A’yen's loved ones are under attack. To save them, he'll risk everything.
Half the Lokmane are free and the resettling of Lok’ma is in progress. A'yen is crowned king, but it isn't stopping his enemies. Someone is after Ro, and the woman he's falling in love with is caught in the middle.
When Fae is injured in a cave-in at a dig site, A'yen knows who’s to blame. Proving it is the hard part. Things get worse when he walks into a political trap, and Ro is framed for murder. Saving his reputation is easy compared to saving Ro. Ro’s demons come for him, taking him back to a life not worth living.
A'yen races to save Ro before he can act on his deepest desire: killing his tormentor. Happily ever after can't happen if Ro is dead.
Earth Year: 5234
Ro stared at his king. Didn’t matter his mouth hung open. Didn’t matter A’yen stared right back. “You did what?”
“I invited the Marcasian emperor to send a representative.” A’yen crossed his arms while his gaze drilled holes into Ro’s brain.
“Are you insane?”
“Not last time I checked.”
Ro gave the man—his king, yes, but also the closest thing he had to a friend—his fiercest frown. “I beg to differ. Do you want them to see how easy it would be to conquer us again?”READ MORE
A’yen leaned back in his chair, and propped his bare feet on the corner of his desk. He still wore a collar, because he insisted on being the last Lokmane to remove his. At the current rate of emancipation—stalled out—he’d go to his grave wearing it. “Pretty sure they already know. I’m operating under the assumption they have spies here.”
A valid point, but one Ro wasn’t ready to concede. Instead, he turned to Sa’nar Jenkins, the newly-elected prime minister. He’d be sworn in next week, minutes after A’yen’s coronation. “Please tell me you tried to talk him out of this. You’re from there. You know what they’re like.”
“I agree with him.”
“Then you’re both insane.” Ro stalked to the window, hands hidden in his pockets. A’yen knew how upset he was about this. Sometimes being a telepath and empath came in handy. Not today. A’yen was too calm. Too reasonable. Sa’nar as well. He faced them again. “Why? Why take such a huge risk? So much could go wrong.”
“We don’t know how many are enslaved within the empire. Marcase isn’t known for doing things because it’s the right thing to do. The only hope we have of getting through to them is to show them we’re real.” A’yen’s feet hit the floor and he leaned forward. “I’m sure as hell not sending someone there. You’re not the only one unnerved by this, Ro, but we’ve tried everything else. Their High Senator won’t talk to Dad. If you have a better idea, please, tell me.”
Forcing the tension from his shoulders, Ro sat. “If I was any good at politics, I wouldn’t be covered with blue.” He glanced at his markings. The pattern resembled braided vines of thorns in a dark blue the same shade as his eyes. Twelve years, and his hatred of them hadn’t dimmed. Neither had the judgment from others. They saw only the blue and what it meant: a marked sex slave, forbidden by law to say no to anyone. Even to other slaves.
They never saw Da’Ro, the person. The man who laughed with A’yen’s little boy. Or the man learning how to cook, who secretly devoured poetry and had fallen in love with Shakespeare’s sonnets. Thanks to Jasmyn.
Calm seeped through him at the thought of her. No one knew she was teaching him how to read Common, so he could appreciate the master wordsmith without translation barriers.
Jasmyn Jenkins, Sa’nar’s oldest daughter. She saw him. For some strange reason, she liked him too. The real him, who was little better than a whore and totally unworthy of someone pure like her. They’d met two years ago when A’yen visited the Hidden in the Morrow Nebula. From the moment Ro saw her, he’d wanted to stand on his own and be worthy of her.
“Does Jasmyn light up like that when she thinks about Ro?” A’yen had the good sense not to laugh out loud, but it danced in his tone.
Sa’nar’s chuckle made Ro’s ears burn. “A father doesn’t divulge his daughter’s secrets.”
“My love life, or lack thereof, is not the subject at hand, A’yen. Do you really want them to know we don’t have a military, or a fully functional economy?” Ro locked his gaze on A’yen until he squirmed.
“Like I said, I’m pretty sure they already know.”
“And on the off chance they don’t?”
“They do.” Sa’nar heaved a sigh. “There is very little in this galaxy they don’t know.”
“We’re making it easier for them why?”
