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He doesn't laugh."
"He never yells."
"When Grayley accidentally stabbed Darius's thigh with a six-pronged razor, our leader didn't even blink."
"I'd say all he needs is a few good hours of bed sport, but I'm not even sure he knows what his cock is for."
The latter was met with a round of rumbling male chuckles.
Darius en Kragin stepped inside the spacious dining hall, his gaze methodically cataloging his surroundings. The ebony floors gleamed clean and black, the perfect contrast for the dragon-carved ivory walls. Along the windows, gauzy drapes whisped delicately. Crystal ceilings towered above, reflecting the tranquillity of seawater that enclosed their great city.
He moved toward the long, rectangular dining table. The tantalizing aroma of sweetmeats and fruit should have wafted to his nostrils, but over the years his sense of smell, taste and color had deteriorated.
He smelled only ash, tasted nothing more than air, and saw only black-and-white. He'd willed those senses away. Better, easier to exist in a void. Only sometimes did he wish otherwise.
One warrior caught sight of him and quickly alerted the others. Silence clamped tight fingers around the chamber. Every male present whipped his focus to his food, as if roasted fowl had suddenly become the most fascinating thing the gods had ever created. The jovial air visibly darkened.
True to his men's words, Darius claimed his seat at the head of the table without a smile or a scowl. Only after he'd consumed his third goblet of wine did his men resume their conversation, though they wisely chose a different subject. This time they spoke of the women they had pleasured and the wars they had won. Exaggerated tales, all. One warrior even went so far as to claim he'd gratified four women at the same time while successfully storming his enemy's gate. For a nymph, that was possible. A dragon? No.
Darius had heard the same stories a thousand times before. He swallowed a mouthful of tasteless meat and asked the warrior beside him, "Any news?"
Brand, his first in command, leveled him a grim smile and shrugged. "Perhaps. Perhaps not." His light hair hung around his face in thick war braids, and he hooked several behind his ears. "The vampires are acting strangely. They're leaving the Outer City and assembling here in the Inner City."
"They rarely come here. Have they given no indication of why?"
"It cannot be good for us, whatever the reason," Madox said, jumping into the conversation. "I say we kill those that venture too close to our home." He was the tallest dragon in residence and always ready for combat. He perched at the end of the table, his elbows flat on the surface, both hands filled with meat. "We are ten times stronger and more skilled than they are."
"We need to obliterate the entire race," the warrior on his left supplied. Renard was the kind of man others wanted to guard their backs in battle. He fought with a determination matched by few, was fiercely loyal and had studied the anatomy of every species in Atlantis so he knew exactly where to strike each to create the most damage. And the most pain.
Years ago, Renard and his wife had been captured by a group of vampires. He'd been chained to a wall, forced to watch as his wife was raped and drained. When he escaped, he brutally destroyed every creature responsible, but that had not lessened his heartache. He was a different man than he'd been, no longer full of laughter and forgiveness. What Darius hated most was that a rogue group of dragons had mimicked the tale, doing the same thing to the vampire king, who had not been responsible for Renard's tragedy, but who now blamed Darius for it. Thus, a war erupted between their races.
"Perhaps we can petition Zeus for their extinction," Brand replied.
"The gods have long since forgotten us," Renard said with a shrug. "Besides, Zeus is like Cronus in so many ways. He might agree, but do we really want him to? We are all creations of the Titans, even those we loathe. If Zeus annihilates one race, what is to stop him from wiping out others?"
Brand gulped back the last of his wine, his eyes fierce. "Then we will not ask him. We will simply strike."
"The time has come for us to declare war," Madox growled in agreement.
The word "war" elicited smiles across the expanse of the room.
"I agree that the vampires need to be eliminated. They create chaos and for that alone they deserve to die." Darius met each warrior's stare, one at a time, holding it until the other man looked away. "But there is a time for war and a time for strategy. Now is the time for strategy. I will send a patrol into the Inner City and learn the vampires' purpose. Soon we will know the best course of action."
"But" one warrior began.
He cut him off with a wave of his hand. "Our ancestors waged the last war with the vampires, and while we might have won, our losses were too great. Families were torn asunder and blood bathed the land. We will have patience in this situation. My men will not jump hastily into any skirmish."
