If Taran loses his girl--and his second chance at love--he'll never find his way to freedom.
A'yen's Reign: Year Two
Taran has served Nicco, prince of Marcase, for twenty-three years. While on a fact-finding mission to Corsica--a planet annexed by the empire thirteen years ago--Taran and Nicco are kidnapped by the Freedom Alliance and taken deep into the Corsican hardwood forests.
Da'Renna, sister to King A'yen's linked bodyguard, has loved Taran since the moment he saw her. Leaving him behind wasn't easy, but her brother needed her more. Hearing about Taran's kidnapping makes her wonder if she made the right choice.
With the help of a friend from Corsica, Da'Renna and her brother sneak in to find Taran. When mercenaries take her hostage, Taran must make the choice he dreads most: his master, or his soul-mate.
Freedom isn't supposed to be this hard.
Ten years old. Taran stared out the window at the street below. “When he comes back, how will he know where I am?”
The prince sighed. “Everyone here knows where you’re going. They’ll tell him.”
Fourteen years old. Taran stared out the window at the gardens below. “How will he know where I am? Titan’s a long way off. He can’t find me there.”
The prince sighed. “Everyone knows where you’re going. I’ve left instructions that if he comes, Anthony is to be told. He’ll let us know.”READ MORE
Seventeen years old. In two more days. Taran stared out the window at the gardens below, fingers splayed across the glass, telling himself the streaks of moisture were from the rain beating on the glass and not because he was trying not to cry. “He’s not coming, is he?”
The prince squeezed his shoulder. “No, Taran, I don’t think he is. Are you ready?”
Taran remembered nodding, then walking the long hall. Down the grand staircase. To the throne room. He knelt before the emperor for the prince to collar him and claim him in front of the entire court. No one could touch him. No one could take him. No one could hurt him.
Except those he was foolish enough to allow into his heart.
Twenty-five years old. It worked. She came to him. For three blissful weeks they pretended her collar didn’t tie her to Jacob Morrison. Against his better judgment, Taran fell in love with her.
Thirty-four years old. Taran stared out the window. Story of his life. “She’s not coming back.”
“We don’t know for sure.”
Taran didn’t look at his master, his protector, his friend. His brother in every way that mattered. “She never replied to my last letter.”
“You told her you weren’t coming to her brother’s wedding. I think she’s pissed.”
Taran turned his back to the window overlooking the gardens. Nicco Faroukh, prince of the Marcasian Empire, second vizier to the emperor, sat cross-legged in the middle of Taran’s bed. “She’d beg me to stay. Then we’d end up fighting and saying things we don’t mean. She’d scream at me for not being brave enough to stand on my own. Maybe throw something at me. I’d leave. She’d expect me to apologize first, though I haven’t done anything wrong. We’d end up right where we are now. My way is a lot less painful.”
“For you or her?”
“Both. I’m not leaving you, and she’s not leaving her brother. Which leaves us both screwed and alone.”
Nicco’s mouth twitched. “Alone, yes. Screwed? That’s your problem. You haven’t been screwed in a year.”
“You did me last night.”
“Cascades for pain relief don’t count. You told me that, remember?”
“Yes.” Taran left the window. Returned to the foot of the bed, and closed his suitcase. “Besides, this needs to be done. You’re not going alone.”
Nic groaned. “If my father hadn’t been such an idiot and invaded a planet, we wouldn’t have to do this.”
“But he was an idiot. Who knows how long it’ll be before things are calm enough again? We can’t miss this opportunity.” Taran grabbed his handset from its charging cradle and tucked it in the correct pocket on his backpack then slung it over his shoulder. “Ready?”
“I guess.” Nic slid off the bed. Fingered the green and gold threads woven into Taran’s hair at his left temple. “I still wish you’d cut them out for this trip.”
Taran gripped Nic’s shoulder. “We’re making this trip together. Cutting them out won’t protect me if something should happen.”
“Do you have two months’ worth of your meds?”
“I do. Though I still think it’s ridiculous to take so much.”
“Humor me.” Nic’s body tightened. He turned and headed through the sitting room joining Taran’s bedroom to his. Taran followed to make sure he didn’t forget anything.
Nic’s wife, Honor, leaped into his arms, clinging to his neck. “I wish you wouldn’t go. It’s still so dangerous.”
“We’ll be fine. Security is a PSF squad.”
Instead of watching Nic kissing his wife goodbye, Taran went to the window to look at the gardens one last time. He hadn’t kissed Ren in eleven months—an Earth year. Or felt her touch on his skin, her hair tickling his nose, or taken a shower with her. Once again, his obligations to a man he’d sworn his life to came between them. And she refused to understand.