A’yen shook his head and leaned back again then appeared to change his mind because he leaned forward, arms folded on his desk. Ro twisted his telepathic field to see the colors. Growing pain shimmered around A’yen in a halo of dark green, a perfect match to his markings. The curse of the markings—constant, never-ending, nerves-on-fire, slicing, stabbing pain. Down to the bone. “Doing it like this, we retain some control of what they see.”
“Not good enough.”
“It’s all I’ve got. Snubbing them won’t do us any good either.”
Ro gritted his teeth a moment to keep from saying something he’d regret. A’yen was the most stubborn, unafraid Lokmane he’d ever met. “I don’t have to like it.”
“I don’t like it either. This way, we get them on our turf, where you and some of the other Més can look around and prepare for any potential threats.”
Ro glared at A’yen. “This isn’t the emperor you pissed off, is it?”
Sa’nar sighed, a long please-don’t-try-my-patience kind of sigh. “You did what?”
A’yen’s ears turned red and he ducked his head. “The one I pissed off is dead. I looked at him. Made eye contact and everything.”
“Of course you did. Should’ve known.” Sa’nar stood, and gathered a stack of papers from the edge of A’yen’s desk. “Any other pissed-off government officials I should know about?”
A’yen’s lips pursed as he thought. Ro gritted his teeth again, to keep from laughing.
“Only if a territorial governor from Centron counts. But it was more than a decade ago, and I doubt he’s still in office. I threatened to break his wife’s fingers if she didn’t get her hands off my ass.”
Ro slapped a hand over his mouth to keep a cackle inside, his usual reaction to the ridiculous story of A’yen risking his life to get a woman’s hands out of his pants, while Sa’nar laughed aloud. “You are one of a kind, A’yen.”
A’yen grinned. “That’s probably a good thing.”
Still chuckling, Sa’nar left the king’s office for his own. Ro crossed his arms and turned his glare on.
“Anybody ever tell you that glare is hot enough to melt steel?” A’yen mimicked Ro’s posture for a moment. “Heard anything from the network?”
Ro’s irritation fled, and he dropped his guard. A’yen protected him like Rhys had, always making sure no one knew just how on edge he really was. About the migraines that plagued him. Or about his notebook full of ways to kill Camden Hart and Jacob Morrison. “No. I don’t understand how they can disappear as if they never existed.”
In the year and a half since she’d disappeared with her master, Jacob Morrison, no amount of digging and interrogating had given him any clues to his sister’s location.
Ro picked up on Fae’s presence seconds before she opened the door behind him. The soon-to-be queen also treated him like a brother, and didn’t mind at all when he snuck into the nursery to hold the growing-like-a-weed prince, Da’Rhys. He wanted the prince to know about his namesake, about the strength of character inherent in his name. A name given him to honor the sacrifice Ro’s brother, Da’Rhys, made to keep A’yen—and Ro—alive long enough to be rescued from Benai Hart’s clutches.
Fae rested a hand on his shoulder for the briefest of moments then turned to her husband. Dark-as-night black hair fell in a braid down her back. A’yen placed a hand on each side of her stomach and kissed it. Three months pregnant, with a girl this time. Ro let A’yen’s joy flow through him in a riot of yellows, everything from the peel of a lemon to a pat of butter from the kitchen.
A’yen and Fae’s children were the closest thing Ro would ever have to children of his own. The price of being a Mé—telepath, empath, and telekinetic—was never fathering a child. And if his nieces and nephews were ever freed, he’d be lucky to see them from a distance considering how much his brother’s widow hated him.
Fae sat in A’yen’s lap and he cupped the back of her neck with his hand, to hold her still while he devoured her. Their passionate kisses had ceased embarrassing Ro fourteen months ago. Their passion helped him feel safe. Gave him a guide to what true love looked like.
A’yen finally released her mouth and she snuggled against him, cheek pillowed on top of his head. “Inviting the Marcasian emperor to send a representative knocked something loose in my memory.” Fae turned her gaze to Ro. “About Camden.”
Ro turned the colors off. Ice filled his veins, pumping through his body from the place where his heart had once been. A heart Camden had shot down in cold blood eighteen months ago. “What?”
“Camden’s eight years older than me. He went to Gill Mar too.” Fae paused. Laced her fingers with A’yen’s. “Both of Emperor Joseph’s sons attended Gill Mar.”
