Cold sweat beaded on her body as Pitala bent and slapped his partner awake. Within seconds, the pair of assassins were gone.
Her relief at their departure gave way to suspicion over the two of them and their intentions. “What are you doing here?”
“Saving you,” Nykyrian said absently, looking down the corridor with his back to them.
Still, Kiara wasn’t sure the danger had passed. The Sentella had turned down the contract to protect her. Maybe they’d only saved her from Pitala so they could collect the bounty on her life themselves.
Syn stared at her. “She’s not quite in shock, but I bet she faints before you get her home.”
Kiara opened her mouth to remind him she didn’t faint, but was silenced by Nykyrian returning into the room.
“Here.” Syn handed her a piece of candy.
“I’m not hungry.”
He put it in her hand. “Eat it. You need it. The sugar will help with the shock.”
Kiara took it even though her stomach knotted in protest.
Syn looked back at Nykyrian. “Did they go out the back?”
“Yes. Fifty dorcas they’re setting up an ambush near my ship.”
Syn snorted. “No bet. I know they are. They’re too stupid to not be obvious and predictable. Gah, I hate abiding by the law. Too bad you can’t slaughter them where they stand.”
Nykyrian inclined his head to Syn. “Stop bitching. You know what to do. I’ll meet you at rendezvous point and time.”
Syn returned his nod. “Smoke and burn,” he said to Nykyrian on his way out the door.
Nykyrian turned his attention to Kiara, whose makeup had been ruined by her tears, as she opened the candy with shaking hands and placed it on her tongue. He wanted desperately to comfort her, but didn’t know how. The handful of times he’d ever cried, he’d been beaten for it. Since tender words and touches were all but alien to him, he had no idea how to offer them to someone else.
He didn’t even understand why he had the urge.
Compassion for others had been drilled out of him and yet she breached the sanctity of all that training. The League Academy would be horrified to find out that one woman’s tears could undo all their expensive programs. No wonder they kept their assassins locked down.
Her tears still glistened on her cheeks where they’d washed away streaks of her makeup.
His hand tightened around the grip of his blaster as anger over that burned him. He should have killed Pitala for the grief he caused her.
I hate this legal shit.
But so long as Syn was with him, he had to stay on the right side of the law or see his friend executed. So the scum was able to live even though he wanted to gut him.
Pushing his emotions back into restraint, Nykyrian retrieved her cloak from a peg inside the door. He handed it to her. “Here. We need to go.”
Kiara swallowed the piece of candy. For a moment, she was unable to understand the words through the fog clouding her mind. “You mean leave?”
She shook her head. “I have a show to perform.” Her voice sounded hollow even to herself. She had to dance. People had paid too much money. Her promoters would never forgive her if she disappointed the audience for any reason.
The show must go on . . .
It was the one code that she’d lived her entire life by. The one her own father had drilled into her. No matter what happened or how she felt, her performances came first.
Yet inside she heard someone screaming and couldn’t place the source. She felt strangely numb. Like walking in a dream. Everything seemed to have slowed down.
All she could think of was getting to the stage . . .
Nykyrian grabbed her arm as she tried to walk past him. Her lucidity worried him. Had she suffered a breakdown from the attack? “You have to leave the theater.”
“I can’t. It’s not allowed.”
Her voice, haunting in its emptiness, worried him. While that tone was normal for him, it wasn’t normal for others. Not for people who weren’t used to seeing death and fighting for their lives.
He wanted to shake her. Her amber eyes were glassy, devoid of any emotion. Syn was right, she was in shock.
“Listen,” he said, trying to break through the mild sedation her mind had provided for her. “Pitala didn’t go far. You go out on that stage and he can take you out from anywhere in the audience. Every minute we delay, he’s looking for a place to take a snipe at you. We must leave. Now.”
Kiara laughed, not really understanding his words. Pulling away from his grip, she walked into the hallway.
Her toe struck something solid.
She looked down.
Her numbness left her in a wake of consuming terror. On the ground were the bodies of her guards. Their eyes opened and glazed, red blood seeped through their uniforms and spread across the tiled floor in a sickening mess. And in that moment, her past tore through her with serrated brutality. She could feel her mother falling against her as she was shot down. See their blood mingling.
Her mother’s weight . . . It had been crushing . . .
Her hysterical screams echoed in the hallway as she saw the barrel of the blaster that had shot her as a child. Saw the cold eyes of the assassin who’d meant to kill her.
Over and over, she felt the sting of her wounds and heard her mother’s screams for mercy . . .
“Make it stop! Please, make it stop!”
Nykyrian winced at the sound that seemed to come from some dark place inside her soul. It was bone-chilling.
Without thinking, he drew her into his arms and cradled her head against his chest to block the sight of the dead soldiers. “Don’t look.”
He held her quietly while she sobbed inconsolably. He’d long ceased being horrified by bodies. The only emotion the grisly sight evoked in him was anger over the waste.
Her hot tears soaked through his shirt, forming chills on his skin. The soft scent of flowers drifted from her hair that had been sprayed with glitter and braided with pieces of ribbon and lace. Her slender arms clutched at him in desperation as her body was wracked with sobs.
Why the hell wasn’t Syn here to deal with this? He’d know what to do and say. He’d actually had a wife at one time. Nykyrian felt completely lost and unprepared—two feelings he despised.
“Everything will be fine,” he said, hoping that was what he should be saying. He started to pat her back, then stopped since he didn’t want to hurt her. She was so frail and tiny. The last thing he wanted was to inadvertently damage her with his Andarion strength.
