Excerpt: Sword of the King

CHAPTER ONE

Blood splashed in a red arc across the dark stones of the pit floor as Erie tore open a fresh wound on his opponent. Erie growled and snarled, taunting his opponent, his long tail cutting back and forth through the air and slamming against the pit floor. The spectators closest to the ring were dripping with sweat, more than a few flushed red from the heat that poured off both dragons. Erie’s dark scales had a red-orange sheen, and Blaze knew if he were to touch Erie right then that the heat would blister his hand.

His opponent was a double-black, meaning he was a double-elemental rather than a single like Erie. But even being a combination of flame and gale wasn’t enough against Erie’s prowess.

Erie feinted right and then lunged left, sinking teeth and claws into his opponent, spilling more blood. The other dragon screamed in rage and pain, but Blaze could already hear the strength was fading from its voice. Victory was close. Blaze looked away from the fight long enough to glance at his boss, who had a seat further up where he could see the action clearly without being affected by it. He was already beginning to smirk in triumph. He gave Blaze the barest nod of approval. Relief poured through him; Erie was not only going to win the match, he’d performed especially well.

Blaze barely bit back a grin as he watched Erie finished the fight with a last blow of his tail to his opponent’s face. He clenched his fists in victory as the match was called and Erie declared the victor. Leaving the area where all dragon masters sat during the fights, he walked across the blood-slick floor to Erie. He was panting and his scales gleamed ember-red in the harsh glare of the overhead lights, smeared here and there with dull red splashes of blood. Ignoring the blood, gingerly petting him as his scales cooled, Blaze murmured, “Good, Erie. You were beautiful, amazing. You just keep getting better and better. The boss was definitely looking pleased.”

Erie rumbled in happiness and butted against his hip. Blaze petted him for a few more minutes then led Erie back across the ring to where Rust and a cluster of other men stood waiting. At a glance, Blaze would hazard most of them were Bosses from other syndicates. They must be from minor syndicates, though, because he knew all the major Bosses.

“So he’s an egg dragon?” asked one. Rust nodded, and looked at Blaze, indicating that Blaze should continue. “Yes, sir. Erie’s mother is a turned dragon, but once she was changed she was never allowed to go back to human. His father is a tri-black living up in Brennus’ territory. Erie was born in a clutch of twelve. Nine survived to birth. He was the only flame in the clutch. ”

Blaze remembered the day well. He’d only been ten years old, but already showed promise of having the focus and discipline it took to be a dragon master. He’d seen Erie and that was it. No one and nothing else mattered but Erie. “He only learned how to turn human five years ago, when he was fifteen.”

The man nodded, flicking ash from his cigarette. He had dark hair and eyes, and a mean look around his mouth that Blaze associated with all Boss types. Even Rust, who was better than most, had that same look. It said the money mattered first, second, and last, and everything else was just in the way. “Yes, I can see how different they are from the turned ones. Much more vicious. Primitive. What’s his human percentage? He must have some since his mother was human.”

“Hard to say,” Rust replied, taking over the conversation. “She was sixty percent dragon, just ten percent short of being pure. The father was forty percent dragon. But as Blaze said, Erie only started turning human five years ago and he doesn’t like to do it often. Whatever his genetics say, he’s all dragon. We only turn him human for transport purposes, and then only when no better option is available.”

Blaze kept his eyes on Erie, who rumbled quietly at him. If there were other reasons that Erie turned human, well, that was nobody else’s fucking business.

Another of the men grunted; Blaze looked at him, noting the gray pallor to his skin. Fancy suit or not, he was no Boss. Must be a bit of muscle or something. Blaze shared a brief look of amused disgust with Rust. Who brought fresh meat to a pit fight? If he was that squeamish he wouldn’t last long; he’d probably faint like a little bitch when he saw his first death match.

Whoever he was, he definitely wasn’t master material and in the dragon world only three types of people mattered: dragons, masters, and bosses. Everyone else did grunt work or was window dressing.

