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Kill or be killed.
That was the single law of a League assassin, and it was the reminder that had been branded onto Sumi Antaxas’s arm when the devil had taken her soul in exchange for the life of the only family she had left. The only family that had ever really mattered to her.
As good as I am, I’m going to be slaughtered with extreme and utter prejudice. She had no doubt as she watched the video playback of the attack on a League prison from a few months ago. An attack led by the Caronese emperor and a joint Sentella-Tavali strike force.
Sumi suppressed a low, appreciative whistle as she watched them battling against an overwhelming League force. Heroic was one thing. Moronic was quite another. And in a move that was as brazen as it was stupid, Emperor Darling Cruel had led a group of rebels in to free his captured people – that included his wife – from League custody.
Then, right as he would have escaped clean-free, in a fit of rage, he’d revealed his identity to the prime commander of The League. Not only that Darling was the Caronese emperor making this strike, but that he was also a founding member of the High Command of The Sentella – the one organization that truly threatened the reign and control of The League on the planets that made up their universe.
And it didn’t help that The League’s prime commander, Kyr Zemin, had a personal grudge against the emperor from years ago. That only fueled the war that was now being fought between The League and The Sentella. A war that was quickly forcing all known governments to take sides.
“Right there! That’s the bastard!”
She forced herself not to cringe as Prime Commander Zemin pointed to the monitor in front of her and froze the scene of two men blowing the door on the prison.
Well over six feet in height, Commander Zemin had the same intensity as a homicidal psych patient. His right eye was covered with a black leather patch that didn’t conceal the scars of the wound that had taken it. Rumors claimed that eye had been lost in a furious fight with the legendary League assassin Nemesis – a man who was one of Emperor Cruel’s best friends, and one of the men who’d been in on that prison attack.
The identity of Nemesis was also known for a fact, since he’d ripped his helmet off during that historic raid, and had publicly backed the Caronese emperor in this insane war. But like Darling, Nemesis came with his own army and was completely untouchable.
The rest of their friends were not so fortunate.
She glanced up at the commander, who was so angry as he watched the playback that it was a miracle steam really didn’t roll out of his ears.
Or his nose, for that matter.
Cursing, he paced the room around her, making her even more nervous that he might use her as a scapegoat for the men he couldn’t touch. He wore his brown hair long and braided down his back – a holdover from the days when he’d been one of the top League assassins, before he’d executed his predecessor and had claimed his place as head badass.
Kyr narrowed his left, silvery blue eye on her. “Pay attention and note the taller of the two men.”
It was hard not to notice the ferocious warrior he spoke of. He dwarfed the man he was with by a good eight inches. For that matter, he towered over everyone except Nemesis, who was only two to three inches shorter. But Nemesis was only about half the man’s muscle mass.
She sucked her breath in sharply. That warrior was the biggest man Sumi had ever laid eyes on.
It was terrifying, really. Especially the way he expertly cut through the highly trained League soldiers as if they were mannequins. There was a brutal grace to the way he fought. He showed no hesitation or mercy as he literally plowed his way through her compadres and freed the Caronese political prisoners. The warrior didn’t even flinch when he was shot or stabbed. The wounds only made him fight harder. More determined.
A furious tic worked in Commander Zemin’s jaw as he watched over her shoulder. “I know that hulking monster is Dancer Hauk. I know it. I can tell by the way the mutant bastard moves. There aren’t that many beings of his size. Period. Not even among Andarions. And no one else that faggot emperor would trust at his back. Not like that.”
But the commander had no real proof. Only his gut feeling and the obvious, condemning size of the Andarion male.
He glared at her. “I want you to bring me the evidence I need to convict Hauk and issue the warrant for his execution. If I can’t have Cruel’s head, I want that of his best friend and main protector. Understood?”
