She had known all along it would only be a matter of time before they came after her. That she had evaded capture so long seemed nothing short of a miracle. Leida sat quietly on the stone bench and stared down at her hands, the pale fingers laced tightly together, the iron cuffs snapped around her wrists leaving red marks on her skin.
The cavern in which she waited glowed with a golden light from an unseen source. Dragon magic, the simplest kind, illuminated the chamber, chasing away the shadows dancing along the curved walls and high ceiling. Leida had visited these caves once before, years earlier, during the great fire festivals when the earth dragons met before the Dragon King. It had been an exciting time, one that held both fear and anticipation of seeing things few humans ever would.
She had returned, not of her own accord this time, still fearful of what awaited her. A hard shudder shook her from head to toe, and her throat closed against the threat of retching. There was no one here to speak in her defense, and by all accounts, including her own, she was guilty of the crime for which she now stood trial. Leida knew the nature of dragons, their cunning and wit, fearlessness and pride; she did not know of their mercy, or if it even existed. But if it did exist, she intended to beg for it, walk on her knees if necessary. They could strip her of her magic, flog her and march her naked through the streets. She would submit gladly, if only they let her live and live freely. Someone else depended upon her, waited for her, and she would bargain anything she had to return.
“Please,” she whispered, the soft sound echoing in melancholy repetition throughout the empty room. “Don’t let me die.”
Whatever deity heard her plea, he or she chose not to respond, and fear settle heavily on her shoulders.
The sound of footsteps from the single corridor leading to the chamber made her straighten. Her mouth was parched; whatever moisture remained on her tongue dried to dust as she watched eight men march into the room. Leida rose, bowing low in respect as they came to stand before her. They were her judges, dragon lords who meted out judgment and punishment to dragonkind and all those associated with them.
Of different ages, from white haired and lined to young and vibrant, they all watched her with varying degrees of contempt and dislike. She felt the blood drain from her face. There would be little mercy here. That she had not been killed outright upon discovery was compassion in itself, an acknowledgement of her past status as a dragon lord’s favorite and deserving of some small leniency because of it.
Her fingers knotted tighter as the eldest of the judges spoke, the fine hairs on her arms rising in reaction to the silvery, bewitching tones of his voice. She’d forgotten the beauty of a dragon lord’s voice.
“Leida of the Far Lands.”
She licked her dry lips. “I am, my lord.”
“You were once the favorite of Magnus Silverclaw.”
The truth of his statement and her response made her chest tighten. “I was, my lord.”
The judge’s words were chilly with disdain. “You stand accused of
thievery, Leida. Thievery and the illicit use of dragon magic to conceal your crime.”
He held up one hand, displaying a small ring, a creation of delicate spun gold mounted with a sapphire so deep a blue as to appear black in the cavern’s muted light. “I will ask you formally, Leida, did you steal this ring from Magnus Silverclaw?”
She had already admitted to the crime, but the urge to lie was great, her sense of self-preservation screaming out an inner warning that to admit it again would be to sign her own death warrant. Too late, she thought. Too late.
There was barely a quaver in her voice when she answered. “Aye, my lord. When I left the service of Magnus Silverclaw four years ago, I took that ring.”
Low rumbles of disapproval, sounding more like growls than murmurs, echoed in the chamber. Leida shivered, her fear slowly transforming into terror. They wore the trappings of men finely garbed, but like the light in the room, it was magic of their making. Their true forms were of great wings and scales, curving claws and huge heads sporting mouths filled with teeth sharper than sword blades. Any one of them could change, snatch her up and swallow her whole.
One of the younger judges spoke up. “Because of your previous bonding with dragonkind, we will allow you the chance to explain yourself before sentencing. You do understand that stealing from a dragon lord’s hoard is punishable with death?”
Leida nodded, nearly lightheaded with relief at the temporary reprieve. The judge scowled at her actions until she remembered protocol.
“I understand, my lord, and thank all of you for your consideration.”
The first judge addressed her again. “You are allowed to state your reasons, but you will do so before us and one other.”
A high, thin ringing started in her ears as heat suffused her body and face. She turned, peering into the shadows of the corridor from which the judges had entered earlier. The judge’s voice, once vibrant with allure and power, sounded dull and far away.
“Face your accuser, Leida of the Far Lands, and explain yourself.”
The breath died in her nostrils as Magnus Silverclaw, once her master, once her lover, walked into the chambers. Still reserved and prideful, as most of his kind, he wore the illusion of a tall, slender man with long, dark hair threaded with silver. Leida gazed at him, struck by the familiarity of his features. Their austere beauty haunted her dreams each night.