Saving her brother—the Lokmane king’s linked bodyguard—hadn’t been enough. Taran had stood there and lied to Anthony, and the court, to keep Ro from going to prison. The young man had done his time in hell, and deserved to be free of his tormentors. Even if he had to commit murder to do it.
Then Ren chose her brother over her lover; over the man she said she loved. She left him and went to Lok’ma to make her dream family with Ro—as if oblivious to the family she had here in Karnak, in the palace. With Taran.
She’d taken his heart with her. He moved through his days in a haze, half a person, half a brain, half a soul. What would it take to convince her they were meant to be together?
They said goodbye to Nic’s kids and headed for the Imperial landing pad. If he’d made a different decision, he’d be leaving for Lok’ma instead of Corsica today. But he hadn’t. Duty and promises won over love. Maybe she was right. Maybe, if he really did love her, leaving Nic wouldn’t be so hard.
No. Leaving Nic would always be hard. The man had walked through hell for him.
“Sir, I can’t guarantee your safety if we go there. Even a flyover is dangerous.”
Leaning against the wall, Taran crossed his arms and watched Nic take on their PSF security squad.
“Why is it dangerous?”
“The rebels have weapons capable of bringing shuttles down.”
“The forest between here and Prescott is so dense, their window for a clear shot is miniscule. I’m willing to take my chances.” Nic glared at the captain. “An opportunity of this magnitude isn’t likely to happen again. I’m not going to miss it based on a maybe.”
The captain’s jaw tightened, but he stepped out of Nic’s way. Nic continued to the cockpit to instruct the pilot, and Taran returned the captain’s steady, blank look. “Is he always this unreasonable?”
Taran pushed off the wall. “He’s not being unreasonable, Captain. What’s been done here is wrong, and we’re not leaving until we have as much information as we can get. Your job is to provide security, not obstruct us from completing our mission.”
The captain raked him with a sneer. “Remember your place, slave.”
Taran pushed his sleeves up to show the gold outline of his markings. The man’s eyes widened. “Remember yours, Captain.” He brushed past the officer, and returned to his seat by the window.
Nic joined him a few minutes later, and the shuttle lifted off. “The pilot said it’ll take about six hours to get there.”
Taran glanced at the captain and his two men. Tapped the side of his head to tell Nic he wanted to do this telepathically. Nic nodded, and Taran opened the link. “The captain has a point about it being dangerous. We’ve yet to meet a single Corsican who thinks remaining under Marcasian control is a good idea.”
“I know. Prescott has managed to stay neutral ground. I can’t ignore someone from the rebellion leadership being willing to talk. It shows we’re serious about finding a solution that works for as many people as possible.”
“Even if it’s a trap?”
“So long as you’re sure.” Taran closed the link.
Thirteen years was a long time for a war. Good men and women—on both sides—had died because of High Lord Hepshut and deceased Emperor Joseph’s greed. If the stories Taran had heard were correct, innocent Corsicans were being slaughtered. Over who would control a planet covered with hardwood trees. It made no sense.
But it posed a threat to the continuing freedom of Lok’ma. Four years ago, an archaeologist confirmed Rim One was the mythical Lok’ma. She’d fallen in love with the Lokmane slave she’d bought to protect her, who now sat on the Lokmane throne as King A’yen V. His father-in-law had owned the largest breeding farm system in the galaxy, and had been taken down when he kidnapped A’yen and tried to work him to death.
A’yen had become the spark to a revolution, and most planets in the galaxy had adopted emancipation acts. Even Doran, home of the breeding farms, had fallen last year. But not Marcase. If the high nobles had their way, the Lokmane in the empire would never know freedom.
One way or another, Taran wasn’t leaving Corsica until he had some kind of proof High Lord Hepshut was involved in the current atrocities. As owner of most of the steel production, he had the most to lose when emancipation came.
And it would, whether Hepshut liked it or not. Taran planned to make damn sure of it. Maybe then Ren would come back to him.
Ren. Better not to think about her right now. He picked up his tablet, put his earbuds in, and went into his book, the latest thriller from his favorite author. He lost all track of time, and didn’t come out of the book world until a violent shaking of the shuttle tossed him on the floor.
He yanked the buds from his ears as the lights went out. Alarms assaulted his hearing. His tablet slid across the floor and banged into the opposite wall. The shuttle lurched, sending him on the same trajectory as his poor tablet. He turned his body to keep from slamming into the wall feet first and breaking a leg. Instead, the impact knocked the breath from him, and sent pain shooting through his ribs.