Fae shrugged. “Maybe they wanted to get away from him for a while. Anthony, the sitting emperor, would have been there with Camden. It’s conceivable their paths crossed.”
Ro settled into his chair, soaking the knowledge in. “Why do you say that?”
“Because mine crossed with Nicco, the younger son. He’s two years older than me, but we ended up in the same graduating class because he missed three semesters. He seemed like a halfway decent person at the time.”
“He’s Marcasian, Fae. It’s impossible for him to be decent.” A’yen accepted her smack on the back of his head with a grace born of years of experience.
“Smart-ass.” She stuck her tongue out at him then turned her attention back to Ro. “I say Nicco seemed halfway decent because his personal servant was a Lokmane boy. That boy worshiped the ground Nicco walked on. Everyone on campus knew it. If you hurt him, Nicco took it as a personal insult to his honor.”
Ro studied A’yen’s reaction. He, too, worshiped the ground a human walked on. First with Wayan Mesu, his first master and lover, then with Fae. He still lit up like a star going supernova when he heard Mesu’s voice. “Okay, I concede. It’s possible he could be halfway decent.”
“What you’re trying to not explicitly say is: Anthony Faroukh might be the reason we can’t find Camden.” A’yen kept his voice soft. Probably to lessen the impact on Ro of hearing the bastard’s name. The info was possibly helpful, but getting into the Marcasian Empire was like digging through a fourteen-foot-thick lead wall with a straight pin.
Fae’s bright green eyes turned into pools, which she blinked away. Her emotions lived on a hair trigger when she was pregnant, and she’d already apologized dozens of times for the hell her brother had forced Ro to live in. “If they became friends in any way, Camden might have run to him for protection. If he’s somewhere in the empire, it explains why we can’t find him.”
The familiar darkness crept into the back of Ro’s mind. The more they learned about what the Marcasians had done to the Lokmane—how they’d been the ones to enslave—the more Ro wanted them dead. All of them. There were no innocents in his mind. Every person living in Marcasian territory was guilty of torturing his people. Of sentencing his brother to death.
He stood and bolted for the door. Time to get out of here and deal with the murderous rage on his own.
Jasmyn Jenkins looked up from her holo-screen to smile at Daddy. “What was so important?”
“The Marcasian emperor is sending a representative to the coronation.”
Jasmyn leaned back in her chair. “Is A’yen crazy?”
Daddy chuckled. “That’s what Ro asked.” He perched on the edge of her desk. “Everything ready for next week?”
Not just the coronation, but Daddy’s swearing in as prime minister. “Ready as it can be.” Jasmyn turned her computer off, pulled her bag from the bottom drawer, slid her tablet inside, and stood. Ever the gentleman, Daddy offered his arm, and she tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow. She pressed close to his side. Where she was safe.
“A’yen suspects there’s more going on between you and Ro than friendship.”
Jasmyn huffed. “I fully intend to die an old maid. Besides, Ro wouldn’t know true love if it sucker-punched him.”
“Not all men are bad, baby.” Thankfully he had the good sense not to say anything else.
Ro had the capacity to be bad, as Daddy put it. A darkness thicker than deep space cloaked him. His grief over his brother’s death had consumed him, turning into a murderous rage he hid from everyone. Daddy had no way to know about it, but she sensed it in Ro. Felt it every time her hand brushed his.
Speaking of Ro, he turned the corner ahead of them, hurrying toward the back exit and the shortest path to the under-construction royal residence. Something in his gait was off. “Go on, Daddy. I’ll be home later.”
He paused. “If you’re sure.”
She nodded. “I need to talk to Ro for a minute.”
His eyes lit up. Despite her protests about dying an old maid, every member of her family knew she’d abandon it if the right man came around. Daddy and A’yen hoped Ro might be the man. So did Violet, her twin sister.
In the most hidden part of her, she hoped he might be too. He’d been so sweet and attentive to her in the Hidden, blushing whenever someone mentioned her name, often dealing with awkward silences because he didn’t know what to say to her. But a different man had returned with A’yen after their three months trapped at a Hart farm on Doran Four. A hard man who wore a mask in front of everyone. Even her and A’yen.