Evidence that would have to be beyond contestation. Dancer Hauk was the last of a very long and prestigious line of military heroes. A line the Andarion people would die to protect from extinction. In fact, it’d been his direct ancestor who had founded The League centuries ago and served as its first prime commander. Hauk’s family had literally written the military laws that governed all of them.
And while the Andarion warrior had a kill bounty on his head from many governments, none were from The League directly. Rather, The League wanted him captured for questioning, or – more along Kyr’s style – torturing, so that Hauk could indict every member of The Sentella High Command. Until they had a full confession and hard factual evidence directly from Hauk himself, The League didn’t dare issue a kill bounty on a member of a family the Andarion people viewed as a national treasure.
That would be suicide. In fact, they’d be better off assassinating the entire Andarion royal family than giving a paper cut to a great War Hauk.
The only way for The League to legally execute Dancer Hauk was if they could get his birth mother to disown him first. And for that to happen, Commander Zemin would have to prove to Hauk’s mother that her son had committed treason against his Andarion heritage or acted cowardly in battle.
She glanced back at his unprecedented fighting prowess.
In short, given his intrepid nature in a fight, an act of God.
And all because Zemin couldn’t reach the emperor directly, so he was going after those closest to him. What a callous bastard.
Biting her lip, she glanced up at the commander and forced herself to speak. “Excellency? May I have permission to ask a question?”
He sneered at her. “If you must.”
She took a deep breath and braced herself for what might be a bad reaction from him. “Why me?”
“You’re one of the best I have, agent. I’ve never sent you after a target you didn’t take down immediately and effectively.” His euphemism for as bloody as possible to make her COs happy.
His gaze darkening, he leaned over to pin her between him and the desk where she sat. “And because you look enough like your sister that it should rattle that freakish bastard into making a mistake.”
Or, much more likely, get her killed for a relationship she couldn’t help. Andarions weren’t exactly known for their compassion or forgiveness. One of the fiercest warring cultures in the Nine Worlds, they lived for violence and bloodshed.
Especially human blood. For centuries, the Andarions had viewed humanity as cattle and food. A delicacy meat.
Most still did.
The commander grabbed her jaw in a fierce grip and forced her to meet his insane gaze. “You want your daughter spared, agent? This is the price of it. Deliver Dancer Hauk to me and I will see to it that she’s removed from League training and given to a real family to raise… Betray me or fail and I will have her head delivered to you and mounted to your cell wall.”
“C’mon, Darling. You can’t do this to me. I’m desperate for you, man. You’ve got to give it to me. Right here. Right now. I need you like I’ve never needed you before.”
In the hallway of the Caronese Winter Palace, Maris froze as he heard the deeply masculine, pleading Andarion accent through the door speaking with his male best friend.
There was no way the two of them were talking about what it sounded like. Unlike him, they were both straight. He knew that for a fact, and yet, as they continued arguing, it definitely sounded like two lovers squabbling.
Completely confounded, Maris met Nykyrian’s stunned expression as the royal prince caught up to him in the hallway outside Darling’s office. Tall, blond, and lethal, Nykyrian – or Nemesis, as he was better known – was a former League assassin who had an intensity that let you know in an instant he saw you first as a target and then, only if you were lucky, a sentient creature he might not want to kill.
Being half Andarion, Nykyrian’s hearing was even more astute than Maris’s. Not that anyone needed supersonic hearing to miss this exchange. Their decibel level carried quite plainly through the heavy door of the emperor’s office.
And how Darling’s two imperial guards remained stone-faced while it went on was a testament to their training.
“Hell. No. Hauk,” Darling snapped, enunciating each word with rage. “As much as I love and owe you, I’m not doing that for you. Ever. Forget it… And even if we did, you couldn’t handle it. Besides, you’ve never wanted it before. Not like this, and definitely not from me.”
Maris’s jaw dropped in synchronicity with Nykyrian’s.