A disappointed silence slithered from every man present, wrapping around the table, then climbing up the walls. He wasn't sure if they were considering his words, or revolt.
"What do you care, Darius, if families are destroyed? I'd think a heartless bastard like you would welcome the violence." The dry statement came from across the table, where Tagart reclined in his seat. "Aren't you eager to spill more blood? No matter that the blood is vampire rather than human?"
A sea of angry growls grew in volume, and several warriors whipped to face Darius, staring at him with expectation, as if they waited for him to coldly slay the warrior who had voiced what they had all been thinking. Tagart merely laughed, daring anyone to act against him.
Do they truly consider me heartless? Darius wondered. Heartless enough to execute his own kind for something so trivial as a verbal insult? He was a killer, yes, but not heartless.
A heartless man felt nothing, and he felt some emotions. Mild though they were. He simply knew how to control what he felt, knew how to bury it deep inside himself. That was the way he preferred his life. Intense emotions birthed turmoil, and turmoil birthed soul-wrenching pain. Soul-wrenching pain birthed memories His fingers tightened around his fork, and he forced himself to relax.
He would rather feel nothing than relive the agony of his pastthe same agony that could very well become his present if he allowed a single memory to take root and sprout its poisonous branches.
"My family is Atlantis," he finally said, his voice disturbingly calm. "I will do what I must to protect her. If that means waiting before declaring war and angering every one of my men, then so be it."
Realizing Darius could not be provoked, Tagart shrugged and returned his attention to his meal.
"You are right, my friend." Grinning broadly, Brand slapped his shoulder. "War is only fun if we emerge the victor. We heed your advice to wait most readily."
"Kiss his ass any harder," Tagart muttered, "and your lips will chap."
Brand quickly lost his grin, and the medallion hanging from his neck began to glow. "What did you say?" he demanded quietly.
"Are your ears as feeble as the rest of you?" Tagart pushed to his feet, leaving his palms planted firmly on the glossy tabletop. The two men glared at each other from across the distance, a charged stillness sparking between them. "I said, kiss his ass any harder, and your lips will chap."
With a growl, Brand launched himself over the table, knocking dishes and food to the ground in his haste to attack Tagart. In midspring, reptilian scales grew upon his skin and narrow, incandescent wings sprouted from his back, ripping his shirt and pants in half, transforming him from man to beast. Fire spewed from his mouth, charring the surface of everything in its path.
The same transformation overtook Tagart, and the two beasts grappled to the ebony floor in a dangerous tangle of claws, teeth and fury.
Dragon warriors were able to change into true dragons whenever they desired, though the transformation happened of its own volition whenever raging emotions gripped them. Darius himself had not experienced a change, impromptu or otherwise, since he discovered his family slaughtered over three hundred years ago. To be honest, Darius suspected his dragon form was somehow lost.
Tagart snarled when Brand threw him into the nearest wall, cracking the priceless ivory. He quickly recovered by whipping Brand's face with his serrated tail, leaving a jagged and bleeding wound. Their infuriated snarls echoed as deep and sharp as any blade. A torrent of flame erupted, followed quickly by an infuriated hiss. Over and over they bit and lashed out at each other, separated, circled, then clashed together again.
Every warrior save Darius leapt to his feet in a frenzy of excitement, hurriedly taking bets on who would win. "Eight gold drachmas on Brand," Grayley proclaimed.
"Ten on Tagart," Brittan shouted.
"Twenty if they both kill each other," Zaeven called excitedly.
"Enough," Darius said, his tone even, controlled.
The two combatants jumped apart as if he'd screamed the command, both panting and facing each other like penned animals, ready to attack again at any moment.
"Sit," Darius said in that same easy tone.
Rather than obey this time, they growled gut-turally at each other. Not so the rest. They sat. While they might wish to continue cheering and taking bets, Darius was their leader, their king, and they knew better than to defy him.
"I did not exclude you from the command," he said to Tagart and Brand, adding only slightly to his volume. "You will calm yourselves and sit."
Both men leveled narrowed gazes on him. He arched a harsh brow and motioned with his fingers a gesture that clearly said, "Come and get me. Just don't expect to live afterward."
