Authors: Lindsey Piper
Tags: #Dragon Kings#1
His slow rise from a kneeling stance seemed to go on forever. Deliberate. Controlled.
Just taller and taller until he was a ruthless warrior once again. “Oh, but I can
do you harm. And win. I’ll do that at any cost, even if it means knocking you unconscious
during our match.”
“What purpose would that serve?”
“I could fight on. Unencumbered.”
Audrey’s blood slowed. “You’re giving me quite the education.”
“And don’t forget about Hellix,” he said, that rumbling voice bathed in menace.
“What about him?”
“Your days are mine to direct. Your nights are not my responsibility.”
“But the guards—?”
“Are lonely and easily bribed. Don’t expect quarter from them either.”
The pinch of her lips was almost painful. She forced herself to calm, valuing information
more than the urge to answer his taunts. “Will you tell me something? Sir?”
“The brand on Hellix’s head. What is it?”
Leto’s expression hardened. She wouldn’t have thought it possible after the harsh
way he’d spoken to her. Apparently his distaste for Hellix trumped almost anything
“Sometimes, humans with huge debts volunteer to fight in the Cages, too.”
“That would mean death, surely.”
“The other choice is for the cartels to harm their families.”
Audrey shook her head in vehement denial. “That’s no choice.”
“Do you want to know about Hellix or argue the way of the world?” He held her gaze
as she breathed deeply and remained silent. “The humans in the Cages are killed with
ordinary knives. Dragon Kings set for execution are done so as a prelude to the annual
“But he still needed to be punished.”
“I don’t get it.”
“How do you kill a Dragon King?”
Bile rose in Audrey’s mouth, along with the age-old fears of her people. They could
live far longer than humans. Some for centuries. That didn’t mean they were immortal.
Old age eventually caught up with even the strongest of the Dragon’s children. And
then there was . . .
“Decapitation,” she said, as if by rote. “But only by iron forged in the fiery Chasm
where the Dragon was born and died.”
is an honorable death for a Cage warrior. Hellix was branded by an ordinary human
knife—a shameful reminder that he should’ve died. The lowest of the
low. I think he’d peel off his face just to get rid of the thing.” He cracked a knuckle.
“He takes out his anger on the women he earns. Do you get my meaning?”
She shivered. Just because she’d survived degradation in the labs didn’t mean she
wanted more. Somehow she knew that surviving against Hellix would be at least as difficult
a Cage match. At least in a Cage, she would have Leto as her ally.
With a tight swallow, she firmed her spine. “I understand, sir.”
“Let’s get to work.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Leto had made a number of threats in order to secure Nynn’s active cooperation—threats
he had no means of carrying out. Using Hellix as a living, frothing boogeyman had
worked. But she was a perceptive creature. Soon she might realize that to be subjected
to Hellix’s notorious sexual ferocity would destroy her. Leto would have no warrior
left to partner with; he would have a broken shell of a woman.
The idea of beating her into unconsciousness during a match and taking on their opponent
alone also had its appeal. Yet that would be a failure of another sort. He was tasked
with keeping her alive through three matches, but the crowd wouldn’t appreciate an
He would need a fallback plan when threats no longer worked. In Nynn’s case, he believed
the key was how much she secretly craved an outlet for her anger. Given the right
tools, she wouldn’t need to be coerced or intimidated anymore.
One such tool sat in his palm. The
old, brutal, effective weapon. A single crushing blow. To the spine, the nape, the
forehead. It meant instant death for a human, while a serious blow to a Dragon King
permitted enough time to sever the head with a Chasm-forged sword.
That method was the finale he’d enacted at the last Grievance.
“Here,” he said.
“You don’t fear my wild reprisal?”
“I would, if I thought you could wield it with one hand.”
Nynn cupped the heavy iron skull. Her shoulders slumped to keep it from dropping to
the damp, slippery floor. Training cells were kept damp for just that purpose, to
make finding purchase even harder. Once this woman fought on rougher ground, she would
be even more sure-footed and skillful.
The chilly dampness would test her endurance, too, as would the cell’s complete austerity.
Neophytes were denied every creature comfort. No pallet. No toilet. Just a slit trench
that was washed clean where the crevice water flowed out a drainage pipe. The four-by-four-foot
iron cage remained a lingering threat.
She would only have what he gave her. Until she won. The thrill of victory combined
with basic rewards made reluctant fighters into eager ones.
The close-fitting training armor he’d provided was not a reward but a necessity. She
needed to learn how to expose her limbs to harm. Protecting one’s body was instinct.
Only patience and practice would override her urge to shrink from an attack, rather
than surging forward and putting her trust in leather and metal.
One of her arms, bare of armor in order to permit more maneuverability with a shield,
flexed with a gratifying degree of muscle tone. She was lithe, beautiful, and fit
for combat. Now all she needed were techniques—not to mention her gift, which she
couldn’t even remember after the fact.
He had three weeks.
Pell needed him. Never had he been promised a reward for so little work. Usually a
favor so extraordinary required winning a Grievance. Although, in truth, watching
Nynn struggle with the hefty
promised work enough.
“Come at me.” His voice echoed off the domed ten-foot ceiling. “This is your chance
to let loose the hatred I see.”
He didn’t think she would. Too much sense. Too much pride, when she already knew the
futility. Yet the vigor of her sudden attack was impressive. Rather than charge, attempting
to strike him, she spun and hurled the weighty weapon. Leto arched backward using
the reflexes he’d honed for two decades—no matter his collar. The
hit the wall just over his left shoulder. Shards of raw cave rock splintered out
from a crater.