“What’s the cost difference?” the ashen-faced man asked, trying hard to look unaffected and failing miserably. Everyone was afraid of dragons, except dragon masters. Inspiring fear was just part of what a dragon did, was meant to do. But some people were so afraid of them that they could barely be in the same room. Blaze bet the guy wouldn’t last a week before he quit or was terminated. Someone should have done a better job of vetting the poor son of a bitch. “I c-can’t imagine it’s cheap or easy to raise them from the egg like that.”

At Blaze’s side, Erie rumbled playfully again; the man only just caught himself from jumping. Blaze smothered a laugh, but only because Rust would be pissed if his guests were embarrassed.

Rust flicked one hand dismissively. “About fifty to seventy five grand more a head at the onset, but they take much better to the training and don’t need to be broken first, so in the long term, raising them more than pays for itself. They also do not require the changer drugs as often, which saves a great deal on cost. The only drawback is that they are useless as humans. In a clutch of ten, four on average will never manage the shift even with the changer drugs.”

Blaze didn’t bother to say that Erie had never needed drugs to shift. Changing had only taken him as long as it had because, for the longest time, Erie had no interest in appearing human. When he’d finally shifted, however, he hadn’t needed the changers at all. It made the other pit fighters jealous that Erie didn’t need the drugs to shift, and Blaze knew they were just waiting for a chance to kick him while he was down, but it just made him all the prouder of Erie. He was the best dragon in the Rust Syndicate, and Blaze aimed to keep it that way.

If they worked hard and won enough matches, they stood a chance of moving out of the pits. He would give anything—everything—to never have to pit Erie again. Every time Erie went into the pit, Blaze felt like his heart stopped and didn’t start again until Erie came back to him. Nobody’s luck lasted forever, and if he didn’t get Erie out of the pits, eventually there would come a dragon that would end Erie. Death matches were rare and accidental deaths rarer still, but there was always someone willing to pay to see it happen.

The last man, vaguely familiar, was smug, gaudy, and corpulent; he looked at Blaze and Erie like they were something weird on his dinner plate and he was going to let his bodyguards take a bite first. “Can he speak? How was he trained? He’s one the most ruthless fighters I’ve ever seen; even some of our wilder blacks don’t have his … focus. He achieved some impressive temperatures, even for a flame.” Blaze finally realized why he looked familiar; the New England accent gave him away. He was the son and heir presumptive of the Shaker Syndicate. A whiny set, but made of money and happy to spend it.

Blaze stroked Erie’s scales, irritated. “He can speak, and I started training him damn near the day he hatched. Everyone tries to treat them like they’re human; the trick to dragons is to let them be dragons.”

“I see,” murmured the first man, dropping his finished cigarette to the ground and putting it out with his shoe. He looked directly at Blaze, eyes intent and too sharp. “The dragon isn’t the only odd one; you’re a bit out of the ordinary yourself. Who trained you?”

The question made Blaze tense, because that wasn’t normally the kind of question someone asked. Rust laid a hand on his shoulder, ordering him to keep silent at the same time. “Blaze was trained same as anyone, he’s just damned good. Are you done asking questions here, gentlemen? Shall we move this to a dinner table?” He led them away, shooting a look over his shoulder that said Blaze was free to go for the night. “Afterwards, I’ll take you to the compound and you can see the nests for yourself, the training grounds, why my dragons kick your ass every single time.”

Blaze slumped in relief, then pet Erie one last time before leading him away. Outside, the kid he’d paid to watch his bike leapt off and tried to look innocent. The kid claimed he was fourteen but was probably closer to twelve. He looked the bike over and, seeing that no harm had been done to it, decided it was dumb to get upset about a kid sitting on it—lost in daydreams of winning a no doubt spectacular street race. The prize was probably a dragon; it always had been for Blaze.

He ruffled the kid’s head and passed him a twenty. “Thanks.”

“No problem! You were fucking badass in there, Master Blaze! Everyone was talking about it! I don’t think anyone will ever beat you.”

