Authors: Lindsey Piper
Tags: #Dragon Kings#1
As if nothing had happened, the Dragon Kings offered their wrists and accepted their
manacles. Leto was shocked by the urge to fight back. His imprisonment was real. The
heavy metal cuffs biting into Nynn’s slender wrists were real.
As was the one-two-three thump of the Old Man’s shuffling rhythm.
His steps echoed down the corridor long before he came into view. Perhaps he took
to the shadows on purpose. Even Leto could not discern the exact shape of his body
as he approached. That should’ve been possible, even while wearing the collar.
Other steps followed: one set assured, one like a ballerina on tiptoe.
Cold swept across Leto’s skin. Nynn had been able to mask her true feelings when faced
with Hellix. But when faced with Dr. Aster? The man who’d abused her and who still
held her son prisoner?
Leto could only trust that her mind was clear enough for strategy. Otherwise, he’d
be forced to make a choice—one that shook him to his bones. He could play along just
as well, hoping for the guarantee for Pell’s care to be honored, or he could risk
his sister’s safety by jumping to Nynn’s defense.
♦ ♦ ♦
Nynn felt each and every one of her scars.
Not the ones Hellix had carved into her back, although she knew they were there. They
would heal in time.
No, the scars she felt were burning reminders of hell. They scorched beneath her skin,
where cauterizing blades had rendered even Dragon King cells unable to heal. She looked
down at her left hand and remembered the anguish of when Dr. Aster had broken each
middle knuckle. No one else would ever notice the difference, but she did. Her fingers
didn’t line up just right.
And he held her son captive, if Jack was still alive.
She banked a shudder and cut that thought off at the
knees. Jack was alive. She would’ve felt it carved into her marrow, had he been killed.
She’d endured that grinding agony when Caleb was murdered.
Her task, as it had always been, was to keep her boy safe. That meant suppressing
the nearly overwhelming urge to jump on Dr. Aster, wrap the manacle chains around
his neck, and smile as he turned the color of a bruise. She would snap his neck.
A glance at Leto’s profile revealed the same determination. He was trusting her, just
as he had in the Cages. He was trusting her to remember all her training, and that
his sister’s future was on the line, too.
I hate them. I hate them all for what they’ve done to us.
Because she and Leto were in this together.
She realized now that he had saved her from wearing their mark forever—the serpent
that circled his skull. She owed him so many different apologies. She’d never get
to tell him if she gave hint of her true feelings.
“Leto.” The Old Man’s voice was as raspy as dead leaves. “You did not emerge as champion.”
“My apologies, sir.”
“No apologies.” His warped smile was a chilling reminder that while Nynn hated the
doctor, he was born of equally maniacal stock. “Silence and Hark performed wonderfully,
as did you both. The family made a fortune today.”
The Sath pair were infuriating in their ability to match completely blank expressions.
Even Hark, the smiling bastard, registered no emotion. Plans and tests and weak links.
The Tigony were not the only tricksters among the Five Clans.
Nynn was still missing too many pieces to keep up.
The Old Man grinned and leaned heavily on his cane. “Your performance couldn’t have
been more entertaining. I’m very pleased.”
“I’m glad of that, sir,” Leto replied. He sounded humbled but no less arrogant—quite
“And you, Nynn of Tigony? How do you feel?”
“Gratified that I did my duty for the family.” She couldn’t quite make herself say
, when calling Leto by that title of respect had become a teasing joke between them.
“Good, good.” The Old Man ushered his son into the conversation. “You kept your partner
whole for three matches. Such a remarkable job of training such a stubborn mind.”
Nynn remembered a time in the recent past—Dragon be, so many memories returning—when
Leto would’ve taken genuine pleasure in such praise. She didn’t dare assess his expression
to see if that was still the case.
Trust. Oh, Dragon damn. Just . . . trust.
“You not only survived, Nynn, but thrived in your natural element. I knew you would
become remarkable. Your part in tonight’s drama was equally important.” He spread
his hands. “Although you didn’t technically win the fight, I offer your choice of
She felt rather than saw Dr. Aster become more attentive. He’d studied her for more
than a year. He knew her weaknesses better than she knew her own. But those had been
the weaknesses of a distant, grieving woman named Audrey. The sadistic doctor had
no idea who she was now.
Leto had said.
Shutting away the request that Jack be freed was almost simple, but not without pain.
She knew what she needed to do—stay hidden—and she would not deviate from that goal.
Although she would never sacrifice him for a moment of selfish comfort, she was able
to ask for that comfort when there was no choice to make.
“I didn’t technically win the fight,” she said, purposefully echoing his words. “But
I would ask for the reward offered a winning warrior. I want a partner tonight. I
ask to share Leto’s bed.”
Again, Leto stiffened. She was as attuned to him as she was to her own breath. Anyone
with his senses would’ve been able to read them both like fresh newsprint. The men
she faced were beasts in anonymous gray suits, but they were still human.
The Pet, however . . .
Hands clasped around the doctor’s upper arm, she made a noise that sounded more feline
than human. Contentment? Appreciation? Nynn didn’t think it was because she’d chosen
Leto over another warrior. Instead, the strange woman looked up with an expression
of having shared a secret victory.
Pale, ethereal, possibly insane, the Pet
a Dragon King. If Nynn had ever doubted, she knew it as fact now. But what clan was
she? What power did she possess?
“Request granted,” the Old Man said. “I’m glad to see that the Cages have brought
out the more carnal side to a Tigony. No one would’ve expected that, but I enjoy seeing
arrogance brought low.”
He glanced toward Leto. He might as well have hunted for signs of life in granite.
