Nadia seethed as her new captor pulled her down the platform steps. What an ass!
He could have at least given her his shirt.
She was acutely aware of her nudity as he tugged her through the crowd, which had barely thinned since he’d freed her from the manacles. Men stared openly at her breasts, her legs, and the juncture of her thighs. Something brushed her backside, making her spurt forward—an action she immediately regretted when her breasts bounced, drawing more stares.
The warlord seemed unaware of her discomfort as he pulled her through the sea of bodies, her fingers tight around her biceps. She struggled to match his long strides. She stepped on a rock, the sharp edge like a nail in her foot. She swore under her breath. She’d had enough of being dragged around.
She tugged at his grip. “I can walk just fine on my own.”
He hauled her against his side, and she gasped. He put his mouth next to her ear. “You want to get out of this place alive? Be mindful of our audience.”
She’d avoided meeting the gazes of the men around them, but now she glanced at the hard faces following their progress. The avid, hungry expressions they’d worn during the auction had been replaced by something else…something more sinister. Hundreds of dull, flat stares met hers. She swallowed.
“You see?” the warlord said, his breath ruffling the fine hairs around her temple.
“Good. Now keep your head down and try to act docile.”
Something in his tone made her glance up. He’d sounded almost…amused. She searched his face, but his eyes were hard, his mouth a straight slash. She must have imagined it. She lowered her head and allowed him to continue leading her through the crowd.
He halted them beside the man who’d accompanied him to the platform. The man’s kind, brown-eyed gaze stayed firmly on her face when he said, “I have your boots here.” He lifted them from a bundle on the ground.
Nadia never thought she’d feel weepy over a pair of ugly prison-issue boots, but tears smarted in her eyes. “Thank you,” she said, taking them. She stood awkwardly between the two men, wondering if she should put them on.
“I’m Porter, by the way,” the man said.
She hugged the boots to her chest, grateful to have some covering, no matter how meager. “I’m Nadia.” Her gaze drifted to the warlord, who stared over her head at the men around them. The tattoo on his forearm had retreated to its original position on his bicep. She wondered if she’d hallucinated it moving. She’d hit her head on the pole when Axos slammed her against it. Maybe she’d been delirious.
“My name is Ivar,” he said, still focused on the crowd. “You may use it, unless I tell you otherwise.”
“And if you tell me otherwise? What do I call you then?”
He looked at her. “Master.”
She had to bite the insides of her cheeks to keep from spitting something hateful back at him. She’d been captured, enslaved, stripped, and sold—all in one day. Now she stood naked and humiliated on a strange planet, the property of a man who’d traded a few liters of water
for the right to have sex with her.
Porter pulled a shirt from the bundle and held it out. “Ah, here. It’s the best I could do.” He gestured to the ground. “Unfortunately, your other clothes are torn, but they can be mended.”
She dropped the boots so she could pull the shirt over her head. It was missing most of its sleeves, and it had several small holes, but it covered everything. She tugged the hem down her thighs.
“It’s too big,” he said.
Big was good. After today, she was switching her clothes to the full-length
variety. “No, it’s fine.”
“Sorry about the sleeves.”
“I like sleeveless.”
“That’s exactly what the guy I just took it from said.”
He’d literally taken the shirt off someone’s back? She pictured a big, pouting man, arms folded over a bare chest after losing his favorite sleeveless shirt. She smiled tentatively. “Thank you.”
His eyes warmed as he smiled back, his teeth white and even.
“Put on the boots so we can go,” Ivar said, cutting through the moment.
Worried he’d take the shirt back if she disobeyed, she bent and did as he ordered. Her socks were missing, but she didn’t dare complain. She had a feeling he wouldn’t respond well to a request for socks.
“Raddoc won’t forget today,” Porter said over her head.
Ivar grunted. “I’m counting on it.”
He reclaimed her wrist and resumed tugging her through the crowd, Porter falling into step beside him. They hadn’t gone far when Axos and his one-eyed sidekick appeared in front of them.
Ivar released her. “Be forewarned, Axos. My patience is wearing thin.”
Although Nadia could have gone several lifetimes without seeing Axos again, she took pleasure in watching him look up to address Ivar. It was also satisfying to see him eye the serrated sword Porter slid casually from its sheath.
“I don’t want no trouble,” Axos said without taking his gaze off the deadly-looking weapon. “But Dario and me agreed to split her eighty-twenty, and I don’t trust him.”
“You shouldn’t,” Porter said, running a thumb down his blade.
Axos swallowed. “I just want what’s coming to me. Fair and square.”
Ivar’s smile held no humor. “I have no doubt you’ll get it…one day.”
The one-eyed man shook his blond dreadlocks over his shoulders and stepped forward. “We found her. If we go back to our master empty-handed, he’ll kill us.”
“That would be a shame.”
Axos growled. “We had a deal. We’re owed.
Ivar glanced at Porter. Some unspoken exchange passed between them—so subtle Nadia would have missed it if she hadn’t been watching them closely. Porter tugged her gently backward, away from the other men. Ivar turned back to Axos. “Your deal was with Dario. Take it up with him.”
They weren’t particularly threatening words, but Axos and his man paled under their tanned skin and left without another word.
Nadia sent a questioning look to Porter, but his eyes were on Ivar, who rolled his head slowly on his neck before stalking away.
Porter took her wrist. “Let’s go.”
Apparently, no one on Tolbos trusted her to walk unaided. His hold was much gentler than Ivar’s, although she knew instinctively he would be just as difficult to escape if she tried. The friendly look he’d given her when he’d offered her the shirt and boots was gone, replaced with the same expressionless mask his leader wore.
