Authors: Lindsey Piper
Tags: #Dragon Kings#1
He left the tray of food out of reach beside her cage, and resumed his place against
Audrey’s stomach was a raging beast gnawing through her skin. It wanted the freedom
to scramble between those iron bars and gorge. Dizzy on the scent of fresh meat and
vegetables, she closed her eyes. There was nothing to do but beg.
She had begged for mercy in the labs. Needles, scalpels, saws—torture brought out
the animal in a girl. When survival hinged on a sadist’s caprice, the words had babbled
from her lips. Before Aster’s men stole Jack from her arms each morning, she’d held
his frail, injured body for as long as possible. And she’d pleaded. Every day. She’d
turned into some servile little creature.
But here . . .
She had a chance.
Audrey went through her list of assets. She was clean and clothed. She had endured
years of ostracism among her namesake clan, bearing the brunt of her mother’s supposed
indiscretions—years that made her stronger. She was free of Dr. Aster’s lab.
Risking an entire year before seeing Jack again was unbearable. Cage fighting was
a temporary measure. She needed to escape and save her son.
That meant learning this complex inside out—from its physical layout to every single
person inside it. Roles. Timetables. Coveted bribes. She would need to try getting
another message to Mal. Pinning her hopes on one hastily penned letter wasn’t enough.
At the lab she’d managed to conceal three Post-it notes before her hands were cuffed.
The pen had taken longer to find. Months of vigilance. Amazing that she’d lived in
hope of finding what other people took for granted. Opportunity had come in the form
of a careless assistant and his gaping lab coat. Writing had required as much of her
blood as it had dried-up ink.
Reed of Tigony had been so broken. She had no way of knowing his fate, or the fate
of her letter. She had no faith in the Council senators, either, who’d pressured Mal
into sending her into exile after her marriage to Caleb. They’d been waiting for any
excuse to exert power over the Usurper—the derogatory name used against Malnefoley.
Common sense said the Council wouldn’t sit back while Dragon Kings were yanked out
of their homes, tortured, and forced to fight as slaves for human crime bosses. But
common sense rarely applied in politics.
Buying time meant she would need to survive in the Cages.
That meant getting stronger. Eating. Training. And, yes, that meant begging.
“May I have the food? Please?”
He shoved the plate forward with the toe of his boot.
Audrey pounced. Beans and rice. She ate with her
fingers, relishing each bite. The buttered bread was as sweet as chocolate cake. Such
an indulgence. With her mouthed crammed, she looked up at her captor. Was this why
he made no protest against being enslaved? If the Asters kept her too much longer,
she’d lose herself. She’d become like him.
“Enough.” He knelt, tossed her plate away, and grabbed her hair through the bars.
“This has to go.”
“See how easy it is for me to immobilize you? No weakness allowed.”
He unlocked the cage and dragged her out.
Her knees were liquid. Sleeplessness and the cramped cage had left her weak. Adrenaline
had propelled her initial fight. That fuel was long sapped.
“Turn around,” he said, his voice a gravelly rasp. “Hands on the bars. If you so much
as move, it won’t be your hair I cut.”
Audrey took a deep breath.
Do this for Jack.
Other words began to coalesce in her mind. New words.
Vengeance. Judgment. Reckoning.
She liked those words—would live for them. For the first time, she had a goal beyond
rescuing her son. She’d burn the whole place down for what had been done to her family.
She gripped the cold iron bars, blinking back surprising moisture. Caleb had loved
her hair. Corn silk, he’d called it. He’d loved when she trailed it down his stomach
on the way to sucking him into her mouth.
A lifetime ago.
She tightened her grip and heard the slide of metal being unsheathed. Was her captor
so trusted that the Asters permitted him a weapon?
An inexplicable shiver danced up her spine. His voice was hypnotic. Just enough steel,
just enough calm. That she could analyze it at all seemed a minor miracle.
