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The house was getting cold now that the sun had long gone over the desert night, but none of the people around the table got up to feed the dying embers. The chill penetrated her bones, slithered inside her ribcage and spread to her brain, muddying her thoughts and making her numb to the disaster that threatened to swallow her family whole. What was left of it, anyway.
We’re never going to get out of this.
Marielle stared hard at the skeletal Delradon man sitting across the table. Ignio Marula’s crimson eyes were set on her with intense interest, and his long white hair fell down either side of his wrinkled face in a perfectly tame mass. He smiled at her, the corners of his thin lips curving with the peaceful joy of one accustomed to terrorizing others—and who enjoyed it.
A whimper came from her right, a sound that ripped through her skin and exposed the raw flesh underneath. The sound of the boy her brother, Devan, had been, not too long ago. And that he still was in many ways, even at seventeen.
All her instincts told her to look at him, at that handsome, innocent face she knew so well. That face the thugs had turned to ground meat with their fists—but Marielle didn’t dare take her eyes from Ignio Marula. The man was like a snake, best kept at a safe distance and under vigilant watch. His poisonous mind could make him strike at any moment, and those she cared about the most would lose their lives in the process.
“Please,” Devan spoke, his voice small and defeated, more like a boy’s than a man’s. “I can repay you. I just need more time.”
“My poor, dear boy.” Ignio shook his head, his face contorted in a parody of sadness and empathy. “I would love nothing more than to give you more time. As much time as you need, really.”
Marielle turned her head slightly to glance at the young man sitting at her right. His left eye was closed in a mess of purple flesh and blood from the repeated hits he’d sustained, and there was a long, deep cut on his right cheekbone. His lips and nose were bleeding, but the devilishly handsome boy was still there under the wounds. Devan’s lips lifted up, his single open, childish gray eye glowing with the hope borne of a good, trusting heart. The hope of a man who didn’t know the evil of the world because he didn’t have it inside him.
But she wasn’t her brother.
Marielle’s throat constricted painfully and she reflexively bit down on the interior of her cheek, hard enough to draw blood. She knew better than to let her heart swell at the kind words of a monster. Men like Ignio Marula didn’t give out free passes to dirt-poor humans like the Jansen siblings. Men like Ignio Marula crushed knees and broke arms, savaged wives and daughters—killed to keep the fear alive in the hearts of those desperate or naive enough to borrow from them.
Like her baby brother.
“Oh, thank you, Ignio, you won’t regret it.”
Devan spoke, louder this time, his natural enthusiasm bolting to the surface like it always did. Marielle’s heart clutched some more, and she refrained from grabbing her brother’s hand and squeezing it in her own. He hoped so easily, always saw the tiny spark, even when it was not there. She had to stop the surge before it was born, before it could hurt. Because there was no hope to be had, not anymore.
“I am afraid you misunderstand me.” Ignio Marula smiled some more, and his thin lips stretched impossibly wide, exposing a row of yellowing teeth that sent shudders straight to her soul. It was the smile of the beast, of what lay in wake when the light died and the child quivered, awake in his bed. It was the smile of the predator about to pounce and rip the deer’s throat open in a flash of blood and despair. “I would love nothing more than give you time to repay your debt—a debt you contracted of your own free will, and on terms you agreed to.” Ignio Marula raised his eyebrows and lifted his index finger to underline his point. “But what do you think would happen if I allowed you to renegotiate? Chaos. Chaos would happen, and my boys and I would be out of a job.”
Ignio Marula made a wide gesture to include the two Delradon men standing behind him and a chorus of chuckles answered his words. Marielle risked a glance at them, and her eyes were met by the stares of the Ferlin twins. Their thin faces split in ugly grins and their pale yellow eyes locked on her with something akin to joy, but more like lust. Lust for pain, for suffering and despair.
The chill traveled up her spine and enclosed her heart. Her family was at the mercy of these men, and there was nothing she could do about it.
“So, how am I to give you your money back?” Devan’s voice rose again, but this time it was high-pitched and shrill. “I don’t have it. I don’t have the money.”
Devan repeated his last sentence, over and over, his eyes lost in confusion. Marielle’s stomach flipped with anger and she breathed deeply, forcing herself not to bend over and puke all over Ignio Marula’s shiny white boots and pants.
He doesn’t understand. Devan never understood what would happen if he couldn’t pay.
Humans weren’t meant to prosper. Humans weren’t meant to rise above the dirt of the fields. Humans were meant to scrape floors and break their backs in mines and factories, not borrow small fortunes to improve their lives from the likes of Ignio Marula. Yet, this was exactly what Devan had done, and Ignio Marula had been only too happy to lend the boy more money than he could ever hope to pay back in his lifetime.
