Read Caged Warrior Online

Authors: Lindsey Piper

Tags: #Dragon Kings#1

Caged Warrior (42 page)

She rolled onto her back and grabbed the hilt with both bound hands. A quick slice
parted the ropes at her ankles. She spun so that she knelt again, bloodying her knees.
Shins braced against the ground gave her more stability. The split skirt of her sari
bared the sleek skin of her thigh.

Although his shoulder ached, Tallis could only grin. “I’d hoped there was more to
you than words and specters.”

“Why would you think that of someone you kidnapped and profess to hate?”

Her eyes were bright and widely spaced, wedded to the high, rounded apples of her
cheeks. She had a tiny
nose and a chin that, for all her defiance, was softly shaped. Tallis shivered. This
was her,
really her
, not the witch who’d infected his dreams for two decades. The real Sun, this woman
Kavya, was the perfect compromise between truth and fantasy, virgin and whore—a bound
innocent holding his blade.

Although she remained still, she vibrated with near-visible energy. Tallis could practically
smell the heady cologne of her fear and focus. Her telepathic seductions were vile,
but the surprising resilience of her fighting spirit made him smile more deeply.

“I like to think,” he said, “that when I break you, I’ll have broken someone who deserved
the worst I can dish out. Seems you’re in the mood to make me a happy man.”

“Happy? I want you dead.” A look a horror crossed her face. She inhaled sharply, which
lifted the supple curve of breasts draped in silk.

Tallis chuckled. “You didn’t mean to say that, did you?”

Exaggerating the ache in his shoulder, crouching before her, he shifted his weight
onto the balls of his feet. Rather than leap, he leaned and swept his right leg. The
toe of his boot caught her behind her upper thigh with a hard kick. He yanked. Between
the blow and the pull, she fell hard onto her side.

She coughed, struggling for air. He pushed forward with two crouched strides and snatched
the stolen blade from her bound hands.

“The Sun can fight. Gratifying, but it won’t change anything.” The gathering ferment
outside the tent caught his attention again. “Stay. Unless you want to remain unaware
of what’s happening among your flock.”

Her mouth was . . . gorgeous. There was no other word. Bee-stung lips twisted into
a sneer. “Do it.”

“That’s the only command of yours I’ll obey.”

Intending to piss her off, he took one more taste of the lips he’d never believed
could be real. Seeing her in the flesh, tasting and smelling and touching her—those
intimacies made her night visits more ephemeral. They were mere shadows compared to
the sweet bitterness of the kiss he took without permission.

She bit him. Tallis reared back. He swiped a hand against his mouth and came away
with blood.

“That wasn’t very nice, goddess.” But he was still grinning.

Both seaxes firmly grasped, Tallis peered outside again. Dusk approached to take the
place of full sunlight. Amiable pods of Indranan had been gathered around their fire
pits. Now they hurried around wearing frightened expressions.

Strange
.

Tallis’s own clan, the Pendray, were generally insane and suffered from historic self-esteem
issues, but at least they displayed what they felt without pretense. They were boisterous
and unapologetic. The Indranan, however, were made of mystery. To see the camp transformed
into a frenzied, buzzing collection of scared souls was shocking—so many emotions
laid surprisingly bare.

“Let me go,” came the persuasive voice at his back. “Whatever grudge you hold against
me, you know I can calm them.”

“No. Their panic will remain unaddressed by their savior. Seeing you discredited and
ruined has always been my goal, no matter how much I like kissing you.”

The fervor outside the tent died down, but only because hurrying worshipers had frozen
solid. Their attention was focused on the altar.

Tallis narrowed his eyes. A man stood where Kavya had delivered her morning benediction.
He was tall, with a commanding presence. His hair was brown, his features sharp, his
clothing black on black. Among those gathered in the valley, his layers of leather
and protective plates of silver armor stood out like a burn on a child’s skin.

No matter Tallis’s grudge against the Sun and her cult, this stranger was pure violence.