The first cut was the toughest. She watched long, caramel-colored strands float to
the grungy cave floor. He didn’t hack, but he didn’t take care either. Just another
duty he performed without thought. More hair scattered on the ground.
He sheathed the knife and stepped away. “That will do.”
Audrey turned her back to the bars. She ran shaking fingers over where he’d cut close
at the base of her skull. Choppy, uneven strands ran along her crown and temples.
Her mysterious guide down this dark rabbit hole stood watching her. Sizing her up.
She would sketch his body using blocky shapes. Unapologetic rectangles for his limbs.
Strong squares for his trunk and head. Yet a true representation would demand flowing
arcs, too. Swoops. Supple curves. His muscles were that graceful, that prominent.
Charcoal and paper,
With golden brown oil pastels for accents.
Her artistic training was making him into something impressive. He was not.
“We’ll train here in close-quarter combat,” he said. “But for now I want to see what
you can do.”
“You already got a taste of that. I was brought up learning the martial styles of
the Five Clans.”
“No. With your powers.”
Audrey’s heart beat with thunderous pain, which always happened when she thought about
her lack of a Dragon-born gift.
“Maybe you didn’t hear me the first time. I have none. Never have.”
“Lie all you want. You’ll still need to adapt. The more entertainment we provide,
the better we fare.”
“I don’t care about that shit,” she said. “You know what I want.”
The man rubbed a calloused hand along his hard, square jaw. “Regaining your son is
your reward. You were promised.”
“I don’t believe it. Dr. Aster won’t give him up until he’s cut down to Jack’s marrow,
dissecting him alive.”
“A Cage warrior named Honrovish won ten straight matches. As reward, the Old Man overruled
Dr. Aster’s protests and released Honrovish’s brother.”
“Where’s Honrovish now?”
“Dead.” No inflection. No hint of emotion.
“What a waste.”
“No. His brother and sister-in-law lived. They bore a son. Their bloodline continues
because of Honrovish’s sacrifice. Now, come this way.”
Always that long, confident stride. He simply expected her to follow.
“What’s your name?” The question jumped out of her mouth.
He stopped. Looked over his shoulder. His cropped black hair shone in the dim lighting.
The serpent tattoo across the back of his skull looked alive—a representation of a
warrior’s potency. And a slave’s captivity.
“I am Leto of Clan Garnis. But you’ll call me
She stayed rooted to the hard cave floor.
Many believed them extinct for centuries, although Audrey knew they yet maintained
a place at the Council table. Mal believed them scattered so far across Russia, China,
and the Americas that they’d assimilated into the human population. They maintained
no known government and no stronghold. The myths they had imparted to their human
worshipers were scattered to the winds.
Clan Garnis were the Lost.
That explained so much. This man Leto’s admiration for his dead comrade was plain.
Perhaps he intended to forge a similar path in order to perpetuate his scattered clan’s
bloodline. Brainwashed or not, he had as much reason to step into the Cages as she
did. The futures of their families depended on it.
The last thing she needed was a feeling of kinship with this brute.
“Come,” he said more harshly.
With her teeth gritted but her belly full, Audrey obeyed.
♦ ♦ ♦
The guards slapped manacles on Nynn’s wrists. Leto refused to think of her by whatever
human name she’d taken.
She stared at her metal-wrapped wrists. “What the hell?”
“They don’t trust you.”
The guards escorted him and his charge down a bright, open corridor. This one led
away from the human quarters and mess hall, toward where the Cage warriors slept in
personal dorms, and where they trained. He enjoyed the familiar sights and sounds
and smells of being among his colleagues. His domain.
“You’ll never be without escort,” he said. “Unless you prove yourself beyond doubt,
you’ll never be without manacles.”
“What about our collars?”
“They’re never removed. Why would it matter? Topside, I’m a holdover from long-ago
gods that no one believes in anymore. I’d have to hide like a coward, as you did.”
talk of hiding and cowardice?” She laughed—a hard, grating sound. “Marrying Caleb
was the bravest thing I’ve ever done. You let human criminals lead you around by your
To so thoroughly deny her heritage by uniting with a human . . . What Dragon King
could do that? “You don’t deserve the honor of fighting here.”
