Born an Outcast, Talyn Batur has spent the whole of his life fighting against the prejudice of his people. An Andarion without a father is not something anyone wants to be.
But when his companion’s brother draws him into a plot against the Andarion crown, he finds himself torn between the loyalty to their planetary government that his mother has beaten into him and his own beliefs of justice and right.
Now, he must decide for himself to remain a pawn of their government or to defy everything and everyone he’s ever known to stand up to tyranny. It’s a gamble that will either save his life or end it. And when old enemies align with new ones, it’s more than just his own life at risk. And more than just his homeworld that will end should he fail.
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Book Excerpt 1
“Reporters aren’t allowed back here. You’ll have—”
“It’s okay, Erix. She’s with me.”
Felicia looked past the huge, fierce bald male in front of her to see Talyn sitting on a dilapidated bench in the rundown dressing room. This was so not what she’d envisioned for a champion’s prefight area.
Her smile faded as she realized the other male with him was in the process of covering horrible bruises on Talyn’s body. “Did I miss the fight? I thought it didn’t start for another half hour.”
A tic started in Erix’s jaw as he returned to Talyn’s side to wrap his hands so that Talyn couldn’t use his claws in the fight to scar his opponent. “It doesn’t. This is from his CO.”
Felicia scowled. “I don’t understand.”
Talyn laughed wryly. “Anatole bets against me.”
“And has his bastard goons beat the shit out of the boy whenever he has a fight coming, to handicap him.”
She felt sick over the news.
Talyn brushed his wrapped hand lightly against her cheek and offered her a bashful smile. “It’s all right. Pain’s my best friend. Just makes me that much more determined to watch him cry like a bitch when he loses his pay.” Dropping his hand, he sucked his breath in sharply as his manager touched a particularly nasty bruise on his back.
“Here,” she said, pushing the male aside. “Let me.”
Ferrick arched a brow.
She met his manager’s sneer without flinching. “I’m a licensed physical therapist and med student. I can help him.”
Talyn took her hand and placed it against his cheek. An Andarion gesture of extreme affection. “Ferrick and Erix, meet my Felicia.”
Ferrick moved away so that she could take over. “He has limited mobility on his right arm. If you could loosen the muscles there, we’d all be grateful.”
“Is there a table he can lie down on?”
Erix gestured past the lockers. “In back.”
She gently tugged for Talyn to follow her to it. “Can’t you delay the fight?”
He shook his head. “Only for death or military orders. Anything else is a forfeit.” He hesitated at the table. “Facedown?”
“Yes.” She waited for him to lie down before she gently touched his back to evaluate what all had been done to him. It was even worse than it appeared. “Oh, Talyn.” She wanted to weep at how badly he’d been beaten already. And he hadn’t even stepped into the Ring yet.
“Really, it’s okay, Felicia. Believe me, this isn’t the worst asskicking I’ve had. And those were just from my mom for failure to put the toilet seat down at night.”
She rolled her eyes at his off beat humor. Given his immense size and muscle tone, she seriously doubted his mother had ever laid a finger to him. “No one should be used to this.”
He lifted his head to look at her. “Would you think I’m a totally sick bastard if I said I’d gladly have the shit kicked out of me to feel your hands on my skin?”
She laid her palm against his cheek as those words brought tears to her eyes. “Yes.”
He smiled at her. “Good. I don’t want any pretense between us.”
She kissed his cheek before she worked on his shoulder and back, where the worst damage seemed to have been done.
“Talyn! It’s time.” Ferrick joined them.
Felicia stepped back as Talyn sat up and took the ornate leather mask from Ferrick’s hand. He slid it over his head so that all that showed of his features were his white eyes that held a tiny band of red around the outer edge of the iris.
“You look like an alien is eating your face.”
Reaching for the hand wrap covers, he laughed at her comment.
“Erix has a seat in front, reserved for you.”