Something about these men had caused both Raddoc and Axos to back down. That meant they were dangerous—the sort of biggest and baddest that made others want to please them. The one-eyed man had even been willing to risk the wrath of his master rather than face off with Ivar.
. That had to mean he and Axos were slaves, didn’t it? Yet Axos had called her
slave. She trotted to match Porter’s strides. Just how fucked up was this planet’s social structure? Ivar had told her to ask questions later. Well, she was racking up quite the tally. Unfortunately, the only thing she could do at the moment was stumble alongside her taciturn companion.
As they left the crowd and the platform behind, she wondered where they were taking her. They were both convicts; everyone on Tolbos had been sentenced for something. Whatever these men had done, it had been bad enough to land them on a barren mining planet for life. For all she knew, they were rapists or murderers. Maybe both. Tolbos was home to all manner of criminals.
said a little voice in her head. Her boot caught the edge of a rock. She tripped forward.
Porter grabbed her elbow. “You all right?”
“I’m probably walking too fast.” He lifted his head and whistled.
Ahead of them, Ivar stopped and looked over his shoulder.
“Slow it down a little. She can’t keep up.”
Ivar glanced at her. He grunted and kept walking. But he modified his strides.
The slower pace gave her a chance to think. As outraged as she felt about her sentence, she had to accept it. She’d known the penalties for breaking the law. She’d done it anyway. That made her a criminal. According to the Council’s rules, she was exactly where she belonged.
After the fourth Great Conflict had decimated Earth’s population, the Council had worried humanity would never fully recover. Life was simply too precious to waste, so they had created a strict behavior code that abhorred violence of any kind. If the human race was to survive, the Council needed everyone to do their part.
Unless, of course, it decided you were irredeemable.
That’s what the head magistrate had called her when he’d read her sentence. His face, a pale moon in the shadows of his hooded robe, had been emotionless. Except for his eyes. His eyes had found her all the way across the hearing room, and they’d burned with scorn when he said, “Prisoner 757, the Council does not tolerate crime. I deem you unfit for habitation in the common populace and declare you an irredeemable. I sentence you to hard labor on Tolbos for life. No possibility of parole.”
The last part had been a formality. No one ever left Tolbos.
Their boots crunched against the rocks, and the heat of the suns beat down, making sweat trickle between her shoulder blades. Tolbos was locked in close orbit with its twin red dwarf stars, and the hazy suns hung heavy in the sky, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere.
The heat reminded her she’d had nothing to drink or eat since before she’d launched, and her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. To distract herself from her discomfort, she studied Ivar’s broad back as he stalked ahead, his long legs easily eating up the terrain.
For such a big man, he moved gracefully. His shoulders were crisscrossed by a harness that held the long broadsword. Her gaze strayed lower. His loose black pants were tucked in the tops of his boots and rode low on his narrow hips. He wore a knife strapped to his thigh, and the hilt of another stuck out of his boot. It flashed in the sun as he leaped over a small boulder, the muscles in his ass flexing.
She stumbled but recovered quickly. She had not
just been admiring his ass.
She glanced at Porter. “Yeah. Just clumsy.” She trained her gaze on the horizon—safely away from any part of Ivar’s anatomy.
They continued trudging across the rocky surface. Sweat trickled down her forehead, burning her eyes. Her muscles twitched—a sign of dehydration, she knew. She scowled. Ivar had made his intentions toward her quite clear. She’d be no good to him as a sex slave if she died of thirst.
She peered at the back of his neck, where a dark tattoo—much like the one she’d glimpsed on his arm—peeked above his collar. The thing was, she could have sworn it hadn’t been there when she’d watched him confront Axos. Similar in color and design to the ones Raddoc and his men wore, it didn’t look like any tattoo she’d seen back home. There were no words or symbols—just thick whorls of brown so dark they appeared almost black.
Porter glanced down. “Almost there.”
They crested a small hill dotted with Tolbos trees. Her boots skidded against the rocks, but Porter steadied her. He pointed ahead, to where an empty vehicle sat baking in the heat. Like the others she’d seen, it was a jumble of scrap parts affixed to mismatched wheels. Ivar was shrugging out of his sword harness as she and Porter approached.
Ivar tossed her a canteen across the vehicle’s hood. “Drink.”
She caught it and fumbled the cap open. Water splashed out of the opening as she jerked it to her mouth and drank. She closed her eyes on a groan. The canteen was almost too hot to touch, and the water was warm, but nothing had ever tasted so good.
“Don’t gulp it,” Ivar said. “You’ll get sick.”
She lowered the canteen. He was probably right. The water sloshed in her empty stomach. She leaned across the vehicle and held out the canteen, but he gestured for her to keep it. His gaze dipped to a point below her chin. She glanced down. The oversized shirt gaped open, giving him a full view of her breasts.
She jerked upright and folded her arms over her chest.
Gold eyes snapped up to hers. She stiffened, expecting to see anger there, but was surprised when she detected a glimmer of something that looked suspiciously like amusement. It softened his jaw. Her gaze drifted to his mouth. His lips were full and expressive—a sharp contrast to the hard, unforgiving planes of his face. He turned to Porter, leaving her to wonder whether she’d imagined the fleeting emotion.
“Anything?” he asked Porter.
Porter shook his head. “No sign of them. Still,” he said, casting a slow, watchful look around the terrain, “I’ll feel better when we put some distance between us and this place.”
Ivar nodded. “If we leave now, we’ll be home by nightfall.”