“Taran, are you okay?” Nic’s voice came from the doorway behind him.
He sucked in a harsh breath. Winced at the pain it caused. “Fine. What’s happening?”
“They’re shooting at us.”
The shuttle shook again, and went into what felt like a nose dive. Taran slid backward, grabbing the door frame to stop his slide. Nic went down with a yelp and what sounded like his body crashing into something immovable. Taran squeezed his eyes shut to lessen the feeling of spinning, and tried to brace for impact.
Silence fell as the alarms lost power. Then everything shuddered, metal screeched, and the ground sucker-punched the shuttle. Vibrations from the floor beneath shook his bones.
With a final lurch, the shuttle stopped moving. Impact. With what? Taran released his death-grip on the door frame and pulled himself into a sitting position to look around. Panels dangled from the ceiling, wires and cables hanging loose. Some of them showered sparks. Great. Fire hazard death trap.
Backtracking his link to Nic revealed him breathing, but unconscious. Holding his ribs with one arm, he used the other to pull up on the frame and get to his feet then tested his legs to make sure nothing was broken. He’d have a killer bruise on his left hip from banging into the wall, but everything worked as it should.
He sent his field through the shuttle, searching for signs of life. The soldiers were in the back, alive but trapped. He’d worry about them later. They were resourceful enough to get themselves out.
Taran stepped over panels, and into the hall where Nic had been. He lay on his side, back against the cockpit door. Blood soaked his sleeve. Taran picked his way through the debris and knelt in front of him. “Nic?”
The cockpit door started screeching. Taran grabbed Nic and hauled him away from it. The pilot stepped out, wearing a dazed look, blood dripping from a cut at her hairline. A grin spread across her face when she looked down. “This was too easy.”
Taran tightened his grip on Nic’s arm. “What are you talking about?”
“You didn’t really think you’d found a shuttle pilot unopposed to Marcasian control of my home, did you?” She paused and laughed. “Oh that’s so sweet. You did. Too bad for you. We’ve been planning this for years.”
“You’re not going to win this by kidnapping us. We’re here to talk. To find a solution that works for everyone.”
The pilot shook her head. “We don’t believe you. We will never bow to the Marcasian Empire.” She pointed at him. “Don’t you move, now. We have plans for you.” She continued past him, hand on the wall to keep her balance. Five minutes later, he counted six shots of a handgun. She came back grinning. “Like shooting fish in a barrel.” She hunkered down between him and the one way out. “I don’t know how long it’ll take them to get here to pick us up, so you best get comfortable.”
“Can I at least have a first aid kit to stop the bleeding?”
The woman turned and rummaged in a hole then threw him a white box with a red cross on it.
He sat beside Nic and ripped his sleeve the rest of the way. A nasty gash met him. It might need stitches. He opened the kit and rummaged through it. Wiped most of the blood away and spritzed the wound with the antibiotic/coagulant spray then wrapped it in clean gauze. He checked for broken bones, and swallowed the urge to growl when he found a break in Nic’s left leg covered by ugly purple bruises and swelling.
Nic groaned and his eyes fluttered. “Am I dead?”
Taran knelt in front of him and smoothed his cheek. Spoke in Marcasian, with Lokmane grammar to keep the pilot from figuring out what he was saying. “No. It was a trap, and we’ve crashed somewhere between Capital City and Prescott.”
Nic frowned. They hadn’t spoken this way since Emperor Joseph died three years ago. “The pilot’s in on it?”
“Pretty sure she just executed our PSF detail.” He sent up a silent prayer to Anubis to speed the men on their journey to the afterlife. “Your left leg is also broken, so don’t go trying to play hero.”
Nic shifted and grimaced. “So much for making a run for it.”
“We wouldn’t last two days in the forest, and they know it. I haven’t the faintest idea how to survive in the woods, or what’s safe to eat and what could kill us with one bite. Not to mention, I’m a lousy shot.”
“I’m not.” Nic grabbed Taran’s arm. “Help me sit up.”
Taran did, and positioned Nic’s leg to put the least amount of pressure on the broken bone. He looked over his shoulder at the pilot. “Is there an air splint? His leg is broken.”
“Supposed to be one in the kit.”
More rummaging turned it up. He knelt with Nic’s leg between his. “This is going to hurt.”
Nic’s jaw clenched, and he pressed his hands against the floor. At least he hadn’t been wearing boots. As gently as he could, Taran removed the shoe then the sock, cut his pants leg off, and slid the splint into place. He flicked the valve to inflate it, and Nic’s head banged into the wall. “Son of a bitch!”