She screwed her face up at the thought of it. Okay, she totally understood now why his mother didn’t come to these things, after all. “If you don’t mind, I’d rather wait for you back here. I don’t really want to watch you get beat on. But I am here for you, if you need me.”
Her declination didn’t seem to faze him at all as he shadowboxed to loosen his muscles. “Okay. I’ll be back in a little while.”
She walked slowly into his arms and hugged him. “Good luck.”
Talyn savored the sensation of being held. No one had embraced him like this since he’d been a boy.
“Hammer! Let’s go!”
Reluctantly, he released her and headed for the Ring. As he reached the door, he glanced back to see her watching him.
Damn, she was beautiful. Like an ethereal vision. He still couldn’t believe she’d agreed to accept him, given his lack of birth standing.
That she had yet to run screaming for the nearest door to escape his presence.
All he had to do was not get killed to night. That would seriously screw up his future plans where she was concerned.
Clamping down on his fang guard, he smiled under his mask and winked at her. He hadn’t been kidding. To have her with him, he’d gladly get the shit kicked out of him.
The gods knew, he’d been beaten for a whole lot less.
Book Excerpt 2
Talyn paused as he walked past the jewelry counter in the BX. After his call with Felicia, he’d come in on his way to the barracks to replace the flight boots that were starting to rub his heel and pick up a new brass kit, and charges for his blasters.
While he’d known the jewelry section was here, he’d never paid attention to it before.
But in the small case in front of him was a collection of the hugging heart rings that were a popular gift pilots bought for their partners. A larger silver heart was wound around a smaller gold one as if hugging or protecting it. One in particular was made of pale pink gold and encrusted with diamonds. For some reason, he thought Felicia might like it. It just looked soft and warm. Petite.
“Major,” the clerk greeted as she approached from the other side of the counter. “May I be of service?”
Talyn started to walk on, but he couldn’t quite do it. “I was just looking at the rings.”
She smiled brightly. “Ah, yes. The Remember Me ring. You know, they’re said to be good luck. It’s why they’re our biggest seller.”
She reached into the case to pull out the display. “You give one to your special lady to keep and so long as she wears it, it’ll bring you safely home to her arms.”
Talyn smiled at the thought as he reached for the one that had caught his attention. Up close, it appeared rather large. Felicia had tiny, graceful hands. “I don’t know what her size is.”
“I can give you a voucher and she can take it to any jeweler for sizing.”
He held it out to her. “I should like this one, then.”
“Very good. I just need to see your ID.”
Pulling out his wallet, he flipped it open and held his badge out to her.
She gasped the moment her gaze fell to the black card that was bisected diagonally with a burgundy stripe. She recoiled from his badge as if it was poisonous. “I’m sorry, Major Batur. I can’t sell this to you.” She immediately returned the ring to the display and locked it in the case.
Confused, he scowled at her. “I don’t understand.”
She gestured toward his card. “You’re a lack-Vest bastard. Your kind can’t buy a ring, for anyone. If I sold that to you, we’d both be arrested.”
Hurt and stunned, he stared at her in disbelief. “I have a legal contract with my lady.”
Her jaw dropped as if she couldn’t believe it. She quickly snapped her lips together. “It doesn’t matter. It’s against the law to allow a lack-Vest to buy a ring. For anyone,” she repeated harshly.
Feeling slapped and humiliated, Talyn watched as she quickly sidled over to another counter to help a giddy male and female who were there to pick out pledge rings.
Something he’d never be able to legally do. That reality hit him like a kick in the crotch.
As he walked away, anger scalded every molecule of his being. He’d always hated showing his ID. Since they were color coded, all anyone had to do was see that his was black and they instantly knew his caste. Now that same damn card kept him from buying Felicia a simple gift.
This is bullshit!
Talyn hesitated at the sound of an older male’s call as he moved to cut off Talyn’s path to the register. He just glared at the older male.
“I overheard you with Vyra, and I’m very sorry about the law.”
Really don’t want to relive this. He was humiliated enough.
“Excuse me.” Talyn started around the male.
