Authors: Lindsey Piper
Tags: #Dragon Kings#1
She would stay strong and learn what she could. No one would keep her from Jack. She
only prayed to the Dragon that something of her little boy would remain.
The man returned. A chunk of soap landed by her hip. She snatched it up. A scant lather
was enough to finish washing her body. She glanced behind her when she was about to
wash between her legs. He squatted on the balls of his feet, with his back against
the opposite wall. A folded pile of fresh clothes waited by his boots.
Goose bumps shivered up her wet back. He had grabbed her between the legs. The
The human laboratory guards had used her that way, when she’d been drugged and bound.
Deep instinct told her this man would want her to fight back.
Turning away, she lathered her grimy hair. A year ago, she’d lived with Caleb and
Jack in a sunny Manhattan condo overlooking a small park. Her bathroom had
been filled with sexy indulgences. Loofahs. Bath salts. Moisturizers of all scents
and purposes. It seemed so ridiculous now.
The woman she’d become appreciated a scant chunk of soap. At least it wasn’t an astringent,
hazmat-level disinfectant. Her skin had toughened, like the rest of her. This soap
was something almost . . . pleasant. A small change in the scheme of things, but a
change she desperately needed.
“Come get your clothes.”
Of course. What man would miss the opportunity to ogle a naked woman? She’d only waited
for him to command her in that rasping, broken timbre.
Clothes. Then food. Each step stretched before her like Dorothy on her way to the
Emerald City. She nearly smiled. Jack had been four the first time they’d watched
The Wizard of Oz
. The flying monkeys terrified him so badly that Caleb had traded out the DVD for
. Audrey had made popcorn. They’d let Jack stay up late to finish his favorite movie,
but he’d fallen asleep on the couch, sprawled across Caleb’s lap. Her husband, so
blond, had stroked their little boy’s wheat-pale hair.
Whatever this barbarian planned to do to her had nothing on that memory. Or the ones
that followed: Caleb shot through the heart. She’d watched him die in an instant.
Then came Jack’s screams. She’d caught sight of a Dragon King in a trench coat, just
before a hood blacked her vision—but none of the horror.
Good and bad memories burned until she couldn’t breathe. Bodily pain could be disconnected,
like flipping a switch. But messages from her heart attacked at unexpected moments.
Even when she stood wet and naked in front of a stranger.
Still shivering, she walked toward where he knelt. Never had she been so conscious
of the surgical marks left by Dr. Aster’s experiments. Some scars never healed, not
even for a Dragon King.
“Are you going to give me my clothes?”
“You have no possessions.”
She gritted her molars. “May I borrow them?”
The amusement in his eyes made her want to pluck them out. He flicked his wrist. A
tank top and plain women’s briefs landed on her wet toes. A strange leather outfit
Let him look. Dignity had been replaced by one instinct: survival.
“My little boy is named Jack,” she said softly, just to herself.
She focused on her words rather than the vulnerability that punched her heart against
The pants were tough, tanned leather lined with denim and what felt like . . . silk?
The shirt was made of the same odd combination. Both fit snugly but with enough room
to move. Had they taken her measurements while she was unconscious? Dragon be, there
existed so many ways to violate a human being.
But she wasn’t human. Never had been, no matter how many Pixar films and bags of popcorn
and bottles of lotion. That didn’t mean she could restrain the grief filling her chest
like hot sand. She needed to speak it
aloud. Audrey MacLaren had been a high school art teacher, married to a marketing
exec. So content, she’d taken it for granted.
Now, that contentment was nothing but pain.
“Jack Robert MacLaren.” Stronger echoes touched the back wall of the training room.
“He’s almost six. My husband’s name was Caleb Andrew MacLaren. He was thirty-four
when he was murdered trying to defend our son. I would’ve liked the closure of attending
his funeral. Instead, I was strapped to a laboratory table. Dr. Aster had taunted
me that no one would investigate the crimes. ‘Our family has a great deal of influence,
Mrs. MacLaren.’ He always used my married name. Salt in every wound.”
“I didn’t say you could speak.”
“So stop me.”
The beastly man stood. So damn tall. Audrey was a respectable five foot eight, but
he dwarfed her. “Is that a dare?”
“I’m doing what I was told. Why do you care what I talk about? I needed a distraction
while you slavered over me.” The clothes were armor, like wearing a fortress. Assurance
lined her bones with steel. “Did that turn you on? For a defenseless woman to shiver
and beg? If I grabbed between
legs, you servile, brainwashed dog, would you be hard? I hope not. I hope you fondle
your limp little prick tonight and cuss a blue streak because you can’t get it up.”
Massive fists bunched along his thighs. His scarred lip twitched. Eyes narrowed to
slits that glittered like deep brown topaz. A heavy pulse ticked at his temples, where
his serpent tattoo stopped short. Branded by the Asters.
“I didn’t say you could speak.” It was no idle repetition. It was a prelude to violence.
Audrey smoothed back wet hair and met his gaze. “If the Old Man wants me here, he
won’t appreciate seeing me harmed. I bet you can’t risk that,
.” She sneered the word. A warrior fights to be free, not to grovel in the dark. “So
hit me, throw me back in that cage, or get me some Dragon-damned food.”
♦ ♦ ♦
During combat, Leto would’ve laid waste to the insulting bitch. He’d have crushed
her ribs before she uttered another infuriating syllable. With the collars temporarily
disengaged, his speed and reflexes—the hallmark of Clan Garnis—would’ve made that
He couldn’t remember the last time a neophyte figured out how their relationship worked.
Symbiosis. If this woman failed to entertain, Leto would share the blame. To lose
face left him seething.
He checked his thoughts. There was always something to be done when a neophyte got
lippy—no matter how clever. No matter how fucking sexy.
