Kiara opened her mouth to ask him another question, but Nykyrian returned.
Syn recognized the warning glower on Kip’s face that he should keep his mouth shut around Kiara. Yeah, and someone should keep his dick in his pants. A vengeful smile curved his lips as he silently dared him to say anything.
At least Nykyrian wore his usual street clothes. The long black coat that concealed his weapons, his shades, and the silver-inlaid boots with retractable blades.
In those clothes, his friend was a virtual tank.
He knew Nykyrian could take care of himself, but he still wished Kip would see reason and stop this crap with Kiara before it was too late for all of them.
Nykyrian held his hand out to Kiara and Syn cursed under his breath as she took it.
With his temper barely restrained, he watched the two of them leave. Stroking Ilyse’s head, he listened to the engines fire outside.
“I hope you know what you’re doing. Most of all, I hope she’s worth it.”
But even as he said the words, he had a strange premonition Nykyrian was headed straight into death.
Kiara stared out at the brightly lit landing bay on a planet she’d never been to before. But as she saw the subversive people who used this place, she realized why it was so bright . . . so the workers could keep an eye on the people who all appeared to be looking for victims.
“Where are we?”
Nykyrian locked down the engines. “Verta.”
A thrill rushed through her. She’d always wanted to visit the infamous shops lining Paraf Run, but common sense had kept her from it. Every manner of questionable merchandise—including slaves—was bought and sold here by some of the universe’s most dangerous beings.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?”
Nykyrian released the hatch. “Don’t worry. I’m well known here and no one’s stupid enough to cross me. The last person who tried . . . let’s just say it didn’t go well for him. Unlike other places, the Vertan enforcers ensure that high-profile people like me can come and go without complications.”
Because they had the serious money the stores here catered to, and if the outlaws couldn’t shop . . .
Yeah, it was a strange universe they lived in where the criminals were usually better protected than the law-abiding citizens. But that was the way of things.
An impish thought occurred to her as she removed her helmet. “What if some high-ranking aristocrat sees me and demands my private services?”
His hands tensed around her safety strap. “I’d rip his heart out and feed it to him.” There was no missing the deadly undertone of those words.
Kiara wasn’t sure if she liked his answer. Nykyrian was one of the few people she knew who could make good that threat. “Why are we here, anyway?”
He cradled her against him as he said in a low tone in her ear, “As much as I like the sight of you in my shirts or better yet, completely nak*d, I thought you might want to have something else to wear. I’m sure your one dress and underwear will only last so long.”
She frowned at his words. “We’re shopping?”
“Just a quick trip to get the necessities you need.”
His thoughtfulness amazed her. “After what happened last time, I’m surprised you’d go near another store.”
“As I said, they know me here.” Once he’d freed her of the safety straps, Nykyrian helped her down and led the way out of the bay, into a crowded street. “Stay with me and don’t wander off.” He wrapped an arm possessively around her shoulders.
That move would have thrilled her had she not realized that he wasn’t doing it to be sweet—he was doing it because this place was just that dangerous and he wanted to publicly claim her so the rest of the people around them would leave her alone.
Swallowing her fear, Kiara scanned the street, astonished at the variety of beings and cultures represented. She saw everything from wealthy princes and princesses arrayed in the finest materials available, to filthy street urchins who barely wore enough to cover their nudity. But it was the thugs who scanned the crowd looking for marks that stood out the most.
What a strange mixture . . .
As they passed an alley, she heard a boy cry out. “Get off me!”
Nykyrian pulled her to a stop.
“Shut up, you little bastard.”
He dropped his arm from her shoulders and took her hand, making sure to keep himself between her and whoever was in the alley as he went to investigate the loud voices.
She was horrified as she saw the man mauling a boy who appeared to be around the age of twelve. Three other men were with him, laughing at the struggling child.
Anger, fear and horror went through her as she remembered the men who’d once done her the same way.
That’s it, bitch, keep crying. Mommy can’t help you.
Why did people have to be so cruel? She’d never understand it.
Releasing her hand, Nykyrian shot across the alley. He kicked the man tormenting the boy into one of his cronies so hard that the two of them hit the ground. In one fluid move, he picked the boy up and put him down out of the crossfire, then spun around and caught a third man in his jaw, knocking him away.
He flipped the fourth one over his back to the ground. He delivered three punches to his head that were so fierce, she could almost feel them.
The boy started back into the fray.
“Jana, stay with the lady,” Nykyrian growled before he spun to catch the man who’d picked up a board and was about to hit him with it.
Nykyrian raised his forearm to deflect the board before he kicked the man into a Dumpster.
The boy shot toward her. Kiara wrapped her arms around him to keep him safe while Nykyrian dealt with his attackers. A few inches taller than her, the boy was so emaciated she could feel his bones, but even so, he had a handsome face that told her he’d be stunning once he grew into his own.
“Who the f**k are you?” the first man asked, pushing himself up.
Nykyrian lowered his head threateningly. “I’m the last thing you’re going to see if you ever touch a kid again.”
Kiara saw the desire in the men’s eyes to keep fighting, but their common sense prevailed. Extremely bloodied and bruised now, they pushed themselves to their feet.
Nykyrian turned toward her and Jana.
The moment he did, the first man attacked again. Before she could make a single sound of warning, Nykyrian spun about and caught him with a hard punch to his jaw that lifted him up from his feet and sent him straight to the ground, flat on his back. A second man went to return the hit. Nykyrian caught his arm and twisted it.
She cringed at the sound of breaking bone.
