Sumi arched a brow at where this story was headed. “Thia! They really tell you these things?”
She blushed. “No one in my family knows I have Andarion hearing. I get lots of good stories they don’t know I can overhear.”
Shaking her head, Sumi laughed. “And will we be getting the adult version of this tale?”
Thia flashed a cheeky dimple. “It’s appropriate, I promise. I’m editing as I go.” She turned back toward Darice. “Anyway, she hadn’t been there long when all of a sudden this shadow falls over them. He grabs her by the arm and snatches her off Syn’s lap then goes to slap her. Quicker than anyone can blink, Uncle Hauk catches his fist in his hand and glares a hole through him. In that deep, terrifying growl of his, he snarls to the man, ‘Boy, before you kick open the door, you better make sure you have on the right boots.’”
Darice scowled. “What does that mean?”
“It’s an old Triosan saying. It means before you start a fight, you better know you can finish it. But like you, the guy didn’t know that. Any more than Hauk or Syn knew he was the son of Balur Droug.”
Sumi sucked her breath in sharply at the name. Droug was second only to Idirian Wade when it came to cruelty and cold-blooded murders. He was a legendary criminal who had been captured and executed only a few years back. “Oh my God, what did they do?”
“Well, Syn is the son of Idirian Wade.”
Stunned, Sumi widened her eyes. That was the last thing she’d expected to hear. Wade had been a serial killer and madman so twisted that even decades after his death, mothers still used his name to frighten their misbehaving children.
Damn, Dancer ran with some extremely dangerous people. No wonder Thia had called them all scary. “What?”
Thia nodded. “But back then, Syn was in hiding under a false identity and was wanted for treason on Ritadaria – which is a whole other long story in and of itself. Anyway, he couldn’t afford for anyone to find out who he really was.”
Which an arrest for a bar fight and the resulting DNA scan at the Enforcers’ headquarters would have certainly exposed.
“Droug pulled a knife and tried to stab Uncle Hauk. Uncle Hauk threw the first punch then realized half the bar’s occupants were on Droug’s payroll. When Uncle Syn started to help, Hauk shoved him toward the door, and told him to take the girl and run before the Enforcers came and arrested him.”
Sumi gasped. “Surely he didn’t leave him there.”
“Uncle Syn had no choice,” Thia said simply. “It would have been a death sentence for him to be caught. But he did shoot and stab a few on his way out. He said his last sight of Uncle Hauk was him standing in the middle of a dozen muscled goons… my word substitution. Anyway, Uncle Hauk was barely grown and was surrounded. Right? So what does he do? He holds his hands up,” Thia illustrated her words, “and as calm as you please, takes the shot glass from the table where they’d been sitting and pours himself a drink. He knocks it back, and puts the glass down like it ain’t no big thing and there aren’t a dozen guys waiting to gut him. He sweeps his gaze over the men and smiles. Then faster than lightning, he grabs the bottle and goes on the attack. By the time he was finished, there were twenty-two bodies on the floor and he had Droug by the throat, threatening to rip it open with his fangs if anyone else came near him. And all that completely bare-handed. He walked away with a bruised jaw and ear. A couple of cracked ribs and a broken nose. But he was intact and no one dared to arrest him for it. No one.”
Darice frowned. “What happened to Syn?”
“He was waiting outside the bar the whole time, watching the fight. Had he thought for one minute that Uncle Hauk couldn’t handle them, he would have run back in, regardless of what it cost him. It was that very fight that led to Uncle Syn dubbing him the Andarion Tactical Assault Monkey, because Uncle Hauk had been laughing and enjoying the fight the whole time. Completely calm and in control. Unfazed. Syn said that at one point during the fight, Uncle Hauk had ripped a piece of pipe from the bar itself to beat down one of his attackers who came after him with a machete.”
Darice passed a doubtful look to Thia. “Is that really true?”
She placed her hand over her heart and bowed her head – the Andarion gesture for honesty. “On my ancestors’ honor. My father has said repeatedly that no one is better in a fight than Uncle Hauk. Even he would think twice before challenging him to a brawl… and that he’d never be dumb enough to do it alone, or sober.”
Darice shook his head as if he still couldn’t believe it. “That is so different from the stories I’ve heard of him. From what I’ve seen of him.”
Thia gave him an agitated smirk. “That’s because you haven’t seen his fighting side, Darice. You’ve only seen Uncle Hauk with elders, family, and females. And you’re right, he’s very different with your mother and yaya and paran. For that matter, he’s very, very different with me and any woman or child. He’s respectful of the fact that he’s a terrifying individual, with an incredible amount of strength. My stepmother said that the first time she was left alone with him, she almost wet her pants and locked herself in her room for the day.”
His eyes widened in anger. “When was she alone with him?”
“Oh shut up!” Thia snapped irritably. “Stop with that Andarion male bullshit. He was guarding her from assassins. He didn’t touch her. At all. And the fact that my father left him alone with my stepmother tells you just how much faith he has in Uncle Hauk’s abilities. Believe me, my daddy is the most paranoid, overprotective lunatic you’ve ever heard of… second only maybe to Shahara. In all honesty, I’m surprised I’m not required to harness myself to the bed at night for his fear I might roll out of it in my sleep and bruise a knee.”
“You think I’m kidding… He really is that bad.”
But in spite of what Thia said, Sumi was terrified for Dancer and what he was facing.
Why do you care? If he survives, Kyr will do a lot worse to him than the assassins with him now. All they’ll do is kill him.
Kyr would torture him first.