Blaze laughed. “Hopefully not. Now get going before someone notices you and puts you on pit cleaning duty. Trust me when I say you don’t want it.”

“Yes, Master Blaze.” He smiled shyly then bolted off, vanishing into the crowd, probably headed back to the dorm Rust maintained for all the young initiates in the syndicate. Blaze did not miss the dorm days. The second best day of his life was when he’d been handed a key and told it was to his own apartment. The best was the day he’d been approved as a pit fighter and then chosen Erie from the clutch put before him.

Turning to Erie, who stood waiting patiently beside him, Blaze said, “Change, Erie.”

Growling, Erie obeyed, the metallic tang of magic filling the air as he shifted to human form. Erie was a stunning human with his dark blonde hair and brilliant yellow eyes, his skin tanned from all the time he spent sunning nude on Blaze’s balcony. At a glance Erie seemed completely human. Once he started speaking or when he was around other dragons or syndicate members, however, it became obvious his humanity was only a facade. Even more than most dragons, Erie sucked at being human.

Blaze loved him for it, though he would never admit that aloud. Masters who loved their dragons were executed as a danger, their dragons put down. Blaze would sooner die than let that happen. He tolerated the pits because he had no choice, but he hoped he was close to getting them out.

When Erie finished transforming, Blaze pulled clothes out of one of the saddlebags on his bike. Erie grimaced as he pulled on jeans and a long-sleeved black t-shirt, and growled as Blaze gave him socks and boots. When Blaze gave him a look, he grumbled and put them on.

A few minutes later, they were flying through the city streets, weaving around the light ten o’clock traffic. They made it across town in record time, and Blaze smoothly parked in the complex garage. He pulled off his helmet and stood, bidding Erie follow him with a crook of his fingers.

They rode the elevator to the twentieth floor, where the luxury apartments were located. Rust was a bastard, but he took good care of his people when they didn’t let him down. Once inside, he flicked on the main lights and left their helmets on top of the storage chest in the entryway. He sat down to unlace his boots, the shrugged out of his leather jacket and hung it up on its hook over the storage chest. Emptying his pockets, leaving his keys, wallet, and cell on the hall table, he led the way across the living room and down the hall to the bedroom at the very end. In the master bath, Blaze turned on the shower and began to strip. “Come on, dragon. You stink.”

Erie eagerly discarded his clothes and slid into the shower. The water was hot, almost too hot for Blaze; he knew that if Erie were showering alone, it would be even hotter. But Erie had fought extremely well against a more experienced dragon; he deserved a reward.

Blaze slid into the shower and groaned as the hot water hit his muscles. Fuck that felt good. He beamed at Erie as he reached for the soap and the rough-texture sponge that Erie loved so much. He smiled softly, in a way that only Erie drew out of him, as Erie rumbled in satisfaction. Once he’d finished scrubbing every inch of Erie’s smooth, tanned skin, Blaze switched to shampoo, lathering it in Erie’s hair, dragging his fingers through the thick strands.

Finally Erie was clean, and Blaze turned to cleaning himself, pretending all the while that they weren’t both painfully hard.

“Blaze,” Erie said in his quiet voice, a note of hungry pleading in it. Blaze was helpless against that tone, against all the emotions that filled Erie’s yellow eyes. “Blaze.”

Erie’s hand dropped to Blaze’s thigh, smoothed over the lurid scars left by Erie’s claws. Claiming marks or something; Blaze didn’t dare ask someone else what it might mean because if anyone found out that he had broken one of the most important rules regarding masters and dragons …

Never fuck a dragon, that was the rule. All masters were cautioned about the way dragons tried to trick their masters into believing they were human when in fact they weren’t. Even the dragons who had started as humans and been changed were no longer human, something easy to forget but important to remember. Blaze had remembered it—until the day that Erie had lost his first fight.