“I warned you.” Taran eased away from Nic’s leg and faced the pilot, hand out to give her a gauze pad. “You’re bleeding.”
She frowned at him, but took the pad.
“I need my backpack from the other room.”
She lifted her gun and aimed at Nic’s head, laser sight on. “Be quick.”
Thank the gods Nic’s paranoia made him keep all his meds in his backpack. He dug it out of the compartment, pulled his powder inhaler out and used it, since it was time then hurried back to Nic.
“Not so paranoid now, am I?”
Taran shook his head and sat beside Nic. “She said this was planned.”
“I’m not surprised.” Nic sighed. “Hepshut’s going to be in heaven with this, waiting for Anthony to screw up.”
“Shut it.” The pilot flicked her laser sight on again and leveled it at Nic’s chest.
Taran glared at Nic to reinforce the woman’s command. He lost track of time as they waited in silence for whoever the pilot was in league with, but it must have been at least an hour. The sounds of a couple of light vehicles filtered through the twisted metal of the shuttle.
A tall human male came in and stood behind the pilot. “Any PSF?”
“Already neutralized.” She took the man’s offered hand, and stood. Put a hand on the wall to steady herself. “The human has a broken leg.”
“He can suffer with it until we get back to base. Not that anyone will want to waste tech or painkillers on him anyway.”
Taran felt Nic tense, and put a hand on his arm.
The man knelt in front of them, rifle balanced on his legs. “You speak Common?”
“Of course.” Nic straightened, glaring at the man. Taran kept his hand on Nic’s arm.
“Good. Because we refuse to speak your hideous language.” The man turned his gaze to Taran. “Get him up and out on the grass.”
Taran slung his backpack in place then helped Nic maneuver into position to pull up without putting weight on his leg. Nic groaned as he stood. Taran pulled Nic’s left arm across his shoulders, and threaded his right around Nic’s waist. “Use me like a crutch.”
“It’d be easier if you weren’t four inches taller.”
“I can’t shrink on demand, so suck it up and get moving before they start putting holes in us. I don’t know about you, but I want to live long enough to ask Ren to forgive me for pissing her off.”
“Honor will never forgive me if I get myself killed.”
“Exactly.” Taran focused on getting Nic through the debris, which the humans didn’t clear. Of course. Why help the representatives of their oppressors?
“My head is killing me.”
“My ribs are killing me.” Taran stopped at the edge of the door. Four feet to the ground. Too far for a man with a broken leg to jump. “You have to sit and slide off.” He lowered Nic, jumped down, and held his arms out for Nic to brace on as he slid. Taran slung his arm across his shoulders again and helped him to the back of the cargo truck, thirty feet away. Another man, wearing green and khaki camo fatigues, pulled Nic into the truck with Taran guiding his leg.
Fingers landed on his back, pressing into the freeze points. Taran arched, head back, fighting to keep breathing as agony shredded his body. His wrists were held to the metal frame of the truck, mag-locks engaged, and the fingers disappeared. But his arms were stretched taut and he had no room to relax. He focused on keeping his breathing even. Showing weakness in front of these people meant his death. Just as it did anywhere else for a Lokmane man wearing a collar.
Another hand pushed his head forward and used his hair to keep him from moving. Yet another pressed something into the lock on his collar. “Don’t you dare.” He tried to kick backward, but his leg wouldn’t obey.
“You’re slave to a Marcasian. You should be thanking us. Besides, we know there’s a tracking chip in your collar.”
“Don’t presume you know anything about me.” Except for the tracking chip part, because it was true. But he kept it to himself, and squeezed his eyes shut to keep his emotions hidden. To them, the collar might be a symbol of slavery, but not to him. It meant Nic cared enough to offer him the highest level of protection possible. Being collared in court made him a person in the eyes of the law.
The collar peeled from his neck and he heard it bounce on the floor of the truck. He opened his eyes and watched it stop at Nic’s feet. Before he could grab it, another soldier picked it up and threw it out, over Taran’s head.
One of his wrists released and the man behind him pulled the cuff off, replaced it with another one, and did the same to the other wrist. Then he jammed a rifle into Taran’s lower back. “Climb up.”
Taran didn’t move. The pilot held her gun to Nic’s head. He scrambled into the truck, where the soldier grabbed one wrist, held it to a metal support, and activated the mag-lock. He repeated the procedure with the other one, leaving Taran helpless and at the mercy of their captors.
Nic’s hands were done the same way, with another set of mag cuffs. Then they were blindfolded, and the truck lurched into motion.COLLAPSE