He cut his path off again and gave him a fatherly smile. “I’m a big fan of yours, Major. And since we can’t allow you to buy a ring, I wanted to show this to you. If you want it, I’ll discount the price by half.”
Still pissed, Talyn looked down to see a pretty hugging heart necklace that matched the ring he’d wanted to buy.
“I can even waive the courier fee for its delivery. If your lady lives here in Eris, I could get it to her tonight.”
Pressing his lips together, Talyn picked the necklace up to see it better.
“It has the same legend of bringing good luck. A lot of pilots send these to their mothers and wives, instead of the rings.”
Talyn wanted to throw it on the ground and stomp it. But the laws weren’t this male’s fault. And there was no need in depriving Felicia of something she’d like because his own feelings had been hurt.
If it made her smile, it would be worth it.
He returned the box to the clerk. “Thank you. I’ll take it. Her condo is in Brooksyn, North Eris.”
“Very good. I’ll see it to her in less than two hours.”
Talyn nodded before he went to pay for it. But still the burn was in his blood. A simmering heat that only increased once he returned to his barracks and saw that someone had placed a collar and leash on his locker with a black card attached to it. Ha, ha. Real fucking funny. You’d think by now the prank would have grown as old for them as it was for him. Even so, he knew better than to feed into their juvenile shit.
Grinding his teeth, he picked it up without comment and stored his purchases.
He grabbed a towel and started for the showers.
“It’s not mongrel time, Batur. There’s Vested in the latrine.”
Biting back a nasty retort, Talyn returned to his bunk to wait while he listened to the others talking about their future plans.
With nothing else to do, he pulled out his link and started running stats on his next Ring opponent.
“You okay, Pinara?” one of the captains asked.
Talyn glanced over at the major who was a year older than him. The male was a cousin to the female pilot, Syndrome, who flew in Talyn’s squad.
Fidgeting, Pinara kept shining his brass, and looking around as if waiting for something bad to happen. “Fine.”
Yeah, he was lying his ass off. But like everyone else here, Talyn knew what that word meant. Something had gone down with the higher-ups and the major wasn’t at liberty to talk about it.
Pinara looked over and caught Talyn’s gaze. “What you staring at, mongrel?”
Without a word, Talyn returned his attention to his link. As he was logging on, five Provost came in and surrounded Pinara.
“Major, you are to be remanded into custody.”
Pinara went pale. “For what?”
They didn’t say as they cuffed him and hauled him out.
Silence echoed in the barracks as everyone tried to hide how disturbed they were over something that was far more routine than it should be. It could have been any of them, and they knew it.
Normally, it was Talyn who was singled out for trumped-up, bullshit infractions and punishment. Made him wonder what the high-caste Pinara had done to get on Anatole’s bad side.
Talyn scowled at the hushed exchange between two of his bunkmates. WAR was an anti-government organization that had sprung up against the Andarion queen and her family. For years now, they’d been trying to overthrow Eriadne.
And anyone found with WAR paraphernalia or with any ties to their group was summarily seized and executed. Without trial.
Talyn grimaced at the sharp bark. Rising to his feet, he saluted the OOD. “Sir?”
“Cover Pinara’s patrol. He was to fly in fifteen.”
Talyn started to remind him that he was already seventeen hours over his patrol quota for the week, but then the OOD would know that even better than Talyn did.
As he moved to reach for his flightsuit, he heard Pinara’s wingman, Mannan Xu, curse.
“Why am I being punished? I don’t want to fly with a lack-Vest. Do you know who my parents are?”
The OOD glared at the major. “Insubordination?”
“Then head out. With Batur.”
Xu cut a glare at Talyn to let him know how much he hated being stuck with him.
No joy for me, either, giakon.
As soon as he was changed, Talyn left the barracks and headed for the hangar to do preflight. When he neared his fighter, Xu cornered him.
“You better remember your place, dog. Behind me, cleaning up after your superiors.”
