Cairistiona let out a happy laugh as she ran for him. “I knew you were alive.”
“Don’t you dare touch me,” Nykyrian snapped with enough venom to drain all the joy out of his mother’s face.
The other woman moved forward, shaking her head. “This can’t be. You’re supposed to be dead.” She looked at Kiara with her red and white eyes, like Cairistiona’s. “I saw the charred remains myself and the tests.” Her gaze shifted back to Nykyrian. “I was there when they buried you.”
“I told you then that boy wasn’t my son. But you wouldn’t listen. All of you thought I was crazy.” She bit her quivering lip. “They wouldn’t even allow me to search for you.”
Nykyrian bared his fangs, anger darkening his eyes. “Don’t you f**king lie to me. You knew exactly where I was . . . where you had sent me to die. You didn’t want a human in line for inheritance. I was an embarrassment to all of you, so you threw me to the dogs hoping I’d die before I could return and make a claim to your beloved throne.”
Kiara staggered back at those words as realization struck her so hard, it stole her breath. No. It couldn’t be.
Her gaze drifted over the women’s expensive, imperial robes, the imperial guards. Her throat dried. The woman before her was Princess Cairistiona, the lady holding her was Princess Tylie, which made Nykyrian . . .
Nykyrian barely caught Kiara against him as she fainted.
Tylie frowned at them. “Is she all right?”
Nykyrian clenched his teeth, fear pouring over him. This wasn’t like her . . . and for the first time in his adult life, he tasted true panic as he swung her limp body up into his arms. “I don’t know.”
“Our shuttle’s docked behind this building. Carie’s personal physician is on board. Even though she’s human, that would probably be the closest place to take her for care.”
Nykyrian glared at his aunt, wanting to get as far away from them as he could. But Kiara came first. He nodded and followed them to their craft.
His mother kept looking back at him, her smile wide. Every time he saw her, he was torn between welcoming it and wanting to drive one of his knives straight through her unfeeling heart.
It seemed an eternity before they were on board the shuttle and the Andarion doctor came out of the back, bitching about having to treat a human patient. The prejudice ate at Nykyrian’s control.
Gently, he laid Kiara in a soft, cushioned seat. His heart thudded in his chest as he watched her pale beauty, aching for her to wake up so they could leave these people.
Then he spun on the doctor and grabbed his shirt in his fist. “You will treat her. You will respect her. Or by the gods, I will rip out your heart and shove it down your throat.”
The doctor’s face turned three shades paler. “Don’t worry. Their anatomy isn’t that different from ours. I’ll take good care of her. Now if you’ll excuse us, I need a little privacy.”
“Just remember her life is tied to yours.”
Reluctantly, Nykyrian allowed his mother to pull him to the back of the shuttle where she and Tylie could talk to him.
Tylie sat down first. “Who is the woman?”
“My wife,” he said coldly.
His mother appeared elated by the news. “You’re married? How wonderful.”
He just glared at her. Was she completely stupid? She seemed to function on the level of a child.
Or was it the drugs? By the dull tone of her skin and the dilation of her eyes, he could tell she was seriously sedated.
Tylie frowned at him. “What happened to you? After we sent you off to school, we were told you died in a fire.”
Nykyrian snorted at her bullshit. “You never sent me to school, so don’t bother lying.”
His mother and aunt exchanged puzzled scowls.
Cairistiona cocked her head as if she couldn’t understand what he was talking about. “You were sent to Pontari Academy after you placed so high on the entry test. They sent an escort for you and everything.”
His temper boiled. Why were they playing this game with him? “You sent me to a human orphanage and your guards instructed them to never believe my claims of being a prince. They told them I was the mentally defective bastard son of a dead whore. Don’t think for one minute that those words aren’t carved into my memory.”
Both of their faces lost color.
“Mother,” Tylie breathed as she took her sister’s hand. “Dear God, I never thought she’d do something so horrible.”
Nykyrian’s frown deepened. “What are you talking about?”
Cairistiona swallowed as she clutched at her necklace. “She always hated you. She said Jullien could pass for an Andarion, but that you would always look too human.”
Tylie nodded. “It was her idea for you to go to Pontari early. She thought you would be better off there.” The bitter anger in his aunt’s voice surprised him.
Cairistiona shook her head. “We should have known better than to trust her.”
Tylie’s eyes teared up. “Everything was a lie. And all this time, we kept you,” Tylie turned to face his mother, “drugged so you wouldn’t search for him. How did you know he was alive?”
“I just did.”
Nykyrian refused to believe them. “Why are you lying to me? You were the one who put me on the shuttle yourself. You pried my hands off your arm and told me that I sickened you. That you—”
”I never said that!” his mother shouted, her tone indignant.
“Fuck, yeah, you did. I don’t know what the drugs have done to your mind, but nothing has ever dulled the cold look on your face or those harsh words from my memory.”
Tylie raked her hand over her face. “Parisa. It had to be.”
His mother pulled a small photo chip from her bag. She turned it on and handed it to him. “Is this the woman you saw?”
Nykyrian started to tell her to shove it, but for some reason he took it from her and looked.
His stomach hit the floor. There in the picture was his mother, standing beside another woman who looked so much like her, they appeared to be twins. Nothing differentiated them. Not their hair color, or height.
“What the . . .”
“She’s our cousin.” Tylie cursed. “As kids she and Carie used to pretend to be each other to fool the adults.”