“Well then, dear boy, we’re going to have a problem, aren’t we?” Ignio Marula braced his elbows on the table and his smile vanished, replaced by the void stare of a snake looking down at an injured mouse, without an ounce of sympathy. “What am I going to do with you?”
A current of terror went straight through Marielle’s bones. Her eyes went from Devan’s limp, barely recognizable, expressionless face to Ignio Marula. The thug’s unnerving crimson stare moved from Devan to focus on her, and those eyes shone with a perverse glee.
“What am I going to do with your brother?” he said again. “What am I going to do with you?”
This was the question, wasn’t it? What was he going to do to them?
Ignio Marula’s tongue slid out to run over his bottom lip, giving him the appearance of a reptile about to strike. All Marielle could hear was the sound of blood pumping fast through her veins as she waited to hear her family’s fate.
Time felt suspended in a slow agony as Ignio Marula’s eyes traveled from Devan to Marielle. The Delradon’s expression changed, his eyes became heavy-lidded and his mouth hung slightly open. Lust was plain as sickness on his face.
Marielle’s face became numb and her heartbeat so hard in her chest it hurt.
“Now, maybe you can help your brother out of this bind.” Ignio Marula leaned down, his torso hovering over the table, his eyes set on her, ignoring everyone around them. “What do you say to that, sweetling? You can work off your brother’s debt at one of my establishments.”
Marielle’s eyes left the monster’s to lock on her brother’s face. There it was, that innocent turn of the lips, outraged at Ignio Marula’s proposition-slash-threat. Devan’s flaming, wild and curly red hair—a trait he shared with Marielle—fell over his brows. A storm of freckles over milky white skin just like hers covered a broken nose, a nose previously straight and strong, but now bent sideways. His single open eye shone gray and bright, full of an explosive temper—one to which they owed their current position. Another trait Marielle shared with her brother.
She couldn’t let anything happen to him. No matter the cost.
But I can’t do that, either.
Marielle bit her lower lip but her head bobbed up and down in acquiescence, then she looked away from Devan and his childish indignation.
Ignio Marula’s mouth stretched over his too-large teeth, giving his wrinkled face the appearance of a shark. He extended a bony hand to Marielle, wrapping thin fingers around her own, his brows raised in encouragement. “If you’re good, you might even earn a bit of pocket money.” His eyes slid down her tattered dress and she could almost feel his evil thoughts permeate the fabric and touch her body. “I like to take care of my girls, everyone knows that.”
Yes, everyone knew that Ignio Marula took care of the poor souls living between the dirty walls of his brothels, their eyes dull and their smiles as empty as their hearts. In the city, rumor had it that he liked to break them himself, and that the girls had to keep to their beds for a month after Ignio Marula’s attentions. He beat them and used them with his men until there was no fight left in the souls of those who were unlucky enough to find themselves under his ‘care’. And once a girl walked inside his door, she never left. Not while she was alive.
Marielle shot out of her horrified trance and found herself standing. “Don’t touch me!” She wiped the hand Ignio Marula had touched on her dress repeatedly. “You’re mistaken if you think I’ll be one of your whores!”
Ignio Marula lifted his brows at her, his eyes flashing in sudden shock, his hand falling flat to the table. The air filled with a deafening silence as the Ferlin twins slowly inched closer. Ignio Marula got to his feet, the shock on his face giving way to an intense expression of controlled anger. Nobody talked to him like that—certainly not humans.
“Then I guess you might want to say goodbye to your brother.” The venom was barely contained in Ignio Marula’s voice as he tilted his head at the twins. “Because you will never see him alive again.”
The Ferlin twins moved on each side of Devan and roughly lifted him to his feet. Her brother screamed in pain as he was forced to put weight on the ankle the twins had shattered with a metal bar.
If he had cried, Marielle might have not done it. But he stifled the next scream and looked at her with acceptance in his eyes.
Like the boy who used to eat from the jam jar with his fingers, then cried to escape his punishment.
She could not let him go, that boy she had raised since she was fifteen and he ten, after their father died in the fire that claimed two hundred human lives in the lowest part of town.
“Don’t hurt him. I’ll repay you.” Marielle lifted her chin and steadied the trembling in her hands. “I’ll take over Devan’s debt.”
“No!” Devan’s voice boomed from behind her, full of anger and outrage. “Marielle, don’t do this.”
Marielle stared at her brother, at his juvenile, ruined face. He was still such a child. He didn’t understand. Anger flashed inside her, despite herself.
Then what? You don’t get to just die on me. You’re all I have left.