A tic started in Talyn’s jaw. He wanted to punch the bastard so badly that it was all he could do to refrain. But he knew from experience that if he spoke a word, he’d lose what little free time he had and this prick wasn’t worth it.
Think of Felicia. He finally had a reason now to stay out of the brig and off reports. Not one of them was worth the additional patrol time.
Eye on the goal, Batur.
And that was a precious female who finally made him feel like something more than the dirt underneath their feet.
Book Excerpt 3
“Yeah, we all get embarrassing call signs in the beginning, but they normally fade after a fight or two. Seldom do they make it onto our ships.”
Felicia arched a brow at Talyn. “So yours wasn’t always Pit Viper?”
“No. It was Mongrel-Ass until I got fed up with the giant, arrogant bastard who gave it to me. He was mocking me as usual and then made the mistake of speaking ill about my mother. I froze mid step and, without warning, took him down with one punch. Hence the name. When I go stock still, you need to run. Means I’m taking aim and about to strike . . . with fatal consequences.”
She fed him more ice. “So Blister is the only thing you recall from the whole fight, huh? I think I need to do a psych eval on you about that.”
Grinning at her playful teasing, he glanced away. Until he did recall something. “Now that you mention that, I think I was talking to Syndrome when my ship went up.”
Felicia went cold at the name. “Syndrome?”
“A female in my squad . . . why are you so mad?”
She tried to suppress her anger, but it was impossible. A part of her wanted to beat him.
Most of all, she wanted to find this female and make sure she understood in no uncertain terms that Talyn had someone in his life.
With a jerk of her chin, she indicated the bouquets of flowers and balloons that lined the shelf in front of his window. “Syndrome sent those to you . . . a new one every day you’ve been here. She must really like you.”
Talyn rubbed his head as he struggled to remember. “Not really. She usually growls out an insult if I so much as glance in her general direction.” There was a ghost of something about Syndrome in the outer fringes of his mind, but he couldn’t quite pull it. “I must have taken a blast for her. Or something slammed into me. Maybe.”
“You were shot,” his mother said as she rejoined them. “You really didn’t hear the alarms to warn you you’d been sighted?”
He shook his head. “I would have taken evasive action had they done so.”
“What does that mean?” Felicia asked his mother.
Talyn explained for her. “Whenever an enemy’s targeting system locks on us, our alarms go off to warn us we’re about to be fired on, so that we can get out of the way.”
“Did they malfunction?”
His mother crossed her arms over her chest. “I spoke to the ground crew who combed the wreckage of your ship yesterday. They were pretty sure and clear that you were hit by friendly fire.”
Still, he couldn’t believe it. “How? Our systems can’t lock on each other, or fire. They’re blocked from it.”
His mother wasn’t willing to let it go. “It’s been known to happen, from time to time.”
“Could The Tavali be using our armada system?” Felicia asked. “Maybe it really was them.”
He shook his head, again. “There’s a special fight program we use. Even if they had one of our systems, it wouldn’t provide the right code to silence the alarms on my fighter. Every battle has a new and unique code that isn’t generated until we launch for that specific fight.”
Fury darkened his mother’s gaze. “When I find out who fired on you, there will be blood shed for it.”
Talyn stared at the wall without responding. There was only one Andarion who’d have dared it.
He had no idea why that bastard had such a hard-on for him. But he did. And there was nothing his mother could do. She couldn’t even get Talyn reassigned to another post. So he said nothing. All the truth would do was upset her. She’d never handled it well whenever something was out of her control. Especially when it involved him and his well-being. Then her guilt kicked in and Talyn hated seeing that in her eyes.
It wasn’t her fault that his father had abandoned her while she’d been pregnant. That was solely on Fain Hauk’s shoulders. He was the irresponsible bastard who’d impregnated her and walked away without looking back.
The only thing she’d done wrong was give up her life and prestige to keep Talyn. While there were times he wished he’d never been born, he’d never regretted his mother staying with him. His life would have been infinitely worse had she given him up. While Orphans with no paternal or maternal lineages were technically above his Caste in their rigid society, they were completely ineligible for the military. His role would have been that of an opinionless servant, forced into the most menial of jobs.