He’d been so depressed, so … so broken, that he wouldn’t cheer up no matter what Blaze said or did to reassure him. Nothing had worked until, in desperation, Blaze had stopped listening to pit rules and listened to his mentor instead. Amr had told him a lot of things about dragons that wouldn’t make Rust very happy, but Blaze hadn’t been able to resist. He loved Erie, and wanted to know all he could.

Amr had called Blaze his finest student. He’d first shown up when Blaze was fifteen and Erie five, Blaze had been wary. He didn’t want to be specially trained; he just wanted for them to be left alone. But changing his mind had only been a matter of days; Amr was the best thing that ever happened to them. Blaze had been quietly devastated when he’d left, after Rust had decided he’d overstayed his welcome.

One of the things he remembered best was Amr telling him that to be close to his dragon was a good thing, not a bad thing. That loving them, fucking them, wasn’t wrong.

So Blaze had broken down that night after Erie had lost a fight, and kissed him. He didn’t want to go further, afraid of what might happen if they went too far and go caught, but he wasn’t sorry when the kiss led to him being fucked senseless and with fresh wounds on his thigh. He was still worried someone would find out, but as long as they kept kicking ass and making Rust happy, no one would.

“You were good today, Erie. Beautiful and perfect.” He smiled at the way Erie glowed at the praise. “You can do whatever you want, and then we’ll go out and I’ll buy you a mint ice cream.”

Erie growled happily and promptly dropped to his knees in the shower. “Wait, wait,” Blaze said with a laugh. “Let’s do this in bed, Erie. Not the shower.” Growling impatiently, Erie nevertheless obeyed, though he barely waited for Blaze to turn the shower off before dragging him into the bedroom and pushing him down onto the bed. Blaze tugged him down for a hungry kiss, biting at his lips, sucking on his tongue, and moaning into Erie’s mouth as he ground their cocks together. Pulling back, Erie licked his lips, and then bent to start nipping, kissing and licking his way down Blaze’s body. He bit Blaze’s nipples, softly kissed the scars left by knives, bullets, and a goblin’s teeth.

Blaze yanked at his hair. “Enough teasing, Erie. Fuck me.”

Growling, Erie pressed a sucking kiss on his cock then obediently withdrew to get the lube, growling in annoyance until he finally found it. It didn’t take long for him to prep Blaze, who had never liked gentle treatment. Withdrawing his fingers, Erie lined up his cock and thrust inside. Blaze arched up into him, hissing and swearing, his nails digging into Erie’s shoulders.

Rumbling, Erie nuzzled his shoulder then pulled back, dragged Blaze’s legs up over his shoulders, and began to pound into him. Blaze let go of Erie to grip the headboard, meeting every thrust. He alternated between swearing, begging, and calling Erie’s name as he was fucked so hard he knew he would feel it for days—exactly the way he liked it. “Erie!” he shouted before he came all over them both, moaning as he felt claws dig into his skin as Erie growled and came.

Slowly pulling apart, they lay there panting and recovering, eventually curling back together to doze for a bit. When he finally dragged his eyes open again, he saw from the alarm clock they’d been asleep at least an hour. He pressed a lazy kiss to his Erie’s shoulder. “We’re going to need another shower, dragon.”

Erie rumbled his approval and cuddled close, completely uncaring of the sticky mess between them. “Good Erie. Get Blaze. Get mint? See butterflies?”

“You’re a spoiled brat, but yes, we’ll go see the girls. They love cooing over you. Get up, dragon.” Rolling out of bed, Blaze went to the bathroom and turned the shower back on. Cleaning should have taken them all of ten minutes, but by the time Erie was done surprising him with a voracious round two, they’d run out of hot water. He snapped Erie’s ass with a towel and hustled him into the bedroom to dress. Rifling through his closet and dresser, he threw a pair of jeans and a navy blue t-shirt at Erie, and then pulled on leather pants and a gray long sleeved t-shirt himself. He used the towel to dry his hair and running a comb over it, then dug out a pair of socks before heading for the entryway where he left his boots.

