Read Caged Warrior Online

Authors: Lindsey Piper

Tags: #Dragon Kings#1

Caged Warrior (7 page)

He hated the cold and couldn’t wait to return to Greece. Yet he couldn’t govern at
a distance. Nynn’s letter changed everything.

With his fists clenched beneath the table, he breathed calmly, using time-honored
techniques. The other clans thought the Tigony preferred politics to violence. Far
from true. They possessed gifts so overwhelming that control was essential. Mal fought
the electrical current gathering in every cell. To outsiders, particularly the Council,
his control could appear as weakness. He didn’t feel weak; he was a man whose honor
and will held a thunderstorm at bay.

“We are here to disagree,” he said, his voice practiced and even. “That much is necessary
before we can agree to take action. We are
not
here to hurl insults.”

“What if ‘usurper’ is not an insult, but fact?” This from Pendray Youth, whose expression
always revealed his powers. He forever stood on the precipice of untold frenzied violence.

Usurper
. That word had followed Mal for twenty years.

The Council reminded him whenever they convened—not always with outright snipes, but
with their refusal to cooperate. The previous Giva had guided the Five Clans for just
over eighty years. He had been an authentic choice. Two children from each clan had
looked into the churning, fiery maw of the Chasm where the Dragon had been birthed
and where the Dragon had died. There, ten mouths had simultaneously screamed the name
of the chosen Giva.

But Mal . . .

He’d been chosen by six whispers. Clans Pendray and Garnis were so few in number that
they’d refused to condemn even two children to a mountaintop life of semimadness.
For millennia, it had been considered an
honor to choose the Giva. Never again wholly sane, the children grew into fierce warriors
whose only duty was to protect the Fortress of the Chasm. Now it was regarded as a
waste of what few children remained. Those who’d chosen the previous Giva were growing
old, leaving the fortress vulnerable. Their skills were dwindling, as was the population
of Dragon Kings.

Mal was an obvious symbol.

Only six whispers, when tradition required ten screams.

Four crucial votes had been missing since his first day as Giva, always raising suspicion
about his authority. Giva meant fulcrum. Plain and simple. Mal fought to tip the scales
in an attempt to save their race, but he did so without unanimous authority.

That didn’t mean he was without power. Or the element of surprise.

“Pendray Youth, if you have a better solution to my standing as the head of this Council,
I’d like to hear it. Are you ready to assume my position? You as much as any senator
know what we face, as clans and collectively. You have the privilege of speaking,
arguing, making trouble, being useful—but ultimately, you’ll remain one of ten. Any
consensus will be my responsibility to defend, for good or for ill. Are you ready
to bear that scrutiny?”

“Fine.” Pendray Youth was the most contentious. Even Sath Wisdom knew when to back
down. “Just know that ‘woe is me’ sounds pretty pathetic,
Giva
.”

“There is nothing woeful about stating a matter in plain speaking. Petulance, however—”

The young man banged his fist on the table.

“Enough,” said Sath Wisdom, her white brows narrowed. “We speak out of turn and with
a lack of respect.”

From long experience, Mal knew she was quietly mocking his leadership. At the moment,
he didn’t care. Her intervention gave him a moment to cool his temper as Pendray Youth’s
posture lost its aggression.

“Now,” Mal continued, as if the outburst hadn’t occurred. As long as he kept calm,
he could play any political game. Twenty years of contentious rule—and before that,
years as the head of his clan—had made him a master. “The letter from my cousin is
our most decisive proof that the human cartels have overstepped. We’re no longer talking
about volunteers, desperate to pay off debts or to gamble on the possibility of a
child. Human criminals are taking Dragon Kings from their homes! I’m struck dumb by
how easily you’re letting this happen.”

“Because even if it can be proven, the information
is
from your cousin.” Sath Youth lifted his chin in an obvious sign of disdain. “She
was banished for good reason.”

“She was banished because she married a human, and if we’re all honest, as retribution
for circumstances surrounding her mother. But not because she was someone to spin
tales. That Nynn bore a natural son is something we should be praising. Something
to be thankful for. You’d rather dredge up what happened years ago.”