Taking his mother’s hand, he held it to his heart.
“I love you, Talyn,” she whispered, kissing his temple.
Talyn tightened his grip on his mother’s hand, but didn’t speak. His gratitude to her was too great to be trivialized by words that couldn’t convey the depth of what he really felt.
He reached for Felicia and took her hand, too. “My two munataras. I couldn’t ask for better company.”
“Well, look at this . . . and here I was feeling sorry for your rotten ass. Hell, for two such gorgeous females to dote on me, I’d set myself on fire, too.”
Snorting, Talyn glanced to the door to see Erix joining them. “Sure you would. You cry over a hangnail.”
With his arms crossed over his chest, Erix moved to stand at the foot of the bed so that he could scowl at Talyn. “How you feeling, kid?”
“Like I’ve gone a few too many rounds with you.”
Erix tsked at him. “Flattery will only get you an extra hour of laps.”
“You always threaten that, but you never do it.”
“‘Cause you’re so pretty, you remind me of my daughter.” Erix glanced over to Talyn’s mother. “Any word on when they might release him?”
“Once they ease him back on solid food for a full day without any complications, they’ll let him go home.”
He nodded. “I’ll have Ferrick reschedule a few fights.”
“Ferrick’s going to kill me.”
Erix scoffed. “Don’t worry about that old buzzard. I’ll take care of him. You focus on getting better.”
Talyn nodded. “I’ll get out of here as soon as possible.” He had no intention of staying in this bed one minute longer than was absolutely necessary. But as he listened to his mother and Erix talk, his memory began to slowly fill in details of his mission.
More than that, he remembered why Syndrome had sent him flowers.
Anatole was seriously abusing his power and Talyn had challenged him. Apparently, this was how the royal prick answered a legitimate invitation.
Fine, bitch. If Anatole didn’t want to face him in the Ring like a true Andarion, Talyn would go over his head and report him.
One way or another, he’d end this.
Alone in his room, Talyn sneered at the news report that covered their battle against The Tavali.
“Colonel Anatole emerged as the hero of the day. With seven kills, he single-handedly saved his unit and the lives of every Andarion who fought beside him. Andaria owes a tremendous debt to the royal family member. We’re lucky to have one such as he on our side.”
Talyn turned it off before he threw-up, just on principal. Ridiculous.
His link buzzed. Thinking it was his mother or Felicia checking in with him, he answered without reviewing the ID.
It was Command. “Major Batur, we have received your report and the prime commander has gone over it. We wanted to make sure that you are willing to stand by what you’ve written as it seriously contradicts what Colonels Anatole and Pinara have reported.”
He scowled. “What do you mean?”
A file popped up on his link. “They claim that you are the one who has been propositioning the females in your squad, and Colonel Anatole has sworn testimony from six different females who say that you have behaved inappropriately with them. The commander is currently reviewing the rest of your file to see if a demotion is in order. So again, I ask you, do you wish to submit your report and have it part of your record?”
Talyn couldn’t breathe as those words sank in and he realized Syndrome had thrown him to the wolves for daring to help her. “What exactly did Colonel Pinara say?”
“She claims you have accosted her on two separate occasions, and that she’s seen you expose yourself to other females in your squad.”
Talyn ground his teeth. So, he’d put his ass on the line for Syndrome and she’d sold him out. Minsid hell.
Why was he even surprised?
“Do you wish to proceed with your report, Major?”
The suicidal part of Talyn was ready to see it through, but the saner half of his brain knew better. He was a lack-Vest bastard. Without corroboration, no one would ever believe him. Not against a member of the royal family.
The nail that stands out gets hammered down. The old Andarion proverb went through his head. And he was tired of taking those blows.
Screw this shit.
“No. Please destroy the report.”
“Very well. You should know that when you return to duty, the commander wants you to report to his office for disciplinary action.”