The guards led them to a wide double door made of reinforced steel and the same restrictive
properties contained within a collar’s matrix. They couldn’t escape the main training
arena’s room by using their powers. In fact, the matrix of the door was amplified
to paralyze anyone who breached it.
He told Nynn as much. “Some have tried, the fools. They became drooling cripples.”
The guards removed Nynn’s manacles and departed, locking the door.
She scanned the large square facility. Leto looked as well, though he knew their perspectives
would vary radically. He saw the basics: the high domed ceiling lined with sound-muffling
materials, weapons along the left wall, the X-shaped whipping post in a shadowy corner.
His back itched at that harsh reminder of past indiscretions. For the most part, however,
he remembered moments earned, taken, beaten into submission. Those memories were more
powerful than the cool air, the lingering scent of sweat, and the matrix’s buzzing
“Once locked inside the Cage, the collars can be deactivated.” He pointed to the mesh
steel that comprised its ceiling and octagonal sides. “The training room’s doors keep
us inside, but the reversed matrix of the Cage allows us free use of our powers. This
floor is padded. Real Cages are twice as large, with brushed concrete floors with
a five-inch layer of clay.”
“How does that affect fighting?”
Leto raised his eyebrow, surprised but gratified. “The clay is slippery. Makes for
a tricky start. But it wears away. The concrete offers more grip. It also means the
end to the fight is near. Combatants get tired. One wrong hit and bones are broken.
Understanding shone behind her silvery-blue eyes. Leto didn’t like her sharp tongue
or her obstinacy, but his initial enthusiasm returned.
He’d already assessed her body, but this was the first time her features had a more
powerful hold on his attention. Wide, wide eyes caught his attention first. Equally
wide cheekbones, exotic and high, came next. She had a full lower lip that dragged
down at the corners in a stubborn pout. Even her nape was worth notice—
slender, with strong tendons that accentuated her upright posture. Across her cheeks
and the bridge of her nose was a smattering of freckles. When he found himself tracing
patterns with his gaze, he looked away.
“We have three weeks before the first combat match,” he said. “And a lot of ground
“What does a match entail?”
“Dragon Kings from here in the Asters’ compound compete in nonlethal contests. We
perform in a genuine Cage, with seating in the round for the Asters’ guests. Betting
is rampant. Winners are rewarded, and take one step closer to the annual Grievance.”
“A Grievance? That’s ancient—from when the Five Clans needed to clear bad blood.”
“Now it’s where the best warriors of the cartels fight for the ultimate prize.”
Leto nodded. “And with the ultimate risk. At a Grievance we can be beheaded by a Dragon-forged
blade, as punishment for losing.”
She blew breath out through her nose. “They’ve co-opted our traditions and made them
into something disgusting. What’s the point of earning conception if it comes at the
cost of slain Dragon Kings?”
Leto led his charge toward the Cage and opened the gate. “The perpetuation of our
own lines. Protecting the futures of our families.”
She shrugged from under his touch. “That’s a selfish way of looking at our people’s
march toward extinction.”
“Not my problem.”
He ignored her obvious disgust and locked them in together. The hum of the mesh steel’s
to life. His gift returned to him, following by white noise. It was a signal deep
in his brain to prepare. The collar felt lighter. He stretched his neck from one side
to the other. Muscles and joints loose. Ready for battle.
“So what can you do?” she asked, arms crossed.
“I’m Clan Garnis. What do you think?”
In a blink, he shot behind Nynn. His crooked elbow held her in a chokehold. She gagged
when he pressed just above her collar. “A great deal of speed, and
His reflexes were so astonishing that, on occasion, he felt as if he could see his
opponents’ moves before their minds twitched with the thought. To his knowledge, there
were no other Cage warriors of Clan Garnis. He had no one to ask. Besides, why would
he reveal something so advantageous to anyone he might one day face?