“I knew you would be reasonable,” Ignio Marula spoke, instantly attracting her attention, a smile on his full-of-teeth mouth, his eyes trailing down her body like a brand. “It will take you some time, sweetling, to repay your debt, that’s for sure. But I’ll take good care of you if you take good care of me. I’ll even let your brother visit from time to time. I’ve heard he’s rather fond of my niece, Rela.”
The oxygen went out of the room and she tried to breathe. Her lungs didn’t work and she opened her mouth like a fish until dark little spots danced in her vision.
But there was something she could do. Something that would solve all their problems and get them enough money to live free of danger for the rest of their lives. Get rid of Ignio Marula for good.
If she survived. But anything was better than a life in the bowels of Ignio Marula’s brothels.
“I’m not going to whore for you.” Marielle flipped her long, flaming-red hair away from her cheeks.
“That’s not really up to you, is it?” Ignio Marula glanced at one of the Ferlin twins and chuckled. “Now that you’ve taken the debt upon yourself.”
“Yes, it is. And if you want to be richer than a lowlife like you could ever dream about then you’ll listen.”
Marielle swallowed, twice. For four years, she had hoped to never have to fall back on this but now she had no choice. She turned around and walked slowly to the chimney. She could feel their gazes on her back like she was a target: Devan’s surprised stare, Ignio Marula’s crimson eyes, already assessing how much he would make off her.
How many men could use her body until she was all used up.
Marielle’s hand rested on the loose stone at the far right of the chimney. She hesitated, but only for a moment. She had no other options. If she found herself in Ignio Marula’s claws, she would never crawl out from under their grasp.
She dislodged the stone and put it down, then reached into the hollow behind it. There used to be more there, a few pieces of old jewelry, money enough to last them through rainy days. Only the rainy days had kept coming, giving way to hard times, and then the money was gone. The only piece of jewelry that remained was her grandmother’s opal necklace. With trembling fingers, Marielle took the necklace out, then reached further inside and retrieved the piece of paper.
It was crumpled, and stained from humidity, but the writing was still legible enough.
“With this, I can repay you double what Devan owes you.”
She turned the paper over to display the seal of the Draekon, unmistakable at the bottom. Ignio Marula straightened, his eyes latching onto the seal, greed twisting his mouth into a grimace.
He looked at her genetic compatibility letter, one second melting into the next until time held no meaning.
“You have yourself a deal.” Ignio Marula looked up from the paper and smiled. “Produce an heir for the Draekon Lord, and you can pay your brother’s debt.”
“You’re a fool if you think I’ll give you all that money,” Marielle said, knowing she had the advantage now. The fee she would get for her Mating Contract was more than anything a man like Ignio Marula would see in his entire lifetime. “You get double what Devan owes you, nothing more.”
“Triple.” Ignio pursed his lips in an ugly smirk.
Ignio Marula nodded once, then turned around and headed for the door. Smoothly, like trained dogs, the Ferlin twins followed. At the door, Ignio paused. “Oh, I almost forgot.” He turned to look at Marielle, and she felt all heat desert her body. “I can’t leave without insurance. In case you change your mind once you meet your all powerful Draekon Lord.”
Marielle understood his intent, but it was too late. Ignio Marula jerked his head toward Devan.
She shot up in front of her brother, protective instincts surging through her body like fire.
“No! You don’t touch him!” she shouted, not caring to spare the thug’s feelings. She had the upper hand anyway—and they were not taking Devan.
Ignio Marula stared at her, his thin face like stone, unmoving, unfeeling. Then she understood. She had been wrong to think she held any sway over him—the lure of money only gave her a bit more time.
“You think you have the advantage over me, but you don’t.” Ignio Marula smiled again, and it churned her stomach. “I could kill you both right here and leave. I would still get something out of it—if only fear from all the others like you. But you… you are the one with something to lose. I will leave now and I will take Devan with me. There is nothing you can do to stop me. Betray me and I will make him pay for the insult you gave me today.”
Marielle watched helplessly as Ignio Marula slid his gut-wrenching stare to Devan, then turned and walked out of her house, quickly followed by the Ferlin twins.
Devan didn’t even try to fight them off as they dragged him away.
For a long time, Marielle stared at the door, swinging idly in the night wind. She had bought her brother some time.
Now all she had to do was risk her life in the arms of a Draekon Lord.
“What I don’t understand is, why now?”
Fedryc turned on his heels and walked back toward the sleeping figure of Nyra. The dragoness snored softly, a steady stream of smoke escaping her fiery red snout. He still couldn’t believe she’d accepted his father’s order so easily, but then again, Nyra wasn’t one to do as expected.
“It doesn’t matter why,” Henron answered behind him. “Lord Aymond summoned you to Aalstad for his Mating Ceremony, and to Aalstad you’ll go. There’s no point debating about it.”