“You were expecting someone else,” the man intoned, his words hypnotic. They echoed
back across the valley in a one-two punch of spellbinding power. “You were expecting
a savior. I’m here to say there is no such thing. And there’s no such thing as reconciliation
between the Northern and Southern factions of Clan Indranan. There never will be.”

Tallis grabbed Kavya by her hair and dragged her to the tent’s opening. Her face went
chalk white. The paleness looked sick and unnatural on a Dragon King, and especially
eerie when it leeched the soft charisma of her beauty.

“Who is that?” Tallis was more disturbed than he would have liked, but the unexpected
was always a threat.

“That.” She swallowed. “That is Pashkah of the Northern Indranan. My brother.”

♦   ♦   ♦

If skin could turn to ice, Kavya’s became as cold as the glaciers along the Himalaya’s
Rohtang Pass.

She hadn’t seen Pashkah since she was twelve years
old, but she would never mistake his stance, his face. Even as a boy, his expression
had been freakishly blank. Devils and ghouls were nothing compared to his uncanny
blankness. Had she been able to understand him, with telepathy or her senses, she
might have been able to save their sister, Baile.

But in those final moments, Baile hadn’t wanted to be saved. Before Pashkah had taken
her head, she’d wanted his just as much.

Every Indranan was born as a twin or, in Kavya’s case, as a triplet. Siblings grew
up knowing that the Dragon had divvied up their true potential in the womb.
Learn to share
. So few did. By committing fratricide, an Indranan could unite the pieces of shattered
potential. The ability to read another’s mind was the most intoxicating, terrifying
gift among the Five Clans. To keep from wanting more was the ultimate responsibility.

The Heartless.

Kavya had never protested her clan’s derogatory nickname. She’d simply fought to rise
above its hideous legacy.

Now, having reduced their family to a series of grim victories, Pashkah stood within
a few hundred meters of success. He would take Kavya’s gift and add it to the power
he’d stolen from Baile. He would become thrice-cursed with his true potential sewn
together in violence—while the never-ending shrieks of two dead sisters destroyed
his sanity.

Tallis shook her by the hair. “What is this, part of your big announcement? Bring
in muscle to make sure everyone complies?”

“This is my brother having found me after decades of searching. This is . . . this
is the brink of chaos.”

She jerked free. At least now she knew the identity of her captor.

Tallis of Pendray. The Heretic.

She still wasn’t able to read his mind, but his honed Norse seaxes held residual memories
so strong that she’d caught flashes of his true self. His life on the run.

A man of myth. But still a man.

“You don’t need to be a telepath to sense the panic.” She tipped her chin toward where
Pashkah owned the altar—the altar she’d hoped would be host to an evening of peaceful
triumph. “Those are lambs being herded toward a butcher’s knife. Nothing I’ve done,
no matter your delusions, will match the crimes Pashkah is capable of committing.”

“He’s your brother. I wouldn’t expect anything less than deceit and mind-warping delusions.”

Kavya’s heart was expanding with each beat, until it shoved against her trachea. Everything
she’d worked for was at Pashkah’s mercy, while the notorious Heretic kept her from
helping her people. “Do you hate me so much that you deny the obvious? Look at the
men at his back. Each one of them is twice-cursed.”

“You can tell? You’re reading their minds?”

“I don’t need to. They’re Pashkah’s Black Guard. Whole communities have been rolled
over by their arrival.”

“He kills Dragon Kings? The Five Clans would’ve heard about that.”

Kavya shook her head, her eyes filling. “Not killing. Trying to
breed
. The Black Guard were responsible for the Juvine forty years ago, when women were
stolen from the South and held captive here in the mountains. Retaliation after retaliation
followed, reviving the same
hatreds that split our clan three thousand years ago. By trapping me, you’ve given
him unchecked permission. The Black Guard will continue its spree.”

Tallis had fascinating skin—smooth except for those places where emotions pushed to
the surface. So animated for a Dragon King, he frowned with his whole face until it
took on the gravity of a pending typhoon. Finally he seemed to be taking her fear
seriously.