“Now, Leto, the time has come to honor the promise
we made. Pell will no longer be a burden to Yeta and her young family. You will never
need to worry about her future. My son will assume responsibility for her care. She
will live out the rest of her days within the safety of his personal residence.”
“His personal residence, sir?”
“Yes, my champion.” A cagey, disgusting glint matched in the eyes of both father and
son. “My son never likes to be far from his work. He lives in the labs. And so will
eto needed Nynn’s kindness. Wanted it. Knew his sanity depended on it.
Yet they sat side by side on the bed in his room, not touching. He hadn’t moved since
their return, when they’d cleaned and changed clothes. He couldn’t move now. His heart
had been carved out with a machete. It no longer beat. It no longer had reason to.
“You held your niece,” she whispered. “You told me so.”
His throat ached. He wanted to claw at it until the collar fell away or his head popped
off. Death for a Dragon King. He deserved it after trusting such twisted men. He’d
believed their promises, dispatched dozens at their command, and brought damned and
innocents alike into the fold—training them, yes, but feeding them the same brainwashed
Only Nynn had ever gotten it right. He was the fool.
His fists looked so powerful resting on his thighs, but he didn’t feel powerful. “Do
you trust any of your memories right now?”
She stroked his bare shoulder, soft but not tentative. Her hair smelled of snow. She’d
answered that mystery
for him: a name for that scent of sharp, crisp air. “You’re right. I don’t trust much
of anything, except that I’m here with you.”
“And that makes it better?”
Nynn’s flinch meant he’d gone too far. As her trainer, he would’ve gloried in drawing
forth an unchecked show of fear. It would’ve been proof of his intimidation.
He dropped his head into his hands and scraped the back of his skull. She crawled
behind him on the bed. After stripping her shirt, she draped across his back and held
him around the chest.
“You couldn’t have known.” Her breath stirred him more gently than the precious weight
of her lithe torso, but no less intensely. “Whatever they’ve done, they did it
you. They did it to me as well. We’ve had so little to hope for. What person, human
or Dragon King, would’ve refused the chances that have been dangled in front of us?”
“They’ve let us stay here together. Another prize, I suppose.” She tightened her hands
around two fistfuls of his flesh. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back. “The
things I want aren’t mine to keep. That’s what it is to be a slave.”
Nynn licked the top of his spine. She’d never be able to lick all the way up, reaching
his hairline, because the collar barred the way. A barrier he’d worn—suffered under—since
his earliest memories. He’d wanted glory and respect. Now he wanted to kiss Nynn’s
bare neck and he wanted to see the snow, even if the glare blinded him for days.
And his family. His fear outweighed his hopes now. What had been fighting for their
future was now a matter of staying strong just to save them.
“You don’t feel like a slave.” She tensed her fingers again. Dug into skin and muscle.
Pressed her breasts more firmly against his back. “You don’t think like a slave. Not
Nynn’s ministrations tempted him to dive into her embrace, join with her body, lose
his thoughts in a burst of release. He couldn’t. Not yet.
“I held her,” he said quietly. “She was so small that she fit in my two palms. I thought
I would drop her until Yeta showed me the right way to hold her. Black hair. Beautiful
golden skin. Her face was peaceful when she slept, then tight like a wrinkled ball
when she woke and cried. I watched my sister rock her. I watched Dalnis duck away,
overcome by even more emotion than I felt.” He shuddered an exhale. “I’d been so proud,
Nynn. I’d fought for a decade so that they could hold a child.”
“And her name?”
“Shoshan. Shoshan of Garnis.” He rocked up to stand. Nynn still knelt on the bed,
bare from the waist up. The solace she offered was so compelling. “Was she even real?
And if she was . . . If I fought so that Dr. Aster could help Yeta conceive . . .
Then why were you able to give birth to Jack? A natural-born Dragon King. What have
I been fighting for?”
She stood with innate grace. Kind but insistent hands—hands lined with callouses that
matched his own—pulled his gaze down from the ceiling. It was either stare at the
ceiling or at the perfect swell of her breasts. He was a hungry, greedy man. Had he
freed his angered beast, he would’ve turned her over the bed and fucked her. Again.
Like they’d done before.
He was not the beast the Asters expected. He was a
man who wanted this woman, her sighs and compassionate touches and respect. All of
her. A good thing, because Nynn wouldn’t let him look away. When he found that familiar
mix of stubbornness, smarts, and a glimmer of humor in her eyes, Leto didn’t want
“You’ve been fighting for your own version of survival. You’ve been fighting because
you thought you were doing what was right for your family.”
“Now Pell will live under Dr. Aster’s so-called care.” The bile that rose into his
mouth held the taste of poison. “She could’ve been safe with Yeta. I thought . . .
Dragon damn, I thought I could give her something better.”
“You can still. We can for both of our families.”
She brought him down to meet her. A kiss of compromise. Slight, sweet, and vivid enough
to shine light into the dark places he’d kept hidden. “Hopes
control. Nothing they dangle in front of us, but the ones we make for ourselves.”
“How is that better?”
“They can’t enslave our thoughts.”
He pulled her into his arms and held on. They had little else but the shared comfort
of two bodies and two minds shying away from pain.
“Thank you.” Her soft words brushed moist heat along the thin skin of his collarbone.
Confused, Leto pulled back enough to see her expression. “For what?”
“I wear a dragon on my back instead of a serpent. That was because of you. I was smug
and satisfied when the Asters whipped you for that. I thought you got what
you deserved. Thought you’d been jealous of . . . Fuck. That you’d made the choice
out of some warped pettiness. Instead, you did it to save me.”