Her stomach cramping, Sumi flinched as she remembered Kyr showing her what he was doing to Safir Jari. And all because Jari had been taken and used as a hostage by The Sentella during one of their escapes. She still didn’t know how Jari could live, given the torture Kyr had heaped on him. It was horrible and wrong.
And Safir Jari was Kyr’s own brother.
How can I turn Dancer over to that madman?
What choice did she have? Jari was Kyr’s youngest brother. She was nothing to the prime commander, and her daughter even less so. Their torture and deaths would be far more horrific than anything he’d done to Jari, whom he should, in theory, love and be loyal to.
And still the sounds of battle reached them.
Needing a distraction, she turned her thoughts to the way Dancer had looked when she kissed him. The way he’d felt in her arms.
But with that came an even bigger fear.
She glanced at Sumi over her shoulder.
“I’m still a little fuzzy on Andarion customs. Why is it such a big deal that Hauk was alone with your stepmother?”
Thia let out a sinister laugh. “Because Andarion females are extremely predatorial, like their male counterparts, and they have ferocious appetites in all things. No pledged male is ever supposed to allow himself to be alone with any female he’s not pledged or related to. Case in point, it’s why Uncle Hauk’s parents are his parents.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Uncle Hauk’s father, Ferral, was originally pledged to my yaya. The day before their unification, Endine seduced him. When he admitted to it during Disclosure, my yaya refused his pledge and sent him home in disgrace.”
Sumi cocked her head at something that made no sense to her about Andarion weddings. “Wait, Disclosure? I thought all Andarions had to do was admit to a third party that they were husband and wife and they were deemed married by Andarion law.”
That was what Fain and Omira had done. Fain had said that by Andarion law, it was completely legal and binding.
“It can be that informal… in fact, that’s how my father and stepmother were married, and most Andarions aren’t big on ceremony as a rule. However, that’s like eloping and the high-lineaged Andarions frown on it. Greatly. So much so that even my dad and stepmother were later remarried in our Andarion ancestors’ temple.”
Sumi furrowed her brow as she tried to understand. “Why would it matter?”
“In a traditional, high-lineaged Andarion family, it’s considered shameful to marry that way, like there’s something wrong with one of the partners, and many times the parents force a divorce from the couple. The tying of pure, high-ranking bloodlines is seen as a very serious matter that isn’t taken lightly.”
Thia nodded. “It’s why my parents remarried – to make sure no one disputed the legitimacy or heritage of their children. Tradition dictates that a pledge be made before a priest and that the parents and immediate families bear witness to it. After that, the couple has to wait a full Andarion year before they meet back at temple. Then before the priest, they disclose if they’ve allowed another to touch them during the time they’ve been pledged. If their public Disclosure is accepted by both parties, they go forward with unification, and the next day they have their marriage completed and blessed.”
Sumi didn’t like the sound of what Thia described. “What exactly do they admit to in this Disclosure?”
“If they’ve allowed someone of the opposite sex to touch them in any way that could be construed as sexual contact.”
Sumi gaped at her. “Wait! Are you telling me that high-lineaged Andarions have to publicly catalogue all the sexual activity of their lives before they can marry?”
“No,” she said quickly. “What happens before pledging is inconsequential. Even what happens between the male and female who are pledged is inconsequential. They accept the fact that Andarion passions are fierce, and that many couples don’t wait. But once pledged, it becomes a sacred trust, like marriage. To allow any part of your body to be touched by someone other than the one you’re pledged to is the same as adultery. And it’s treated that way. Darice’s paran is extremely lucky that my yaya was already in love with my grandfather, and was more than happy to release him from his pledge. Otherwise, she could have demanded his offending body part be given to her… or his head. It’s called Restitution, and the dishonored party is allowed to choose what they find acceptable physical payment for a broken pledge.”
Was the girl kidding? “Excuse me?”
Thia nodded grimly. “If he’s slept with another, a male can be castrated at the command of his pledged. If he’s touched another female, he loses his hands. A kiss can cost him his tongue and lips.”
She felt sick over what she’d inadvertently done. And Dancer hadn’t said a word about it. “Are you serious?”
“Very. Andarions don’t take disloyalty or broken pledges lightly. We are a fierce proud race. You do not break an Andarion oath. Ever.”
What have I done?
Sumi wished desperately that she could go back and refrain from a kiss that, knowing Dariana, could get Dancer killed. “So what do they do to females, then? They can’t castrate them. Right?”
Thia actually flinched. “You don’t want to know. Trust me. I don’t want to think about it. But if a female has slept with another while pledged, the best she can hope for is death.”
“Is that true of who they slept with, too? Do they get the same punishment?”
“No. In fact, it’s not uncommon for a pledged to hire someone to try and seduce their betrothed to make sure that they are marrying an honorable Andarion. Especially if the marriage is arranged.”
Wow. It made her so glad she wasn’t born Andarion. But it also terrified her for Dancer. “So what if you’re accidentally kissed? Do you have to disclose that?”
Darice scowled. “How do you get accidentally kissed?”
“Like someone stole a kiss from you when you weren’t expecting it. Or you were raped. What then?”
Thia sighed. “In that case, the perpetrator would be severely punished and the pledged would have to undergo another period of purification to make sure no child was conceived. The other beautiful thing about Andarions, they are very fertile little turtles. Even with birth control. Hence the five kids in eight years of my father’s marriage… and my lovely presence here today.”
Sumi didn’t comment on that sarcasm. She was too busy processing what Thia was telling her. The punishment made sense for rape, but…
“The perpetrator could be killed for a simple stolen kiss? Really?”