Finally, he opened the entryway closet and pulled out the Beretta he kept there. Putting on his shoulder holster, he checked the gun and slid it into place before shrugging into his black leather jacket. Ready, they left the building and walked the four blocks to their favorite dive; a shitty little strip club always on the verge of closing. The girls were sweet, the drinks were good, and he didn’t have to pay for shit because his favoring the place meant nobody dared fuck with it.

He greeted the bouncer, Chuck, with a nod as he entered the lobby. Ignoring the window where a handful of other guys stood in line to pay and get their hands stamped, he pushed through the second door and strolled into the club.

It was a little busy for a Thursday night, but he recognized a few faces in the dim light; mostly they belonged to men hoping to impress him or some other bullshit. He never told them it was a waste of time. The only friends he had were Erie and the girls, and the only “friends” he made were on Rust’s orders. He went to Club Heaven to relax, not work. Candi smiled at him as she flew past to attend her tables, and Roxie waved at him from the bar, letting him know she was getting his drink.

Blaze waved back an acknowledgement, then took his regular seat, smiling as he watched Silver dance. She was beautiful: gold skin, gold hair, and by that point dressed in only a tiny thong. She had her audience completely enthralled.

May showed up a minute later with his jack and coke, and a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream for Erie. “Thank you, butterfly,” Erie said and began eating, rumbling happily all the while.

Blaze smiled at her and passed her a generous tip to share around with all the girls. “Thanks, baby. How are things going tonight?”

“Watch the back corner,” May said, bending to kiss his cheek as she discreetly tucked the money away. “He’s been here awhile, like he’s been waiting for something or someone. Doesn’t talk to anyone else, except to ask questions. He’s a master, got a dragon with him, and he keeps asking about Rust and the pits. Claims to be independent.”

He kissed her cheek. “Thanks. I’ll take care of it.”

She smiled, patted Erie’s head affectionately and then scurried off. On stage, Silver finished and was replaced by Snowflake, a dark-skinned beauty dressed in a shimmery white number. She was almost finished with her routine when the stranger in the back corner finally approached. Blaze ignored him.

Then Erie stopped eating his ice cream and gave a low, curious growl; something he only did when meeting a new dragon. Blaze took another swallow of his drink, then finally dragged his eyes up.

He’d been expecting the usual sort: men and women looking to make a name by kicking his ass, kids barely old enough to go out alone, young thugs who thought winning a couple of fights meant they could take on a Master, or resentful assholes who thought that because he was only twenty four that he was young and easy to beat.

The man before him was none of those things. He was tall—taller than Blaze, but who wasn’t? He had dark brown hair that was dirty and in sore need of a trim, hazel eyes shot through with exhaustion, and lightly tanned skin. His clothes looked rumpled, like he’d been stuck wearing them too long.

Just behind him was a dragon that looked ill at ease to be in human form. His coloring was pale: white blonde hair, skin that clearly got more moonlight than sunlight. Only his amber eyes stood out as a splash of color. He was slender, and a little shorter than his master, but despite his unease at being human, he was clearly ready to defend his master.

“If you want something, spell it out and stop lurking.”

“I saw you fight earlier today,” the man said, voice deep and even with no hint of a telling accent. Blaze cocked his head, indicating he could continue speaking. “You treat your dragon well.”

Whatever Blaze had expected the man to say, it wasn’t that. “Of course I do. If your goal is to piss me off, then you’re succeeding.”

The man shook his head. “Usually pit fighters treat their dragons like shit. You actually care, which is fucking awesome. If not for the fact you pit him, I might actually like you.”

“I don’t give a fuck if you like me or not.” Erie growled a warning in reaction to Blaze’s growing anger, and Blaze reached out a hand to comb soothingly through his hair. “If that’s all you’ve got to say, then go somewhere else. I’m here to relax, not get into another fight. If you want to fight, sign up to pit.”