Of course he did. “Duly noted.” Talyn hung up and fought the urge to destroy his link.
This was bullshit.
He’d just put his link away when it rang with the armada’s tone. What fresh hell is this? There was no way it could be good.
His gut knotted, he answered it to find Anatole on the other end.
“You think you’re smart, mongrel? You’re lucky I caught this. And I promise you that as bad as you think you’ve had it, it’s nothing compared to what you’re going to face when you’re cleared for duty again. I swear, you will regret the day you ever decided to don an Andarion uniform. End of the day, I own your sorry ass. And I intend to make you bow down to your betters and lick my boots.” Anatole hung up.
Talyn growled low in his throat as reality kicked him hard. Why had he bothered to stand up for someone else?
Now . . .
He was going down in flames and no one would be there to help him through this. No one.
Born in sin.
No matter what, you’ll never win . . .
In that moment, he wanted the throat of every Andarion ever born. But none more so than his own father’s.
And that of every member of the Anatole blood line.
“Thank the gods, you’re here.”
Felicia frowned at the nurse as she left the lift and approached their station in the hallway. Her heart pounded in fear. She’d only left Talyn long enough to go to her final. Had he taken a turn for the worse during her absence?
I should have never left him.
Her face a mask of horror, the nurse gestured toward Talyn’s room. “That . . . male is the most infuriating, surly, nasty beast to ever breathe! We’re down to drawing straws to see who has to go in to check his vitals.”
Felicia gaped at the female. “What?”
“You know he signed the orders yesterday that we couldn’t give him anything without his express approval?”
“Well now, he’s in extreme pain and he refuses to eat. He can’t sleep. He takes the head off anyone who goes near him. And if we don’t get food into him, we’re going to have reinsert a feeding tube. And none of us want to do that, for fear of what he’ll do to us to retaliate. . . . The doctor’s in a meeting, right now, trying to overturn Batur’s right to refuse treatment or get him kicked out.”
Felicia was aghast. “Where’s his mother?”
“She had to leave not long after you did. He’s been impossible ever since.”
Felicia shook her head. “All right. I’ll deal with him. Where’s his food?”
The nurse went to her station and returned with a tray. She handed it to Felicia. “May the gods be with you.”
Unsure of what he’d do to her, she headed to his room and gently pushed the door open to find Talyn with his arm bent over his eyes.
“I told you, I didn’t want to be disturbed,” he snarled. “Get the fuck out!”
“Okay. If that’s really what you want. I’ll go.”
He immediately uncovered his eyes. “Licia?” he breathed her name like a prayer.
She stood in the doorway with the tray. “You want me to stay or go?”
Nearing his bed, she glanced to his monitors and cringed at what she saw there. She set the tray aside. “Oh sweetie, you need to take something for the pain.”
“I can’t. Once they release me, I can’t take anything. You know that. I need it out of my system as soon as possible.”
“Tay . . .”
“Lis, you know I can’t. Please, don’t nag me. I’m in enough pain.”
She placed her hand against his cheek. “Okay. Can I use pressure points with you?”
Swallowing hard at the sympathetic ache she felt for him, she sat on the bed and started rubbing his temples. A single tear slid from the corner of his eye. She kissed it away before she moved down to his neck so that she could massage him. He didn’t speak a single word while she worked.
Within a few minutes, she had his blood pressure almost back to a normal range.
“Breathe with me,” she whispered. “In deep. Hold. One. Two. Three. Now out.” She kept doing that until his res and heart rate were back down, too. “Good Hammer.”
He actually gave a half laugh at that.
She moved to rub his arm and shoulder while she continued to force him to breathe deeply. “Better?”
“No.” He grimaced irritably. “How much can one body hurt and not kill you?”
“A lot. But then you know that better than I do.”
He clenched his teeth.
“Breathe through it, baby.” She used the pressure point in his hand to distract his brain from whatever was hurting him.
He followed her lead.