Nykyrian delivered another hit to the man’s midsection hard enough to drive him to his knees. “Had enough? Or do I have to kill all of you?”
“Enough.” The man panted.
Nykyrian wrenched the man’s arm, causing him to scream out before he released him. “Next time, pick on someone a little closer to your size.” Leaving the men to whimper on the ground, Nykyrian took her and Jana out of the alley.
He let out a tired sigh as he looked at her. “I know. I’m an animal.”
Kiara shook her head. “No, you’re not. You were too merciful.”
He frowned at her.
She offered him a smile and patted Jana’s shoulder. “I’m beginning to understand your world, Nykyrian. I’m not going to judge you for it.”
As soon as they were on the street and had put enough distance between them and the alley, he pulled Jana to a stop. “What were you doing there?” he demanded of the boy in a firm, yet gentle voice. “You should know better.”
The boy swallowed. “I didn’t do nothing, Nykyrian, I swear it on my life. I was minding my own business when they jumped me and dragged me into the alley. I tried to fight them off, but they were too big.”
Nykyrian’s stern face softened. “How many times have I told you to be careful? You have to stay away from Paraf Run. Have you any idea what could have happened to you had I been five minutes later?”
“I know and I listened. It’s just . . .” His blue eyes misted. “Me mum died two days ago, and they threw me out of her brothel. The authorities want to take me to an orphanage or to a League academy. And I ain’t doing that shit. Paraf Run is the only place where the enforcers don’t patrol for bastards to arrest. Have you any idea what they do to boys in those places? I promised me mum when she died that I wouldn’t let them take me.”
There was a subtle tightening to Nykyrian’s features that made her wonder what ghosts tormented him. “It’s all right, Jana. I won’t let them do that to you.”
A lump choked Kiara’s throat as she watched the tender way he directed the boy down the street in front of them.
Jana hesitated. “Where are you taking me?”
“To a friend’s place where you’ll be safe.”
Jana gave him a suspicious glare. “How do I know that?”
“You have my word.”
Jana nodded as if that was all he needed.
Kiara watched the two of them. While it was obvious they knew each other, she wanted to know how. Had Nykyrian been a client of Jana’s mother? While the thought didn’t thrill her, it wasn’t really any of her business.
“So how did you two meet?”
Jana flashed a sheepish grin at her. “I tried to pick Nykyrian’s pocket last year.”
She gaped at Nykyrian. “And you let him live?”
There was a subtle lifting at the corners of his mouth. “I have an age requirement before I kill someone.”
Jana slowed down so that he could walk beside her. “He actually bought me dinner, then took me to me mum and told her to keep me off the streets. Not that she listened. She was a whore.”
Nykyrian’s features tightened, and when he spoke, his tone was sharp. “Your mother loved you, Jana. One day you’ll understand how rare a thing that is. Don’t disparage her memory by reducing her down to the occupation she had that kept you fed and clothed. She deserves better than that.”
Jana’s anger deflated as he lowered his head. “Sorry.”
Kiara studied Nykyrian as they walked. His ability to assess people still amazed her. And even though he was an assassin, he had an astonishing amount of compassion.
They walked in silence as he led them through a small alley to the back of an office. He removed his shades and knocked on the rear door where they waited until an elderwoman appeared. With dark brown eyes and black hair laced with gray, she was heavyset and beautiful.
“Nykyrian,” she breathed happily, pushing open the screen door to look him up and down like a mother seeing her son after a long absence. Yet she made no move whatsoever to touch him.
That alone told Kiara exactly how familiar she was with Nykyrian and his habits.
He stood back to indicate her and Jana. “Hi, Orinthe. May we come in?”
“You know you’re welcome here any time.” She opened the door wider.
Nykyrian stood back and allowed Kiara to enter first. The elderwoman led her through an immaculate storeroom of foodstuffs and into a small lounge to the right. Jana looked at the food with such longing, it made Kiara want to cry for him.
Nykyrian directed Jana to one of four brown leather chairs that encircled a small, round table. Orinthe reached up on a shelf and brought out a bowl of fruit and a covered plate of pastries.
With a tender smile, she set it before Jana, who eagerly tore into it. A strange look crossed Orinthe’s face as she watched Jana shove an entire pastry into his mouth. “He reminds me of another boy I knew a long time ago.” She glanced over to Nykyrian. He didn’t respond at all.
Orinthe went to get a glass of milk for the boy, who was doing his best to inhale the food. Kiara’s heart wrenched as she thought of how many times in her life she’d joked she was starving when she really had no concept of the hunger Jana knew.
The hunger Nykyrian had endured . . .
When Orinthe sat down, Nykyrian met her gaze. “His mother died and he has no place to live. I was wondering—”
“I could use help here in the office. My regular errand boy quit three days ago to go off and run with one of the local gangs, and I haven’t had the time to look for another. There’s a room for him upstairs.”
Jana looked up from his food, his eyes wide. “Stay here?” he asked in awe. “With all this food?”
Orinthe’s bright smile warmed Kiara’s heart. “Are you willing to work for it?”
He narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “Are you going to cheat me?”
Orinthe glanced at Nykyrian. “He’s just like someone else I know.” She smiled kindly at Jana. “No, child. I’ve never cheated anyone in my life. As long as you do a little work and don’t steal, you’re welcome here and I’ll make sure you have as much food as you can hold.”
Orinthe cleaned up the remains of the food. “Nykyrian, would you mind showing him upstairs to the guest room and get him cleaned up a bit?”