“But why summon me for this, after all this time?” Fedryc couldn’t let go of the anger that had taken hold of him for the last two days, ever since he’d received the letter from his father, summoning him to his kingdom on Earth. “He hasn’t bothered with his son in thirty-five years.”
“I know,” Henron spoke again, but softer this time.
Fedryc extended his hand and flattened it over the dragoness’ large neck. Nyra’s scales were warm and smooth, and he ran his palm up her neck, all the way to the hollow behind her ear. As his fingers rubbed the sensitive spot, Nyra purred softly in her sleep and a wave of well-being traveled up from the dragon to his mind, quelling his anger, soothing the edges of that dark abyss of fire and fury he felt every time he thought about his father.
Henron waited, knowing without being told that the communion of mind with Nyra was what Fedryc needed.
“My father found a compatible mate.” Fedryc swallowed past a throat that felt suddenly coated in sand. “I didn’t even think he was looking.”
“He’s not necessarily looking.” Henron spoke softly, but his tone was anything but. “They test every woman on Earth, like they do on Dagmar. He’s simply been handed a positive result.”
“It doesn’t matter. The Mating Ceremony is in two days. Maybe he will finally have the son he always wanted.”
Henron looked down at the folded note in Fedryc’s hand, then back at him. Something dark and haunted passed across his orange eyes, but he nodded anyway. Henron understood more than anyone what it felt like to be left out, to be forgotten.
“Maybe he just wants to get to know you better,” Henron suggested without conviction. “Now that he might have another heir, he wants to spend time with you.”
“Knowing me is not on his agenda.” Fedryc pulled his hand away from Nyra’s scales. He couldn’t have those feeling traveling down the link to her. Aymond Haal didn’t deserve his anger, didn’t deserve his pain and surely didn’t deserve Nyra’s anguish. “There has to be something else.”
Fedryc turned to face his best friend. Eyes of the darkest orange shade looked up at him in a way no other man dared to. Henron knew that if there was one thing Fedryc didn’t talk about, it was Aymond Haal, High Lord of the kingdom of Aalstad on Dagmar’s most recent satellite world, Earth. His father held an important position, one of great honor and power. A position Fedryc would have to fulfill once his father stepped down.
“You heard the rumors, same as I did. Maybe he needs your help with that.”
The words fell between them and silence invaded the dragon’s cave. Yes, Fedryc had heard the rumors, same as everyone. Only they were not rumors. The Knat-Kanassis had returned, and with it, its share of horrors and senseless deaths.
“It’s no rumor,” Fedryc told his friend. “I knew Lord Emeril Fyr when we were children. His son’s dragonet was killed with Venemum Ardere under his own roof before it was sent to Lord Aldric Darragon as a warning.”
“How old was the boy?” Henron asked, his eyes grave with the knowledge that once the dragonet died, the Draekon child would surely follow. The link ran deep—so deep that as one Draekon child was born, so was a dragonet. If one left this life, the other one followed. Such was the price for the extraordinary strength and long life of the Draekon, but such was also their weakness.
“He was only five.” The air went out of his lungs and Fedryc had to inhale deeply. Just thinking about his old friend’s distress made him want to rage and reduce the fanatics to ashes for the sacrilege they committed. “His only son. The human woman who became his mate died giving birth to him. Now, he has nothing.”
“If it is the Knat-Kanassis, and your father needs you, it will be dangerous.” Henron shook his head, then looked straight at him. “You won’t be going alone. I’m coming with you.”
Fedryc stared at his oldest friend. Henron was Delradon through a cruel trick of fate, as the son of a Draekon mother and father. His older brother was Draekon, as was his younger sister, but when he was born, Henron was born alone, without a dragon. His parents sent him to the Emperor as a ward when he was five years old, and never looked back. When Fedryc was sent to the Emperor as well, Henron was the first—and only—friend he made. They bonded over the pain of their rejection and forged a friendship that ran as deep as any family bonds. They were brothers in everything but blood.
That was why he couldn’t do this to him.
“You can’t come to Earth.” Fedryc frowned, then put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “You’re captain of the royal family’s guard. You’re not throwing away your life’s work for me.”
Henron locked gazes with him, his face settling in familiar stubborn lines. “There’s no one else I’d rather have by my side, remember?” He chuckled, bringing back the memory of the words they’d used when the rigorous training in the Emperor’s court threatened to push them over the edge. “I’m not letting you face this alone. Plus, I’m quite tired of the princesses and their demands.”
Fedryc stared at his friend, that Delradon man who had been abandoned by his family for the crime of not being born the way they wanted him to be. Henron was right.
“There’s no one else I’d rather have by my side.”