“We thought it was funny. How could she do this to me?”
“Mother bribed her, I’m sure. Parisa’s father was a ne’er-do-well who squandered all their money and she’s always been jealous of us.” Tylie let out a disgusted sigh. “She may have even done it just to get back at you for being an heiress.”
“I swear I’ll kill her.”
Nykryian sat in shock, not knowing what to believe anymore. He stared at the photo, trying to sort through all the emotions tumbling through him: rage, pain, grief, loss.
Were they telling him the truth?
Did it even matter if they were? Nothing changed his past. It was still horrific and cold.
But if his mother had wanted him . . .
You’re not a child anymore. Who cares?
And yet deep inside, he did care and there was no denying it.
Tylie drew a ragged breath. “Mother’s committed a terrible crime. What are we going to do?”
Cairistiona looked at Nykyrian with a love in her eyes that tore through all the defenses he kept around his heart. It was the look he’d always wanted to see on his mother’s face. “Were they kind to you in the orphanage?”
Nykyrian shrugged, not wanting to remember. There was nothing she could do to ease the ache in his soul or correct the wrongs that had been done to him. Only Kiara seemed able to do that. “I was adopted,” he said at last, deciding that would be the easiest thing to disclose.
Her expression turned hopeful. “By good people?”
Yeah. The best quality imaginable.
A lump closed his throat and he stifled the urge to curl his lip. “Commander Huwin Quiakides.”
His mother’s smile widened. “My father knew him well. They went through League training together. He always said that for a human, Huwin was almost Andarion in his beliefs.” She said that like it was a good thing. “Are you a soldier, too?”
Nykyrian looked at her, his soul screaming out for vengeance, and he wanted to hurt her because of it. “I was a League assassin.”
The look of shock on her face didn’t give him the satisfaction he’d thought it would.
“But you have a wife . . .”
“As I said, I was an assassin. I left The League.”
Before she could respond, the doctor cleared his throat. Nykyrian came to his feet immediately to face him. “Is she all right?”
The doctor nodded. “She must have had a shock or something. Not unusual for a woman in her condition. I’ve heard many human women faint when expecting.”
“When expecting what?” Nykyrian asked with a scowl.
A second later total understanding dawned on him, and he felt completely stupid for having asked the question.
Suddenly, he couldn’t breathe. The walls seemed to close in on him.
What had he done?
The doctor raked him with a cold look. “Didn’t you know she was pregnant?”
Unable to respond, Nykyrian stared at his mother’s face, wishing he could feel the same happiness she beamed. Instead, all he could think of was how many people were out to kill him. No, not just kill him—to tear apart anyone they could to get to him.
For lack of simple birth control, he’d signed Kiara’s death contract more effectively than if he’d hired the assassins himself.
His mother stepped forward, her forehead wrinkled with worry. “Are you all right?”
Nykyrian didn’t know how to answer.
No, he wasn’t all right. He’d killed the only person he’d ever loved . . .
What was he going to do?
“Is she awake?” he asked the doctor.
“Not yet, but I could revive her if you like.”
His mother’s cold hand touched his cheek. “Are you leaving us?” Her voice trembled.
“I have to.”
Large tears rolled down her cheeks and he finally understood how Syn felt when he saw a woman cry. It was debilitating.
“You don’t plan on coming back to me, do you?”
He clenched his teeth in anger and pain. “What do you want from me? From where I stand, you’re the one who threw me away years ago.”
“Please, don’t do this. You have no idea what I’ve been through over your loss. I love you. I’ve always loved you, more so than even Jullien because you reminded me so much of your father . . . I wasn’t a whore, Nykyrian. Ever. I fell in love with a beautiful man I couldn’t have because of my political station and his, and I gave him two sons who have always meant the world to me.” She opened the necklace she wore and there, inside, was a picture of him as a small child. “You’ve never been far from my heart.”
And in that moment, he remembered things he’d purposefully buried because they were too painful to face. Images of his mother singing to him and holding him . . .
He knew she wasn’t lying. She meant every word.
She had loved him once . . .
“Would you at least meet us for dinner?” Tylie asked. “One meal, and then you never have to see us again if you don’t want to.”
“Please,” his mother begged.
Nykyrian looked away, unable to bear the agony in their eyes. Before his common sense could intervene, he nodded. “Where do you want me to meet you?”
His mother smiled. “Here at Camry’s. Do you know the place?”
Tylie’s smile matched his mother’s. “Six-thirty?”
“I’ll be there.” Nykyrian stepped back as Kiara joined them. Her pale features worried him. “How are you feeling?”
She rubbed her arms. “A little shaky, but I’ll be fine. What happened?”
“I don’t faint.”
He brushed back a strand of her hair before he could stop himself. “Yes, you do.” With a goodbye to his mother and aunt, Nykyrian wrapped his arm around Kiara’s shoulders and helped her from the shuttle.
He remained silent until they were inside his fighter and headed back to his house. Only then did he bring up what was foremost on his mind. “Why didn’t you tell me you were pregnant?”
Kiara went cold at his question. Why did he have to ask her that when she was strapped in and unable to look at him? “How did you find out?”
His hand jerked on the throttle and Kiara wondered what his first reaction to the news had been. Had he felt any joy whatsoever?
Or was he only angry at her?
“The doctor told me.”
She hated the lack of emotion in his voice. “Oh . . . Are you happy?”
“What do you think?”