She breathed hard, hands propped on her knees. Without food, pushing that hard would
continue to test her endurance. Her eyes shot sparks that were nearly literal. He
didn’t like how he was drawn to her blue fire.
He braced his stance. “Learn anything, neophyte?”
s are heavy?”
“That I can take you by surprise?”
Hiding his reaction took effort, because she certainly
had. As Leto had seen in the Cage, she was a fighter. He would see her blossom into
a vicious creature who wouldn’t recognize her own face.
would break her. And that would make her a worthy partner.
“No, you should’ve learned that I do everything with purpose. There are other weapons
better suited to your frame. Now you’ve lost dinner, too. A day’s rations gone, with
nothing gained.” He knelt to retrieve the dagger. “Take this instead.”
She studied the blade for several moments, as if she could read its purpose. He’d
never seen a warrior—let alone an untested woman—assess a weapon with such immediate
understanding. And where were the aftereffects of her hazing the day previous? She
believed she possessed no gift, but Leto knew otherwise. She was a changed woman.
Now to keep changing her.
Nynn extended her hand and took the dagger. With a slight movement, she twisted the
handle until it fit snugly in her palm, the balance just right. Leto felt the rightness
like the stir of a distant dream.
“Now the shield.” Without warning, he threw a small round shield straight toward her
She deflected it using the dagger. A quick spin found her crouched on the ground.
She’d moved so that the shield’s leather strap already hugged her left forearm. Ready
Slowly, Leto knelt to retrieve his shield and weapon of choice—the mace. His pulse
was up, surging as it always did when anticipating a fight. More troubling was how
his cock stirred beneath the hard plating of his armor. Sex and violence twined together.
Had for generations.
There was a practical reason why victors were awarded the prize of flesh. Potent aggression
didn’t fade. It built and built, seeking release. Allied warriors were tempted down
from that high by means even more satisfying than wringing each other’s necks—by slaking
the primeval shock of life-and-death combat. It was glorious when done so between
He’d never reacted that way
a fight. Release came afterward.
Leto kicked the rest of the weapons down the corridor that led to the gate of her
cell. Beneath the wan light of the bare lightbulbs, he and Nynn circled one another.
“I will be your first opponent in combat,” he rasped.
As if claiming her. Making her his, even in this violent way.
“Seems we’ve been evenly matched so far. You wear a bandage and new armor.” She grinned.
Slinky. Sly. “Give me what you can,
With that, she attacked.
udrey had only wanted to knock that smug expression off his scarred face. He was mortal.
Fallible. The scar angling on his lip and the whip marks crisscrossing his back proved
as much. He could be injured, bested, maybe even defeated.
Not that day. Not by her.
Her dagger glanced off his armor. He didn’t need to use his mace, only swung his shield
as easily as a kid with a Frisbee. The edge of blunt metal hit her in the gut. Her
thick leather training armor protected her from the worst of the damage. Yet the hit
still rattled her bones. She bit her tongue as she landed on hands and knees.
Instinct commanded her to lift her shield. The head of the mace cracked down where
her head would’ve been. She rolled out of the way and again crouched in a defensive
“You asshole! Are you trying to kill me?”
“I’m finding your limits,” he said with a tight grin. “Apparently that wasn’t one
Audrey gasped for breath. The dagger’s hilt fit as if it had been molded to her palm.
The shield was the perfect weight. Why was this remotely possible? She
had trained from childhood to defend herself, and worst case, to defend Malnefoley.
Never with weapons like these. She shouldn’t have the foggiest idea how to hold these
But she did. It felt like coming home to a home she’d never known.
Sweat gathered under her arms. “What’s the silk for? In the armor.”
“Clan Garnis taught the samurai how to use it, centuries ago. Silk prevented arrows
from embedding in the skin. Tug the fabric. Out they come.”
“It’s hot as hell.”
“At least I won’t withhold your water rations.”
He kicked the toe of his boot beneath the edge of her shield. Her forearm wrenched
upward. For a split second she was undefended. Only when the mace descended again
did she act. A quick roll. A slice of her dagger. She missed setting metal to skin,
but so did the mace. The round, spiked club swung past her armored shoulder. The breath
of its movement was close enough to tousle her short hair. Leto caught its momentum
by collecting the slack of the chain with one swift adjustment of his grip.
“Nearly,” he echoed.
“And the armor on only one shoulder. Why?”
“Do you always talk so much when fighting?”
, remember?” They breathed in tandem. Audrey licked her lips. “My martial instructor
never let his students say anything other than
. Maybe you’re a step up.”
Muscles bunched on both sides of his jaw. She could see his pulse where it throbbed
at his temple, where shorn hair revealed the tips of his snake tattoo. The vigor of
his blood gave life to the ink.
“Hold still and I’ll answer your question about the armor.” He dropped the mace and
his shield. “I mean it. Hold perfectly still or this session will be very messy.”
The intensity of his hypnotic voice—a weapon in itself—meant she could only nod.
Faster than imaginable, he stole her dagger. A single slice cut through her shield’s
leather cinch. It dropped, useless, to the ground. She was stripped within a heartbeat.
Every cell in her body wanted to fight back. Run. Scream.
She held still.
Leto stabbed the dagger in a sharp, angled arc toward her armored shoulder. His right
hand. Her right shoulder. The blade glanced along the metal and leather, as if shooting
down a slide. He switched the dagger to his left hand and cut upward. Again the blade
had no effect. It caught in the layers.