Ryodan arched a brow. He’d never been accused of that before. He considered every detail, often looking centuries ahead, patiently recalibrating. Linchpin theory was his specialty. He who knew how to destroy a thing, a person, a society, controlled it. “Have you forgotten who you’re talking to?”
“I’m talking to the bloody idiot who thinks something like this is a viable option,” Barrons snapped.
“I’ve taken precautions. Dani will be safe.”
“She’s not our only concern. There’s also Dageus—”
“Lor will get word to you if he scents wind of the Tribunal. You know where to find me.” Time also seemed to move more slowly in that strange, terrible place the Tribunal dwelled; a lair they’d never been able to find. It might be decades before retribution came slamming down. He’d sometimes entertained the notion that the Tribunal deliberately took their time, allowing the offending member of the Nine to think they’d gotten away with taking a human, so when that person was stolen from him, it cut deeper. Then again, it might be never. There had always been ten of them. The Tribunal had only ever come when that number was exceeded. With Barrons’s son dead, they might never come.
“This bloody well isn’t the answer, Ryodan,” Barrons said impatiently.
“I killed for no reason and not to feed. I don’t take life without a reason. There may be little to distinguish us from the Fae, but that’s one of the defining characteristics.”
“You had reason. I’d have done no less.”
Ryodan smiled mirthlessly. “And scatter a trail of bodies behind her?”
“She doesn’t look back.”
“There is that. But one day she will. And hate me for it. She protects the innocents. She doesn’t kill them because something pisses her off.”
“You don’t know he was innocent.”
“He wasn’t. But according to her rulebook, he didn’t deserve to die.”
“You didn’t kill Dancer.”
Ryodan’s gaze shuttered. That was different. She’d loved Dancer. Tenderness had accompanied the erotic images bombarding him through their bond, soothing his beast just enough that he’d been able to get himself locked in a cell beneath Chester’s, barricaded in, with Lor, Fade, and Kasteo standing guard beyond.
Dani hadn’t felt emotion for the man he’d ripped to pieces, just a hunger in her bones to not be alone. To have a man’s arms around her and pretend, with eyes closed, he was the one who’d died in her bed. To feel what Dancer had made her feel: cherished.
It hadn’t worked. The man hadn’t returned what that woman was capable of giving. Elysian passion had been met by dumb, plebian lust. And then when she’d stopped, the bastard tried to take what he hadn’t deserved in the first place.
She left emptier and more alone than she’d gone in, and the grief she’d suffered deep in her soul had decimated the chains on his beast.
He refused to litter her life with corpses.
Barrons eyed him stonily across the room. Ryodan stared impassively back. He knew how much it cost his older half brother to be here; he’d sworn to never set foot in this place again. After an interminable length of silence during which both realized they would sit there for a small eternity before either broke eye contact, Barrons spun away and fired over his shoulder, “There’s another option. Tell her what—”
“No,” Ryodan snarled. “It’s not her problem. It’s mine. She needs to breathe, live on her own terms, define herself. Not in opposition but from choice. No boundaries. No limits. Not one bloody cage.” He knew Dani. If he told her, she would either curtail her activities to accommodate it or cut the tattoo off—again—as she had in the Silvers. Neither was acceptable. Freedom was something she’d never known. He wanted her drunk on it.
“But Dani asked you to tattoo her.”
“She didn’t know what she was asking. I offered it as a weapon, a shield. She wanted protection, nothing more.” A pause, then, silver eyes icy, Ryodan said, “I’ll kill again. That’s my problem. Not hers.” Long ago, they’d run as beasts, obeyed no code, known no laws. They’d been a breath away from becoming no better than the immortally bored, monstrous Fae. Barrons had pulled them back from that edge. Shaped them into savages with a code that kept them south of monstrosity. On the rare occasions one of them slipped, Barrons and Ryodan did whatever was necessary to reclaim him. Divided, they were quick to abandon the canon that functioned as a conscience, protected their secrets, and ensured their prosperity. Barrons enforced the law; Ryodan kept them together. None of them had violated their code in recent centuries. But Ryodan had butchered unprovoked, goaded by primal, uncontrollable rage at a situation, not the man he’d killed.