Shaking his head again, the man abruptly sat down in the seat next to him. “I have no interest in fighting anyone. I mistakenly thought you felt the same way.”

Blaze eyed him, hoping his dismay didn’t show. If some random asshole could pick up on his reluctance, who else could? “I do as I’m told. Rust gives the orders, and I’m happy to obey them.”

The man eyed him, clearly not believing a word.

Fuck. “Got a name?”

“Ken. You’re Blaze, right? I think that’s what they called you.”

“Yeah, that’s me,” Blaze said. He took a long swallow, finishing off his drink. “What the fuck do you want?”

Smirking, Ken replied, “A fuck is exactly what I want.”

Blaze’s wariness kicked up another notch; while normally he might be tempted by the offer, he wasn’t going to trust someone who already seemed to know too much. “Who the hell are you? And if you tell me ‘Ken’, I’ll ruin that pretty face.”

“Just an aimless owner.”

The word made Blaze freeze with surprise. Owner. That was the term Amr had used a few times, before shaking his head and correcting himself to ‘master’. Blaze had tried to ask about it a couple of times, but Amr had only said it was an outdated term.

Why was this asshole using it?

Deciding ignorance was best, Blaze asked, “What the fuck is an owner?”

Ken frowned at him, puzzled. “An owner. As in we own dragons.”

“You mean a master,” Blaze said, then ignored him in favor of thanking Cherri as she brought him a fresh drink. When she left, he turned back to Ken. “Look, I came here to relax, not play games. I don’t know who or what you are, but you’re starting to piss me off.”

“I saw you fight and wanted to meet you. Heard a lot about you, thought it was bullshit. Now, I’d say the rumors don’t give you enough credit. The term is owner, though, traditionally. Master is a pit term.”

Blaze sneered. “Do I look the traditional type to you?” What the fuck was traditional?

“Yes,” Ken said, so softly that Blaze almost didn’t catch the word. Ice traveled through his veins; he was dismayed that someone he had never even heard of was seeing shit that Blaze didn’t want seen. He didn’t know what he was doing that was so traditional, but he was pretty fucking sure it would cost him Blaze if Rust found out. Damn it, he always tried so hard to be careful.

“I’ll tell you one last time,” he said, spitting the words out in a low voice. “All I do is what Rust tells me–what a good master should—and ain’t none of your fucking tradition involved. Get out of my face before I end you.”

Ken stood up, briefly lifting his hands in surrender. But as he lowered them, he bent to whisper in Blaze’s ear, “If you’re not into tradition, then why have you and your dragon been fucking?”

Blaze reacted immediately, rising; he shoved and punched the bastard in the jaw, sending him to the floor. “Keep your fucking mouth shut,” he hissed. “You have no fucking clue who you’re messing with.” Behind him, Erie growled and tensed. Blaze calmed him with a light touch, motioning with his free hand for the bouncers to remove Ken and his dragon.

“I know exactly what I’m doing,” Ken said, giving him a look that actually made Blaze feel bad when the bouncers dragged Ken away. One guy tried to grab Ken’s dragon and yelped when it nipped him.

Blaze watched and waited until Ken and his dragon were gone. Heaving a sigh, he kissed Mercy on her cheek in apology as she came up to him. “Sorry for the fuss.” He shoved some cash into her hand and beckoned to Erie, leading the way through the club and slipping out the back door into the alleyway.

He made straight for the parking garage of his apartment building, calling the doorman while they walked. One of the building staff met him by his bike, holding helmets and keys. Blaze wasn’t normally keen on people having such easy access to his apartment, but like everyone else, the staff knew not to fuck with him or his belongings. He wasn’t dumb enough to keep anything important in the apartment anyway.

Pulling on his helmet, Blaze slid onto the bike and started it as Erie climbed on behind him. He slowly made his way out of the garage, but once on the street he gunned it, shooting across the city… He needed to tell Rust about the run-in and have whatever the fuck was going on stopped before the wrong people found out about all the rules he’d broken with Erie.

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