“Her son is only six,” said Indranan Youth, with his dark, steady eyes. He always
spoke for himself and Indranan Wisdom, who sat stooped and shrouded to his left. Their
telepathy made whispered discussion unnecessary.
“No one yet knows whether he possesses a gift from the Dragon.”

How the Indranan chose their representatives was a mystery to the other clans. Northern
and Southern factions had been engaged in a bloody civil war for three thousand years.
Mal would never know if these two hailed from the Indian subcontinent or from the
wilds of the Australian outback. But he resented them because they represented all
that stood in the way of the Dragon Kings’ survival. Ridiculous rivalries. Long-held
grudges. Jealousy and hatred and all the emotions they’d long disdained of human beings.

The humans thrived. The Dragon Kings held off extinction as if by chance.

The Indranan senators never failed to disagree with Malnefoley. He didn’t attribute
it to their unnerving telepathy. They simply didn’t want to acknowledge what he had
to say, for reasons he could never comprehend. Personal? Political? A means of manipulating
the emotions he kept in check?

Then there were the senators from Clan Garnis. Useless. They were almost always quiet—even
their Youth. Compared to the organized, even powerful governments of the other four
clans, Garnis had nothing. The Lost. In twenty years, Mal had yet to discern whether
their lack of involvement in Council discussions was because of their clan’s ways
or because they had little power to reinforce any point of view. Surely they believed
something
.

He wanted to pace—or rain lightning down on those who opposed him. Too much temper
for a Giva. He’d known it from the beginning. A slow-boil fury made him
vibrate with things unsaid, actions not taken. He pushed his anger into the pit of
his stomach. No one would humble him. For all the doubts others harbored about his
legitimacy, Mal knew the truth. He had the insight and resolve to see his people through
this crisis.

“We all know her husband was killed. No one has seen her or her son since. This letter
is the first communication anyone has received from her. It’s half-scrawled in blood,
for Dragon’s sake.”

Arguments burst across the table as the senators took his words, warped them, turned
them into weapons to brandish at one another.

Aster guards the secret to our survival, but at
this
price?

Nynn’s words haunted him day and night. Even the fierce mountain winds sounded like
his long-lost cousin. Her voice was strong enough to compete with the ticking clock
in his mind that said they were running out of time.

His aunt, Leoki, had been dead since the accident no one mentioned. She had given
birth to Nynn by a Pendray man. Perhaps one day she would’ve been accepted back into
Clan Tigony, especially with Mal as Giva. Instead, Nynn had killed her.

Grief still pounded in his joints. Leoki had been his aunt, but they’d been separated
by only five years—more like siblings. He’d lost so much that day. Leoki dead. Nynn
subjected to the process that had boxed away her dangerous powers. She’d emerged practically
human, so that his decision to have her educated in the States was an easy one to
edge into her consciousness. After only a few weeks, she’d taken up the idea as her
own.

And marrying a human man . . . That had been the end of Nynn’s life as a Dragon King.

He’d fought the Council. He’d even fought Nynn, hoping she would relent and come home.
But layered over that wretched era had been one moment of goodness. She had appeared
happy for the first time in years. Even when the Council delivered its verdict, she
was a woman relieved of deep burdens.

Only, she didn’t know what burdens remained in her mind.

“That’s what I’d expect to hear from a Thieving liar like you!” came a shout from
Pendray Youth.

“Quiet!” Mal’s voice thundered around the wide circular room. “You’re spoiled children,
not senators. I
will
act without this Council’s consent if name-calling is the extent of your involvement.”

“Act without our consent?” Sath Youth looked ready to turn his chair into a weapon—whether
to strike Mal or Pendray Youth didn’t seem to matter.

Tigony Wisdom cleared her throat. She was the only person who could stem the tide
of so much anger with the arch of one brow. The Pendray and Sath Youths glared, but
one cast his eyes toward the table and the other fussed with draped robe sleeves.

Named Hobik, Tigony Wisdom was Mal’s adoptive grandmother and the only senator whose
name he still used in his mind. Despite no blood relation, they looked a great deal
alike: thick, straight bronze hair and eyes so deeply blue as to appear black in the
low light of the Council room. Elegant, the Tigony had always been called. Cultured.
Gracious.