“Now can you eat for me? If you don’t, you’ll have to go back and fight in the Mean Weight Division. Think of all the puny males you’ll have to go through to get back to Zoftiq.”
“You’re not funny.”
“I’m funny-looking. I have big ears. It’s why I keep my hair long and never wear it up.”
He lifted his hand to finger her lobe. “Your ears are perfect.”
“You’re delusional from your pain.”
He laughed again.
Felicia pulled the tray stand over to the bed and uncovered his food. “Let’s see what we have here. Hmm . . . it’s got to be better than the shite you normally eat.”
“I’ve never heard you swear before.”
“I don’t often.” She picked up the small pudding cup and fed him a bite. “How’s that?”
“Tastes like shit.”
She narrowed her eyes at his surly tone before she took a bite of it.
“I’m seeing for myself. And it’s quite good. I think the crap you call food has destroyed your tastebuds.”
Talyn stroked her cheek with the backs of his fingers. Since Anatole’s call, he’d felt like utter hell. But somehow, just her gentle presence made him feel better.
He’d give anything if he could just stay with her and forget everything else in his life.
But the gods had never been that merciful to him.
“How did your test go?”
“Pretty sure I aced it. Your mom is a great study partner. She really knows her stuff.”
“Yeah, she grew up in a hospital, with her parents.”
She fed him a bite of the soft sandwich before she ran her finger along the stubble on his chin. “They didn’t shave you?”
“I wouldn’t let them. I was such an ass that I feared they might slit my throat if I let them get that close to me with a razor.”
She snorted. “You shouldn’t be that way.”
“I know. I was trying to be good. But it hurts so much . . . and I don’t like them as much as I like you.”
“Yes, but you need to be nice to Andarions who give you shots.”
“If you say so.”
“Dear gods! What did you do? Perform an exorcism?”
Laughing, Felicia looked to the door to see his gaping doctor. “No. I just beat him down. I might be smaller, but I’m meaner.”
The doctor snorted as he came in to check Talyn’s vitals while she continued to feed him. “It’s a good thing your girlfriend came in when she did. I just went over your head to get permission to knock you unconscious if you get unmanageable again.”
The doctor gaped again. “He even apologizes. Holy Andaria.” He looked incredulously at Felicia. “That’s it. I’m calling your school and telling them to send a proctor over with your exams. You’re not allowed to leave until we release him. I’m dead serious. What school do you attend?”
“No wonder their tuition is so high.” The doctor scowled at Talyn’s vitals. “This is the best he’s been since we admitted him. Incredible. What did you do?”
“Basic trigger points. A little PT massage.”
“Keep it up. Can I get you anything else?”
She glanced to the tray. “He needs more protein than this and he likes citrus. Could you please put an order in for it?”
“Absolutely. If you need anything else, just let me know.”
Talyn pulled her hand to his lips so that he could nibble her fingertips. “Some privacy would be better.”
“You’re not well enough for that.”
BOOK EXCERPT 4
“And what about you?” Galene asked, angrily. “You are my baby, Talyn. But right now . . . it’s taking everything I have not to shoot you where you stand!”
Releasing Felicia, Talyn went pale. “What? What did I do?”
She held the link out to him. “I’m on the Ring newswire. Ferrick just released to the media that you’ve accepted blood-matches with Mortician, Widowmaker, Soulless, and Slaughter House. What the hell is this? Why would you do something so stupid? Have you lost your mind?”
He clenched his teeth before he answered. “I had a reduction in pay and rank.”
Shaking her head, she moved to confront him. “I forbid this! Do you hear me? They are four of the most ruthless killers in the business. They make Death Warrant look like a petulant schoolboy. All of them pride themselves on killing anyone dumb enough to step into the Ring to fight them. You’ve always refused their invitations. Why would you accept now? For a title blood-match, no less!” She turned to Felicia. “Talk to him! Tell him no!”
Felicia swallowed hard as she met Talyn’s sullen gaze. “What’s a blood-match? Is that different from normal?”