“Ah, come on, Darling.” Hauk continued to plead in a tender, needful tone Maris had never heard him use before. “After everything I’ve done over the years to protect your sorry ass, I can’t believe you won’t share it with me. Don’t be like this. This isn’t a want. It’s a need. A major one. If you really loved me, you’d do this for me without question. Now give it to me! Please!”
“No! Not if we were the last two beings in the universe. Not even if you were down on your knees in front of me, buck naked and begging me for it.”
His expression horrified, Nykyrian opened the door to show Darling and Hauk standing on opposite sides of Darling’s desk, glaring at each other as if they were about to come to blows.
With his short red hair brushed back from his face and his royal harone hanging to his left shoulder, Darling was dressed in dark blue and maroon emperor robes while Hauk was swathed in a red-tinged black blast-resistant Sentella battlesuit that hugged every inch of his huge, well-muscled body. His black hair fell to his shoulders in small, extremely attractive braids that were common for the warriors on his home planet to designate them as the fiercest of their breed. The stark darkness of his warrior’s uniform made his skin glow a rich tawny-caramel that would make anyone’s mouth water for a taste.
Obviously annoyed, Hauk turned toward them and pinned them with his red-and-white Andarion eyes.
Even though Nykyrian shared many Andarion traits with Hauk, such as fangs, sensitive hearing, and extreme height, he had green human eyes. Ones that showed no fear as he locked gazes with Hauk. “Thank the gods you’re both still dressed and not entwined naked on the floor… Now tell me, what exactly are we interrupting?”
Hauk scowled at the comment and question as if replaying their exchange in his head while Darling burst into laughter.
“Damn, Nyk… my wife’s not that pregnant.” Darling’s tone was filled with utter indignation.
Maris scoffed. “Oh please, honey. Zarya’s so pregnant, one good sneeze could launch your son into this world in a matter of seconds.”
Darling gave him a droll stare, but he knew it was true. Due any minute now, the poor girl was almost as huge as a shuttle craft.
And crankier than a Gondarion were-beast.
Moving closer to Hauk, Nykyrian looked back and forth between them. “And neither of you has answered my question. What had the two of you shouting lewd come-ons at each other?”
Now it was Maris’s turn to burst into laughter, as a smile toyed at the edges of Nykyrian’s lips.
With a nonchalance Maris knew he didn’t feel, Darling crossed his arms over his chest. “It’s something truly horrific, Nyk. We’re talking the stuff of haunting nightmares…”
Maris arched a brow at that dire statement. Given what each of them had survived, he could only imagine what would make the intrepid Andarion warrior flinch.
Darling jerked his chin toward Hauk. “He’s facing six weeks alone with a creature so terrifying that he’s actually in here begging me for explosive devices that can temporarily maim him so that he won’t have to go near it.”
The gape returned to Nykyrian as he faced Hauk. “Seriously? It’s a child, Hauk, not a rabid animal you’re about to be caged with.”
Hauk scoffed at his nonchalance. “I beg to differ, and need I remind you how you felt the first time you learned you had a half-grown daughter and a baby on the way? As I recall, you weren’t exactly let’s-all-go-to-the-park-and-have-fun, buddy. But six kids later, you’re fine with it all, while I’m sick to my stomach at the prospect. What do you feed them? What if he has to go to the bathroom? Huh? What do I do then?”
Darling rolled his eyes. “Your nephew’s fourteen, Hauk. I promise you, you won’t have to burp him or change his nappies.”
“Oh, how do you know?” Hauk scoffed.
“True, Darling,” Nykyrian said drily. “We still have to change Hauk’s anytime you set off an explosion too close to him.”
Maris and Darling laughed while Hauk glared viciously at Nykyrian. That alone spoke volumes about Nykyrian’s courage.
Anyone else who received such a look from Hauk would run screaming for the door.
“Go ahead,” Hauk growled. “All of you. Laugh at me. Sure. Why not? But none of you have ever had to survive alone with a child, in the wilderness, for six minutes, never mind six weeks. Endurance is the hardest thing any Andarion goes through. Both the adult and the child.”