Authors: Lindsey Piper
Tags: #Dragon Kings#0.5
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Wiping the sweat from his brow, Hark of Sath shut his know-it-all mouth. He wasn’t used to being pessimistic, let alone muttering the crap. He focused on the feel of forged iron in his hands. A thousand details filtered into his senses. The concentrated stink of the bar. The grit beneath his boots. The white glare of lights illuminating a space designated for fighting in the bar tournament.
And then there was the woman . . .
He recognized her as a fellow member of Clan Sath, but she didn’t even seem to be of their rarified race. Too . . .
. She squared off in front of him, ready to continue steadily kicking his ass. He was angrier at himself than he was at the surprisingly adept amazon.
“Enough of this shit,” he spat.
Hark countered her next attack with a combination of looping kicks, two clashes of his blade against her shield, and a quick roll. He sprang up and sank into a prepared stance. Loose knees. Relaxed thighs. He grinned at the expressionless woman and tossed the iron sword from hand to hand. Showing off. Sure. He’d won a lot more out of life by faking it than he had by behaving by the rules. Twisting reality to his vision was something of a specialty.
His opponent in the shitty fight club in Hong Kong used her shield like a weapon, slicing the air. The lip of the shield was jagged, as if tipped with shark’s teeth. Its solid weight made for a daunting hunk of metal. Hark dropped to one knee and lifted his sword lengthwise to blunt her downward strike. One hand on the handle was easy enough. Holding the blunt side of the blade in his left hand, however—that fucking hurt. The iron dug into his palm. It wasn’t sharp enough to cut skin, but the desperate defensive move would leave him with a broken bone or two.
Despite the pain, his bones would heal with the speed characteristic of the Dragon Kings.
He rolled again, aiming at the woman’s shins. She skipped over one slashing attack. His second blow—a twisting backhand—caught her left Achilles tendon. She fell to one side. Even sprawled on the ground and wounded, she lifted her shield. No backing down.
And not a single fucking sound.
“Do you ever say
?” Hark clenched and loosened his injured hand as they both took a breather. The crowd jeered. They threw beer bottles and what looked like dead rats. “That did hurt, right? My sword? Your ankle? But I get nothing. A little grunt would be nice—something to tell me I’m doing a good job. Or maybe to toy with my head. Mock me. I can take it.”
Even the white spotlights didn’t brighten the pure black of her eyes. Something other than determination shone from those dark depths. Humor. His suspicion was confirmed when the corner of her mouth tipped into the saddest excuse for a smile. The mocking he’d expected was there, but it remained unspoken.
Great. That was his reward. He might as well hand over his balls and call the fight in her favor.
She was unnerving. And he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so fascinated with a woman.
“Okay, fine. I get it. Strong, silent type? I thought that was reserved for cops and guys in action movies, but I can adapt.” He hefted his sword and winked. “I’m modern. Feminists don’t intimidate me.”
She was more than a feminist, if the word even registered. Expression sober, she didn’t react to his wink or his barb. She was as quiet as the condensation that covered the walls of the bar.
Hark had thought himself better able to read his own kind. The Children of the Dragon were masters of small moves when it came to demonstrating emotions. Or hiding them. They weren’t nearly so animated as humans, who laughed, cried, shrank with fear, and used hand gestures that bordered on manic—even to a guy who talked more than every Dragon King in the Far East.
The tall, gracefully thin woman rose to her feet. Blood trickled down the back of her injured ankle. She walked with a slight limp, but nothing about her posture suggested it was time to call it quits. Her skin held the golden sheen of their people—the appearance of a tan no matter the exposure to sun—yet the lights leeched her color. With white-blond hair, she was pale on pale with the flashes of black fire in her eyes.
And she was collared.
At one time in her past, or maybe even now, she belonged to one of the three human cartels who traded in the flesh and brawn of Dragon Kings. The collar meant that her gift as a Sath—to borrow the abilities of other Dragon Kings—was dampened. She needed to fight like a human, no matter her people’s remarkable capacity for recovering from physical injury.
Not that Hark was in any better position without another Dragon King’s gift to leech.
If she belonged to one of the cartels, what was she was doing rolling around in sawdust with him? Hark knew his own reasons. Fighting scrubbed the details of how he’d wound up in the Sham Shui Po district of Kowloon City, but one word remained.
Ugh. He hated that word.
The woman wore lightweight armor. That and the weapons they wielded elevated this particular tournament above a barroom brawl, as money changed hands on impromptu wagers.
Hark was protected by armor, too, but it wasn’t molded properly to his frame. The metal and leather were as cumbersome as his weighty, ridiculously blunt sword. He supposed he should be thankful. It would’ve been better to wear a giant soup can than face this woman in street clothes.
He’d been thinking about it all wrong.
Would-be combatants champed at the bit for their turn in the tournament, and they were clearly bored of Hark’s piss-poor performance.
Stab the new guy! He has a small dick!
Whether in Mandarin or another dialect, the insults were easy to guess.
But Hark wasn’t finished. He tossed the sword aside. It landed with a dull thud and skidded a few inches in the slippery sawdust.
“It’s hot in here,” he said, fanning his face dramatically. “If there’s anything I
stand, it’s an overly warm arena of death.”