How did humans comfort each other?
Telling her to stop and let it go just didn’t seem right.
What else was there?
Unsure, he let her weep while he held her.
Kiara clutched Nykyrian like a lifeline. She needed the safety he offered, the protection. She found a strange comfort in his arms. His heart beat a steady, soothing rhythm under her cheek. He was as calm on the inside as he appeared. A faint smell of leather and musk came from his skin, soothing her in spite of the terror of this night and her past.
She didn’t want to die. Not like this. Not like those poor men on the floor . . .
Someone help me!
Nykyrian clenched his teeth as her embrace tightened. Never in his life had anyone held him in such a manner. He knew it was only her emotional state that prompted her to touch him at all.
You’re wasting valuable time.
He had to get her to safety.
Pulling away, he held her shoulders and forced her to look up at him. “We must leave.”
With a ragged breath to steady her frayed nerves, Kiara took her cloak from his hand and wrapped it around her shoulders. She shielded her eyes from the bodies. For now, she had no choice but to trust this stranger to get her past Pitala. Nykyrian had saved her life, obviously he knew what he was doing.
They had to get out of here.
Nykyrian checked both ways before he stepped into the hallway. Keeping one hand on her and the other on his blaster, he led her to the caterer’s entrance, then to the back door and out onto the curb.
He hailed a transport from the line of them across the street.
Kiara stepped inside the car, pushing herself as far over in the seat as she could. She just wanted to fade into obscurity and never be bothered or hunted again.
Nykyrian gave her address to the computer.
She went cold with dread. “How do you know where I live?”
“All good mercenaries know it. The Probekeins have been listing your name and address for the last week on their bounty sheets.”
She shook even more. All this time, she’d deluded herself into thinking she was quasi safe. She should have known better.
Her stomach churned as she thought about her father’s soldiers. It was all her fault they were dead. Even though they’d said such unkind things about her, they didn’t deserve what Pitala had done to them. No doubt they had families and would have had a future had she . . .
Kiara couldn’t go there.
The Probekeins wanted her dead and anyone near her could be the next victim. “Aren’t you afraid to be with me?”
“Afraid?” For the first time she heard emotion in his tone. It was full of disbelief.
“The next assassin could kill you by accident.”
“Let me to assure you, if anyone kills me, it won’t be by accident. The price The League has on my head makes a mockery of the one on yours. Not to mention the instant prestige killing me would give a mercenary should one of them ever succeed.”
Kiara nodded, unable to speak around the clump of tears in her throat. Here she sat, next to a true mercenary, a brutal killer if the truth were spoken.
Why was he helping her?
“Are you going to kill me?” Her voice shook from the strain and fear of her words.
He didn’t react to the question at all. “If I had that intention, you’d have been dead before you ever saw me.”
Those emotionless words sent a cold chill over her. “But why are you protecting me? I thought mercenary assassins were only motivated by money.”
Nykyrian rubbed his right hand over his left bicep—the place where his full League tattoo would be located. “You haven’t met enough of us to know what motivates us.”
Kiara conceded he was right, but it didn’t change her suspicions. “You avoided my question. Why are you helping me?”
His hand stopped. He looked away from her. “Maybe I’m a fan.”
Kiara stared at him too shocked and confused to feel anything. Nykyrian sat so still next to her, he seemed ethereal. Like an angel of death, only in her case he was protecting her—or at least that’s what he claimed. His blond hair was so pale and smooth. As before, the dark shades obscured his face, giving her no real idea what he looked like.
He was a complete enigma. If she was to trust in him to keep her safe when it seemed to go against his nature, she wanted to know something about him. Something that would make him seem . . .
“Who are you? Really.”
Nykyrian shrugged. “Never figured it out. Takes too much time to think about myself, and time is one luxury I don’t own.”
Kiara fell silent, thinking, remembering. She couldn’t get the image of the dead soldiers out of her mind no matter how hard she tried. “I killed those guards you know.”
Her words seemed to soften some of his rigidness. “The Probekeins killed them.”
Kiara shook her head, unwilling to see reason right now. “No, they were protecting me. They should have been home with their families, not in the Probekeins’ line of fire.”
Nykyrian looked in her direction. “They were soldiers, mu Tara. Death is nothing more than the hazard of the business. They knew the risk and accepted it the moment they donned their uniforms.”
“Could you accept it?”
She frowned at his disclosure. “You were brought back?”
He didn’t respond to her question. “Death is the final blow we’re all dealt sooner or later. No one is immune, believe me on that, and tonight the mistress took them home. Don’t cry for them, princess. I assure you, they wouldn’t cry for you.”
His words cut through her. “How can you be so cold?”
“I’m a soldier, mu Tara. Emotions are hazardous for us so we dump them.”
Kiara scoffed. “You’re a mercenary. There is a difference.”
“True. Mercenaries are better paid.”
Frustration welled up inside her. He was of the same caliber as Pitala. Would he hold a blaster to her head if given the right amount of money?
The thought chilled her.
She couldn’t trust him. She knew it. Trust belonged to the past. She’d trusted the dance company’s security to protect her in the hotel and she’d been abducted. She’d trusted her father’s soldiers and she’d almost been killed. Never again would she be so foolish.
Nykyrian would have to be watched until she knew exactly where his loyalties lay.
“Why are we in a transport anyway? Isn’t this dangerous?”