Leto shut down that thought even faster. Just as he tried to forget the healed surgical
incisions on her lustrous golden skin. A violation.
“Get in your cage.”
“Go to hell.”
“You can stay out here, but I won’t feed you.”
Defiance dazzled from her bright eyes.
This time Leto was able to hide his renewed surprise that she knew how to pick her
battles. The Tigony made no secret of their disgust for the Cages. They were the
Tricksters of the Five Clans, more eager to wheedle than fight. They could storm fire
from the heavens, yet few tapped into that potential. They simply talked too much.
“Get in your cage, Nynn of Clan Tigony. Or I’ll throw you in.”
“What happened to letting me have free rein of this . . . cave?”
“That was before you insulted me.”
She shot a disdainful glance toward his crotch. “Hit a little too close to home?”
He pulled until her ear nestled against his mouth. She smelled delicious now. Fresh.
Scrubbed clean of the sweet, unnatural scent of decay that the lab refugees always
carried. He never let his mind journey to Dr. Aster’s lab. Imagination was best left
to techniques in fighting. But he couldn’t deny what his senses told him.
Whatever happened there was simply
Leto used his grip to shove her into the four-foot-square iron cage. He hated being
opponent. No one of her rank wound up in the Cages. The Tigony were practically royalty,
ever since their days as patron gods to the Greeks and Romans. Combat was saved for
the poorest, most desperate Dragon Kings. Or for those like Leto who’d fought since
early manhood to perpetuate their bloodlines. But to train the Honorable Giva’s cousin?
He threw the lock and knelt. “Your identity won’t make a difference when we train.
What will make a difference is your gift from the Dragon. And I sure as hell know
what that is.”
“My gift never manifested!”
“Save your breath.”
He said it flatly, because he’d seen proof of her destructive powers: Dr. Aster’s
lab, with its roof obliterated. Her lie was obvious.
Unless . . . unless she had been subjected to the same procedure as his sister Pell.
Leto had survived the disorientation and fear of his first manifestation, but his
sister had not. Vigorous powers required the intervention of a telepath. Sometimes
the process of installing unconscious restraints went badly. Very badly.
Leto shook off his foreboding. Time to get food. She would respond to food.
He walked away without explanation, unsurprised when her shouts followed.
He’d been confident in what to expect when first entering her training cell. Now,
he knew what she looked like naked.
He exited at the guards’ discretion and walked between them toward the mess hall.
He knew the turns and sloping underground tunnels well enough to walk with his eyes
shut. He may as well have. Images of Nynn overlaid his vision. Waist and hips designed
for a man’s hands. Supple legs to curl around a man’s lower back. Tight nipples waiting
for a man’s eager mouth.
She’d got it all wrong. He had tamped down his arousal out of sheer mental discipline.
He would not be limp when he bedded down that evening. In his private quarters, he
would indulge those erotic images and release the grinding tension she’d ratcheted
into his joints.
The mess hall was no more elaborate than Nynn’s training room, only bigger, having
been carved out of granite deep within the earth. Dozens of human workers,
all male, had gathered for the evening meal. Long wooden tables were flanked on each
side by plain benches. Durable pewter plates held beans, rice, chunks of beef, kernels
of corn, and buttered bread.
The guards accepted their meals from a stumpy man named Kilgore. “Here for your portion,
“Yes, and for my neophyte.”
“The girl? Caught a glimpse when they brought her from the lab. Is she a looker? Couldn’t
“You can be such a bore.”
Leto stood over him. “Earning the roar of a satisfied crowd is never a bore. Can you
say the same for ladling beans?”
“Don’t rub it in.” Kilgore’s puckered face didn’t need much incentive to curl in on
itself. “Not all of us can be stars in the Asters’ empire.”
The man served up dinner and assembled a second plate.
While Leto sat in the mess hall, he ate with silent relish. Quality fare. He’d heard
rumors of Dragon Kings who fought for the Townsends and Kawashimas. Some were fed
no better than scraps. Their holding cells were riddled with vermin and disease. They
fought for meager prizes. Only Dr. Aster had perfected the process of reproduction
among Dragon Kings. No one knew how he’d managed to solve the problem—or why conception
was a problem in the first place.
The two other cartels had achieved limited successes. Their warriors bore as many
insane, malformed children as ones delivered healthy and vital. It was a chance more
were willing to take by the day.
Leto, however, was a god to the Asters. Praised above all who shared this warrior’s
life. That Yeta had given birth to a healthy child meant he was more than a warrior.
He had helped pass down their bloodline. His niece, Shoshan, and the few others who
remained represented the future of Clan Garnis.
He returned his empty plate and faced Kilgore. “You ready for it?”
The small man stopped in the midst of lifting a scoop of corn. He ignored the thin,
sallow-faced worker who waited for his food. Nearly every human in the compound looked
that way—pale, sunken, wasted. Life underground turned them into two-legged moles.
Leto hid his disgust. For millennia, the Dragon Kings had ruled over these people,
and for good reason. Mere herd animals.
He only wore the Asters’ collar because he benefited.
“Go on, then.” Kilgore’s dark, beady eyes were eager. “Her tits. Tell me.”
“Small but shapely.”
“Tight buds. Dusky. Best I’ve seen in years.”
A shudder of pleasure jerked the loose skin along Kilgore’s jowls. “You really are
without peer, my friend.”
Leto hid a scowl. He counted no humans among his friends—as if such a word existed
for him. Sharing physical details about his neophytes spoke to Kilgore in the language
of small minds. His lust for news about new arrivals was insatiable. Kilgore would
embellish those curt descriptions, earn clout among the workers,
and spread proof of Leto’s superiority. Such men eagerly bet on their favorite champion.
Distasteful. But necessary.
Leto took up the second plate of food. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a neophyte