“Oh yeah,” Galene said, breathlessly. “Blood-matches are fought with Warswords.”
For a moment, Felicia couldn’t breathe as those words slapped her. Talyn had left one extremely important detail out of their discussion. At no time had he told her he’d be fighting to the death . . . with swords! Good thing he outweighed her by about ten times over. Otherwise, she’d start a blood-match with the Hammer early.
Like here and now.
Dizzy with fear, she gaped at him. “Why them? With that?”
He glanced to his mother before he answered. “Bloodier the match, the higher the purse. We needed a full house. It’s what I told Ferrick to do. I handpicked them as my opponents.”
Felicia felt sick to her stomach. “I’m with your mother. I don’t want you up against anyone with those names. Definitely not with warswords. Are you crazy?”
“I have no choice.” He looked from her to his mother. “I can’t even put in for a promotion for three full years. Walking into the Ring with them isn’t as dangerous as what I do every time I report to post. Especially now.” He flicked his claws against the scars on his shoulders that marked him as an Outcast. “So long as I bear these marks, any Andarion who sees them is honor bound to attack me. At least they pay me in the Ring. And I can legally fight back there.”
Galene shook her head in denial. “Tylie promised that she’d get you transferred to the palace, again. And that wasn’t to me. She made it to her sister who wants you under my command.”
“And Tylie isn’t queen,” he growled. “She doesn’t run the military. She’s never even worn a uniform. And don’t get me started on Princess Cairistiona. I’m a fighter, Mum. It’s all I know to do. The tadara, herself, reduced my rank. You think for one minute that bitch is going to let me into her personal guard and that close to her family members I want to tear the throats out of? Unfortunately, Eriadne’s not quite that stupid.”
Growling, Galene flicked her claws at him. “I’d throw dirt at you if I had some.” Furious, she left them, cursing him and his father under her breath as she headed to her guestroom in back.
Talyn met Felicia’s arched brow. “She needs to calm down. I can’t talk to her when she’s like this. She’s completely unreasonable. My luck, she’ll shoot me, just to keep me out of the Ring.”
“Maybe she should. The gods know, I’m tempted.”
“We talked about this, Licia.”
“No. You talked about fighting. Not . . .” she gestured after his mother. “Walking into a killing match with Andarions out for your throat and wielding warswords.”
“It’s why they call the Ring The Splatterdome and not The Land of the Pink Fluffy Bunnies.” He bit his lip before he spoke again. “What do you want me to do, Felicia? Pull guard duty in Anatole’s bedroom and watch while violates you? ‘Cause I promise you, that’s what he’s planning to do.”
She reached to touch him, but he pulled away. “I can’t do this, Talyn. I can’t risk your life for my freedom. My God, what if something happens to you in one of those fights?”
He turned on her with his eyes blazing. “I’d rather die than have that animal lay his hands on you. Sooner or later, death comes for us all. None of us can stop that. But I’m not going quietly to my grave. Whether it’s tomorrow or a hundred years from now, I’m checking out with blood on my fists. Fighting every step of the way into eternity.”
Wanting to kill him herself, she pulled his head down so that she could press her forehead to his. “I want to beat you so badly I can taste it. You are so infuriating!”
“And you love me for it.”
She bit his chin.
Hissing, he pulled back. “Ow!”
“You’re lucky that’s all I can bring myself to do to you. Because right now, what I really want is to take a paddle to your butt like an angry priestess catching your hand in the temple collection bin.”
“Now you’re just trying to turn me on.”
As his mother had done, she flicked her nails at him. “Don’t even try to make this a sexual thing. You’re sleeping in another room tonight.”
“I mean it, Talyn. I’m so mad at you that I don’t trust myself to be in the same bed with you right now while you’re defenseless.”
A tic started in his jaw. He was far from defenseless. At least against anyone other than Felicia.
“Fine,” he snapped, heading for the bedroom. He grabbed his pillow from the bed. “Sleep alone. I’m a big boy. I can take it. The gods know I’ve taken worse.”