“Unbind me,” she said, pressing her advantage.

“So you can flee? What do you think I am?”

“An idiotic, brainless Pendray
thing
. Always thinking with your cocks and your work-worn hands, if you think at all. All
I want is to face my brother without ropes around my wrists.” She forced strength
into her voice just as she’d forced calm into her body. “You wanted me discredited
among my followers, not martyred. Remember?”

“That I can agree with.”

“First obeying me, now agreeing with me. You’ll be undone by dawn.”

“Suddenly you expect to live that long,” he said with an edge of a smile.

“You have no idea the consequences if I don’t. Forget martyrdom. I’ll be the dead
soul that gives Pashkah what he’s always wanted: the powers of a thrice-cursed Indranan.”

Tallis shook his head. “Ancient myth.”

“No,
fact
. Just like how the Heretic seems to have graced me with his presence.”

That caught him off guard, but only for a moment. “So you admit it. You know who I
am.”

“That doesn’t mean your accusations hold merit.”

He silenced her by dragging a seax nearer to her
flesh. Although she shuddered, she appreciated the knife more than his kiss. She could
endure pain. Life had taught her those lessons and the means of coping with what no
one should have to endure. The surprise of pleasure, however, was still frothing in
her veins. Every hair stood on end. Her skin pulled toward his touch and his Dragon-damned
kisses.

The conflicting emotions were too much to process. As telepaths, the Indranan learned
how to put emotions in boxes. Her own went in one box, separated and classified and
memorized—the better to make sure they were really hers. Impressions and ideas from
other people had boxes of their own, like quarantined contagions.

The tip of the seax was as fine as the point of a needle. Engraved scrollwork along
the blade caught the last of the dying sunshine. Tallis slid the tip between her wrists
and sliced the ropes with one swift cut. No wasted motion. Perfect mastery of his
weapon.

“Members of the Sun Cult,” came the voice that sent hot dread up her spine and ghostly
chills back down. “Your leader is no longer here. Because I am her brother, Pashkah,
you can imagine the consequences if I take her life—or if I already have. Perhaps
she’s merely fled, leaving you to my mercies.”

The Black Guard marched to the edge of the altar.

Pashkah didn’t smile, but contentment shimmered around him in a swirl of charcoal
fog. “I have no mercy.”

Additional members of the Guard dragged a pair of men into sight and thrust them to
their knees, flanking Pashkah.

Kavya gasped. “No, no, no . . .”

A hand wrapped around her mouth. She struggled
until Tallis’s words found their way into her short-circuiting brain.

“Quiet,” he hissed softly. His arms were strong around her, which was welcome rather
than abhorrent. She was ready to shudder apart, disintegrated by fear and outrage.
“Who are those men?”

“Indranan representatives. My allies from the Northern and Southern factions. Oh,
Dragon save them.”

Pashkah was a man of his sick, malevolent word. He stood over the representatives
and spread his hands with a flourish. “These are the presents the Sun was going to
offer at dusk. Omanand of the North. Raghupati of the South. She would’ve stood behind
them and smiled that calm, happy smile as they shook hands. Ended the civil war. Healed
the breach. Wouldn’t that have been lovely?”

“Is that true?” Tallis asked against Kavya’s cheek.

“Yes,” she whispered. “A foundation for lasting peace. But it doesn’t matter now.
Nothing will matter now.”

One of the Guardsmen handed Pashkah a sword.

Tallis drew in a sharp breath. “That’s Dragon-forged.”

Her lucidity was slipping away along with her hopes. She was physically ill, so painfully,
violently ill. “Yes. The only weapon that can kill a Dragon King.”

Pashkah lifted the blade. With one blow, he beheaded Omanand. With another, he separated
Raghupati’s head from a body that flopped onto the altar. Terror echoed through the
valley like the shrieks of demons.

Kavya saw only blood.

LINDSEY PIPER
is the alter ego of an award-winning historical romance author. Her red-hot Dragon
Kings series is her first foray into paranormal fiction. She lives and writes in Chicago.

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