He went about unlatching his armor. The amazon froze. She didn’t grind to a halt like the Tin Man needing oil but stopped as if the Dragon had flipped a switch. Animate to inanimate within a heartbeat. Only her eyes gave her away. Roving. Probing. She gobbled up the details of his movements. Leather arm guards and his breastplate fell away as he untied the straps. When the last piece hit the blood-spattered sawdust floor, her lips parted.
He liked taking her by surprise. He could get used to that.
“Enjoying the show, blondie? Not exactly Chippendales, but I got your attention.” He shook his head. “Dragon damn, you’re quiet. I know that’s probably your shtick and I should recognize that and not be so weirded out, but you’ve got it down to an art form. Well, that and the shield tricks. Must’ve been a hell of an upbringing for you to choose a defensive weapon as your means of attack.”
Her brows drew together, which was practically a shout. After a few hundred illegal sleights of hand, he knew a tell when he saw one. Her free hand curled into a fist. Her lips tightened—perhaps latent pain because of her ankle, or shock. Either worked. So did the knowledge that his observation about her shield had struck deeply. She wasn’t a practiced, trained-from-infancy warrior, no matter who’d collared her. Those Cage warrior meatheads were a scary bunch of mofos.
Had Hark any money, he’d wager she was a street kid like him. Only his debts had landed him in a bar that smelled like piss and really,
bad beer. So the bet would have to be one he made with himself.
His limbs came free of the constraints he’d mistakenly believed he would need. He stretched his arms above his head and dropped into a
more comfortable stance. His army-style khakis would do nicely. He’d taped and bound his wrists before the fight, and he wore heavy boots with soles dotted with tiny metal spikes.
“Me, however?” He smirked. “My art form of choice is equally impressive. I enjoy kicking the living crap out of anyone who doesn’t know mixed martial arts.”
She lifted a blond eyebrow.
“Although my real skill requires less clothing. We could give that a try tonight if you’re not too sore.”
Her haughty, angular features were perfect for expressing disdain.
Shot down without a word.
Unencumbered now, he launched forward and reverted to the fighting techniques he’d picked up in dives like this and even darker, more violent alleyways. Thirteen years old and a big bruiser with a hard-on wants to cuddle beneath a canal bridge? Time to break his kneecaps, obliterate his nose, and run like fuck.
Hark couldn’t get close to this woman’s nose—not with her shield. And he had no intention of running. Instead he moved with purpose and speed. He dodged her shield and swiveled behind it, punching in a quick flurry. In his youth he could land six one-two jabs in a second. Now it was more like four.
Didn’t matter. In connecting those four jabs with the underside of her jaw, he turned the fight to his favor. He swept her leg by connecting his spiked boot with her injured ankle. She fell with a grunt, which felt like a serious accomplishment.
The hot, bizarre chick makes noise!
He didn’t lose the offensive. He stripped the shield off her arm and tossed it into the throng. Someone called out in pain. Served them right for the whole dead rat thing. Hark aimed a few more kicks to her gut, no matter that she wore armor. She doubled into herself but didn’t tap out.
Grinning, he stepped back to assess her weaknesses. It might come down to a boot to the face. She was unnerving, sure, but she was fucking
. Poor thing. All that mattered was that winning would advance him to the final round.
Which totally didn’t explain why he hesitated.
He knelt over her, half straddling her torso. He used his boot to hold one of her arms against the squishy, don’t-look-too-closely floor and grabbed her wrist when she tried to hit him.
“Nothing to say, pretty? Shoulda guessed. Time to give it up. I don’t make light promises, but this is one I’ll stand by. Forfeit now, or I’ll hurt you. We both know there are injuries a Dragon King can’t recover from.”
She drew back her teeth as if to growl, but . . . no sound.
Dragon damn it. She
to be a mute. Talking a mile a minute was his particular gift-cum-weakness, depending on the situation, which made her dead, awful quiet just as unsettling as her fathomless eyes.
Darkness and quiet. Just the combination I’ve always wanted in a girl.
He was expecting the wrong sort of satisfaction if he hoped she’d spit and cuss and rail at him. The fast, labored cadence of her breathing was his only proof that he’d done anything to crack her calm. Her pulse fluttered where he imprisoned her wrist. Her fixed gaze flickered with fires of emotion: hatred, confusion, and a host of others that would require six years of reading emotional tea leaves.
He nodded toward the collar she wore. “Too bad about that thing,” he said. “And too bad you’re Sath like me. I would’ve enjoyed sucking up your powers and using them against you. Oh, well. Maybe next time, when I can have more fun.”
She bared her teeth again. Despite the woman’s pinned position, Hark got the impression he was in serious trouble. Leave it to him to turn simple into complicated. Boot to face. End of match. He’d needed to draw it out, to hear her admit her failure.
Although he didn’t enjoy being so easily pigeonholed by the traditions and imperatives of his clan, he recognized the truth. The Sath adored secrets. He’d been greedy in wanting to know just one of hers.
The sound of her voice.
That would’ve been a real victory. Not the kind that paid out prize money—
you fucking idiot
—but the kind that made life worth living. Revealing true colors. Turning people against their own better natures. Taking what they most prized.
Now he’d caught the tiger by the tail. By the gleam in her black eyes, she was ready to pounce.