Minutes passed in suspended silence until finally, the panting warriors assumed human form. Their wings recoiled, tucking tightly into the slits on their backs; their scales faded, leaving naked skin. Because Darius kept spare clothing in each room of the palace, they were able to grab a pair of pants from the wall hooks. Partially dressed now, they righted their chairs and eased down.
"I will not have discord in my palace," Darius told them.
Brand wiped the blood from his cheek and flicked Tagart a narrowed glare. In return, Tagart bared his sharp teeth and released a cutting growl.
They were already on the verge of morphing again, Darius realized.
He worked a finger over his stubbled chin. Never had he been more thankful that he was a man of great patience, yet never had he been more displeased with the system he had fashioned. His dragons were divided into four units. One unit patrolled the Outer City, while another patrolled the Inner. The third was allowed to roam free, pleasuring women, losing themselves in wine or whatever other vice they desired. The last had to stay here, training. Every four weeks, the units rotated.
These men had been here two daysa mere two daysand already they were restless. If he did not think of something to distract them, they might very well kill each other before their required time elapsed.
"What think you of a tournament of sword skill?" he asked determinedly.
Indifferent, some men shrugged. A few moaned, "Not again."
"No," Renard said with a shake of his dark head, "you always win. And besides that, there is no prize."
"What would you like to do, then?"
"Women," one of the men shouted. "Bring us some women."
Darius frowned. "You know I do not allow females inside the palace. They pose too much of a distraction, causing too many hostilities between you. And not the easy hostilities of a few moments ago."
Regretful groans greeted his words.
"I have an idea." Brand faced him, a slow smile curling his lips, eclipsing all other emotions. "Allow me to propose a new contest. Not of physical strength, but one of cunning and wits."
Instantly every head perked up. Even Tagart lost his wrathful glare as interest lit his eyes.
A contest of wits sounded innocent enough. Darius nodded and waved his hand for Brand to continue.
Brand's smile grew wider. "The contest is simple. The first man to make Darius lose his temper, wins."
"I do not" Darius began, but Madox spoke over him, his rough voice laden with excitement.
"And just what does the winner gain?"
"The satisfaction of besting us all," Brand replied. "And a beating from Darius, I'm sure." He offered them a languid shrug and leaned back in the velvet cushions of his chair. He propped his ankles on the tabletop. "But I swear by the gods every bruise will be worth it."
Eight sets of eyes swung in Darius's direction and locked on him with unnerving interest. Weighing options. Speculating. "I do not" he began again, but just like before he was silenced.
"I like the sound of this," Tagart interjected. "Count me in."
"And me, as well."
Before another man could so easily ignore him, Darius uttered one word. Simple, but effective. "No." He swallowed a tasteless bite of fowl, then continued with the rest of his meal. "Now, tell me more of the vampires' doings."
"What about making him smile?" Facing Brand, Madox shoved eagerly to his feet and leaned over the table. "Does that count? It's a show of emotion and as rare as his temper."
"Absolutely." Brand nodded. "But there must be a witness to the deed, or no winner can be declared."
One by one, each man uttered, "Agreed."
"I will hear no more talk of this." When had he lost control of this conversation? Of his men? "I"
Darius snapped his mouth closed. His blood was quickening with darkness and danger, and the hairs at the base of his neck were rising.
The mist prepared for a traveler.
Resignation rushed through him and on the heels of that was cold determination. He eased up, his chair skidding slightly behind him.
Every voice tapered to silence. Every expression became curious.
"I must go," he said, the words flat, hollow. "We will discuss a tournament of sword skill when I return."
He attempted to stride from the room, but Tagart leapt up and over the table and swiveled in front of him. "Does the mist call you?" the warrior asked, casually leaning one arm against the door frame and blocking the only exit.
Darius gave him no outward reaction. But then, when did he ever? "Step out of my way."
Tagart arched an insolent brow. "Make me."
Someone snickered behind him.
With or without his approval, it seemed the game had already begun. This wasn't like his men. They must be more bored than he'd thought.
Darius easily lifted Tagart by his shoulders and tossed the stunned man aside, slamming him into the far wall. He thudded to the floor in a gasping heap. Without facing the others, Darius asked, "Anyone else?