She left Daddy in the hall and hurried after Ro. Since she’d begun teaching him to read Common, she’d developed the ability to track his presence. He couldn’t hide from her. More importantly, he knew he couldn’t. She turned another corner, where a pile of freshly milled lumber hid them from the construction crew, and found him waiting for her.
One foot rested on the wood behind him, and his hands were shoved in his pockets. Breath stilled in her chest as she drank him in. Six-four, toffee hair, the yummiest dark blue eyes she’d ever seen, an aura of strength…the stuff dreams were made of. She’d stopped noticing the markings the first time he spoke to her, but he liked it when she traced her fingers along the vines on his forearms. He’d never admit it, though.
“Hi.” She ran her fingers down the length of his exposed markings.
He didn’t smile. “Hey. Do you know who they invited next week?”
“Daddy told me a few minutes ago. Can’t say I’m too thrilled about it. Mama’s going to freak.” She leaned her right shoulder against the pile of wood. “Any idea why?”
“I know exactly why. The Marcasians can take your father back if they want.”
She sucked in a breath. “Would they?”
“I don’t know.”
“I guess I still don’t understand the concept of seeing people as property.”
Ro gave her one of his rare smiles. “For which I am so grateful. You don’t know enough to judge me.” He leaned over and kissed her cheek.
Unlike with He Who Shall Not Be Named, Ro’s touch and studying gaze didn’t leave her exposed or quaking in fear. He could be violent at times, yes, but with her, he seemed to go out of his way to be kind and gentle. And she did the same thing with him. Something about him invited her to trust him.
But the violent side most didn’t know about almost made her want to run before he targeted her.
“Usually I do judge people. Harshly, sometimes. You’re different, Ro. Everything you’ve done is to protect yourself, not hurt other people.” Against her better judgment, she didn’t fear the dangerous man in front of her. “What has you so upset?”
Ro’s nostrils flared, his jaw tightened, and the tendons in his neck stood out. “Camden might be hiding in Marcasian territory. Fae thinks he might’ve been friends with the current emperor while they were in college.”
If there was one thing she knew intimately, it was the signs of anger turning to rage. Ro exhibited all of them. Past experiences—granted, with other men, one in particular—said he’d erupt at any moment and take his anger out on the closest target. Her. She inched one foot back, ready to turn and run if necessary.
Hands still in his pockets, Ro’s gaze locked on her. “I know the difference between friend and foe, Jas. If I ever get my hands on the man who made you so skittish, I’ll turn his brain to goo and make it run out his nose.”
Part of her was drawn to the sheer brutality of his threat, to what it meant in Ro’s world. He was willing to do anything he deemed necessary to protect her. Which was why she could never tell him about her past. She might hate the scumbag tormenting her, but she didn’t wish him dead. Most of the time. “What are you going to do about Camden?”
“I don’t know. As bad as I want to kill him the same way he killed Rhys, I want my freedom too. If he’s hiding in Marcasian territory, I can’t have both.”
Ignoring her better sense, Jas took his hand and squeezed. “Chances are, whoever’s coming will have a mind you can go through for clues. Right?”
“Right.” He raised their hands to his lips and pressed a kiss to her knuckles.
Such a tender, sweet gesture. Something Daddy did to Mama all the time. A’yen too, and Violet’s husband. No one had ever done it to her, and it stirred longings she’d buried years ago. Desires she’d ignored for the sake of survival.
“I miss our reading lessons,” he whispered.
“Me too. Once the coronation is over, I’ll have spare time again. We need to get you reading the plays. The comedies are the best.”
The corners of his mouth lifted and some of the darkness fled from his eyes. “Before you and Shakespeare, I’d almost forgotten how to laugh. You’re good for me, Jas.”
“You’re good for me too, Ro. Which is why I expect you to dance with me at the coronation ball.”
His nose wrinkled. “I don’t know how to dance.”
“Neither do I. We can stumble around together.”
His head cocked, and he released her hand. Being paged by someone. “I have to go. A’yen’s heading out to meet Sun Chaser.”
She nodded and watched him jog back to the Council building, also still under construction. Everything on Lok’ma fell in the under-construction category. A world of new starts waited for anyone brave enough to take it.
Too bad her courage had died with her dreams the day she was accused of murder.COLLAPSE