He could carve the tattoo from Dani’s skin. He hungered to escape the brutal intimacy of their bond. An intimacy she was unaware of, didn’t realize worked the way it did.
Yet, if he sliced it from her flesh, he wouldn’t be able to find her if she got lost.
He’d sworn to her that he’d never let her be lost.
He’d sworn it to himself. Their bond was his guarantee that she would never face danger by herself again.
Dani O’Malley had been alone in all the wrong ways and none of the right ones. Imprisoned as a child, she’d been unable to choose even the simplest elements of her day-to-day survival. He’d micromanage the hell out of her if he remained in his current imbalanced state. He’d do irreparable harm. She’d done her time in a cage. He’d do his.
“If she does get lost?” Barrons said finally.
Ryodan said nothing, just leaned back against the bars and folded his arms behind his head. Barrons knew if Dani used the spell etched into her phone and flesh, nothing could stop Ryodan from being sent to her, not even what his brother was about to do to him. He’d also given him instructions that if she called him at all, which would mean she was ready, Barrons was to set him free.
“You’ll starve down here,” Barrons goaded.
“I’ll slaughter up there.”
“The years will bring madness.”
“I’ll deal with it.”
“You’ll still feel it all.”
Again Ryodan said nothing. There was nothing to say. It was true. He would. But he wouldn’t kill again.
“You could get trapped in the beast’s skin. Be unable to change back.” Barrons pushed, his eyes sparking crimson as he recalled another day, another time.
“Unlike you, I prefer my human skin. I’ll find my way back.”
“It’s dark. Underground.”
Barrons knew his past. “That was a very long time ago,” Ryodan parried with soft menace.
“It’ll be hell.”
“I know what hell is, Barrons. It’s not this.” A small slice of hell, however, was taking a man’s life merely because Dani had taken him to her bed. A larger slice of hell was knowing he’d do it again and again. The fairest portion of hell would be the contempt in her eyes. “Do it,” he told Barrons. “You owe me.” Before he started to lose control again and decided he was fine killing them all. Before he convinced himself the active caring and concern for the well-being of another person’s body and soul, as she’d once informed him love was, scorn and fire flashing in her eyes, justified eliminating all intimacy but his.
After a long silence, Barrons murmured, “When we first transcribed that spell, we knew the mere placing of it would call a high price. It’s not your fault. You gift her with the greatest protection you can give—the willingness to abandon everything, to turn into the killing machine she needs, any time she needs it. You accept sacrificing your sanity and life each time she summons you. You grant her immense control over you and open yourself to a bond that can be pure poison for us. And the mere placement of that mark loosens the restraints on your beast. It’s an unavoidable side effect.”
Again Ryodan said nothing. Civilized for eons, disciplined, iron-willed, he’d believed he could handle it. Nothing rattled him.
But that woman.
“We suffer incarceration no better than the Fae. It’ll hurt. Worse than being burned alive,” Barrons snapped.
“Pain is relative.”
“What if five years isn’t long enough?”
“It had better be—she’s mortal.” Five years wasted. Five years of her life Ryodan would never get to see. And it would be the second five years of her life he’d lost. A decade, total. He inhaled sharply, going rigid as curved black talons exploded from his fingertips. He slammed his hands into the floor, gouging deep gashes in the stone. His skeleton was suddenly too large for his body, his muscles shifting and elongating.
She was on fire inside, angry about something, and he felt it. He felt everything she felt, that was the problem. He wanted her to taste all the world had to offer. Gorge on it.
Then choose him.
Because he was the best the world had to offer.
To the most lawless of men, choice was golden: it didn’t matter what you were, it mattered what you did with it.
“Do. It. Now.”
Barrons sighed, acknowledging this was one of those exceedingly rare arguments he wasn’t going to win. “Our cuffs connect us. You have but to demand I release you should you change your mind.”