Another reason they weren’t taken seriously in times of war.

Mal could’ve laughed. His people had taught the
Greeks and Romans how to fight. How to build cities and raze them. At that moment,
a crackle of static was taking the form of sparks in his blood, inside him, all around
him. If he let his concentration slip, those sparks would amplify into violent kinetic
energy. He would become a living turbine.

Not now. Maybe not ever.

He gave his grandmother the barest nod.

Hobik turned her attention to the rest of the Council. “Whether or not Nynn’s child
has been blessed by the Dragon, the other two human cartels remain our clearest stream
of information. They are openly jealous of Dr. Aster’s acquisition. Because of the
timing of her kidnapping, we can assume some truth to the Asters’ involvement. Why
would he hold them captive if they weren’t important?”

That logic was apparently the key to coalescing the Council’s attention. Mal had been
too agitated to think of it.

He breathed deeply of the mountain’s thin, chilly air, thankful that Hobik’s logic
had quieted the senators. For now.

Nynn was a piece missing from his life since her departure for the States, and then
gone from him forever after marriage. She had never treated him as a man apart, but
as a friend. Worse, she had since become an obsession. She represented the first and
only significant time he’d given in to the Council’s demands. As a result, he’d never
met her husband or her son. Her resentment had been too strong.

Now he had her letter. What might be her last. Her disappearance finally warranted
the Council’s
involvement. He’d been waiting for such an opportunity.

Mal cleared his throat. Time to bring this meeting to a head. “What’s more, new information
suggests the existence of an underground network of Dragon Kings. They work in secret
and are unaccounted for among their clans. More than that, they have reached across
clan boundaries. No politics. No allegiances other than to our people as a whole.”

Gasps of surprise and disbelief met his words. Every senator believed that he or she
held sway over their territorial, increasingly bureaucratic governments. They likely
thought it impossible for clansmen to escape entrenched lore and self-importance.
Managing Council meetings even twice a year was becoming more and more difficult.
No one was willing to compromise for the greater good.

Not even this small group.

Yet out there, he believed others might see the world—and their pending extinction—with
more pragmatism. That gave him as much hope as Nynn’s letter.

“They don’t have a name,” he said, with all of his calm and focus. “No codes. No way
of getting in touch.”

“Then who delivered the letter? Carrier pigeons?” Wearing a sneer, Pendray Youth made
as if he were ready to retire for the evening.

Mal paused, looking the rebellious senator in the eye. “It was Tallis of Pendray.”

No one spoke. Mal could see them processing this new information, testing it for truth.
Finding it lacking.

“The Heretic,” Tigony Youth whispered. “He’s been dead for years.”

“He hasn’t been dead, because he’s been a Pendray myth all along.” Sath Wisdom shook
her head. “Some legendary assassin? I don’t believe any of this.”

Mal smiled coldly. “Careful. Calling me Trickster is one thing. That sounded very
close to calling me a liar. I refuse to discount any possibility.”

The pair of Indranan senators shared a glance before their Youth spoke. “We’re with
Sath Wisdom on this. He doesn’t exist. Never has.”

“Pendray Youth?” Mal stood, placed both hands on the table, and let it take his weight.
The senator’s natural golden color had drained to a sickly pallor, as if he’d seen
ghost. “He’s of your clan, so tell me. Is Tallis of Pendray a myth? Is he dead?”

“The Heretic is not a myth,” he said, his voice hushed and monotone. “And as far as
the Pendray government is aware, he is not dead. We would’ve seen the celebratory
fires from here in these mountains. Our people have hunted him for decades.” Although
he appeared to have aged in a matter of moments, he snapped out of his daze. “And
he just
delivered
this letter? Like some Good Samaritan?”

“Don’t think me so generous,” came a shadow-dark voice.

Mal stood to his full height, pleased with Tallis’s timing.

Guards materialized out of nowhere. The Council’s Youths jumped to their feet. Only
the crackle of electricity from Mal’s fingertips silenced the chaos. “Stand down,
senators. Now. And I suggest you introduce yourself. Quickly.”

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