly. Most are giggly on drink
before the first touch of the needle. I even heard Silence speak.”
The woman visibly flinched, which was the strongest reaction Leto had ever seen in
her outside of combat. Hark raised his brows. He wore a wide, teasing smile. Silence’s
stiff body language suggested retribution of one kind or another later.
“Really?” Weil sat forward on her knees. “And what did she say?”
Hark’s smile never wavered. “She said, ‘Shut the fuck up, you Reaper shit.’ Oh, no,
that was me. Right now. To you.”
“Out!” Leto’s shout reverberated against the far wall. “All of you. Get out.”
“Someone needs more private time with the new champion?” As if he needed more reason
to lose temper, Leto turned to find Hellix propped in the doorway to the recreation
room. “Seems your dorm would be more appropriate.” He shrugged. “Or hers. I hear tell
you would’ve lost without her today.”
Hark had gathered up his gear and his last bottle of drink, with Silence following
behind. Even Weil, still red in the face from Hark’s insult, was sensible enough to
ready her departure.
“A warrior who fights with a partner wins and loses with that partner,” Leto said.
“I want you to leave.”
“I suppose that means you don’t want to be reminded of the obvious. My whip lashes
will mark her as surely as any tattoo.”
Leto felt hewn of rock and deep, motionless rivers of ice. Good. Any other reaction
would mean crippling Hellix where he stood. He satisfied himself with the image of
, smashing it against Hellix’s skull, and praying to the Dragon that the man
woke up so he could do it again. “The subject of permanent marks is not one suited
to you. How long did they have to hold the knife against your skin? I hope you were
in more pain than you inflicted on Nynn.”