He stared back at her, the slanting green eyes narrowing to mere slits. “Thief,” he said in a deep, seductive voice filled with loathing.
* * *
His first view of her after nearly four years struck him hard. A bitter joy, a seething anger—they swirled together in the pit of his stomach like so much sour wine. He had watched from the shadows of the corridor as she faced the judges. Her features, drawn with fatigue, went from pale to pink to pale again as she answered their charges and turned to face him.
“Thief,” he said, letting all the venom coursing through his blood leak into that one accusatory word. She stared at him, anguished, before lowering her head to gaze at her manacled hands. Magnus smiled, the facial movement now unfamiliar to his human form. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d smiled, and now it had little to do with humor or pleasure.
He faced the eldest judge, Gersel, the dragon slated to be the next king if rumors of the dragoness votes held true. “I would take back what is mine, Your Grace.”
The judge’s eyes glittered with recognition of Magnus’s double meaning. He gave the human woman one last withering look before striding to Magnus and dropping the ring in his outstretched palm. “You would do well to simply kill her, Magnus,” he said. “But she was once yours and is not dragonkind. We will sentence according to your wishes in this case.”
Magnus bowed. “I request a private moment with her.”
“As you wish.” Gersel motioned to the other judges. “We will wait in the main hall.” As they gathered together, he inclined his head. “Summon us when you’re ready.”
They filed out of the chamber on silent feet, dragon light casting their true shadows on the polished walls, revealing great hulking forms and clawed feet instead of human figures.
Magnus’s own steps seemed loud in the tense silence as he approached Leida. She stiffened as he drew closer but kept her head lowered. He circled her slowly, noting her threadbare clothing, the simple leather tie holding the long black hair at her nape. He seized her hands, ignoring her surprised gasp as he turned her palms up and ran his thumbs across them. They were rough, marred by calluses and scrapes, signs of hard labor. The iron bonds cut into her small wrists, and he felt their effect on his own magic, a slow leaching of potency. They rendered her powerless, a safeguard against whatever talent she was born with or skills she had acquired as a spellcaster.
“I have lived for more than three hundred years,” he said, watching with satisfaction as tiny chills raced up her arms in reaction to his voice, “and I still do not understand the way of the human mind, especially that of the human female.”
She remained stubbornly silent, though he sensed her curiosity. He dropped her hands and plucked briefly at her skirt. “You left a life of luxury and riches. I was a generous master. You had your own servants, and I draped you in jewels. All I asked in return was your company and your music.” He ran a finger over her arm, scowling when she jerked away from his touch. “What thing so tempting lured you away so that you not only stole from me but are content to live in poverty and endless toil?”
His patience deserted him when she continued to stare at the floor and said nothing. A faint whimper escaped her mouth when he gripped her chin and forced up her head. Her gray eyes darkened with a dull misery as she finally met his gaze. “Answer me, Leida,” he snapped.
“I was a possession,” she whispered. “A thing to be owned, like your treasures, and cast aside when I no longer gleamed so brightly.”
Magnus worked to control the anger seething and bubbling in his veins. “You were the favorite. My favorite. I held you above all others in my service.”
A single hot tear dripped onto his knuckle, sliding between his fingers. Leida’s sorrowing expression transformed for a moment, becoming resentful. “Oh, yes. I was your favorite, but for how long? How long before you set me aside for another with a siren’s voice and the face of an elfin queen?” Her upper lip curled into a sneer even as more tears tracked down her cheeks. “Dragons are capricious creatures.”
His anger, held in check by a slim thread of control, swamped him in the face of her hypocrisy. He released her jaw to wrap both arms around her back and pull her hard against him. Her arms pressed close from chest to belly, her bound hands curled into fists at his navel. The iron manacles pulsed with a parasitic life of their own, their proximity a diseased sensation that made his abdominal muscles shrink away in instinctive reaction.
Leida closed her eyes as he bent his head and breathed gently against her lips. “And yet it is you who deserted me, offered no reason, gave no warning. You waited for the opportune moment and made your escape, lured by something I couldn’t give. And you took that which meant most to me.” His arms tightened against her back. “I’m sure we both recognize the irony of your statement regarding capricious creatures.”
Her features, already wan, went bloodless, and she sagged against him. Magnus took advantage of the moment, drawn to the long-remembered feel of her in his embrace. There were differences now. Her hips seemed wider, the soft breasts fuller, the long, curving waist a little thicker. But it only made her more appealing, a new lushness that fit against the planes and angles of his own form as if she’d been made specifically for him.
He took her mouth in a hard kiss, offering no gentleness or forgiveness as he forced her lips open and slid his tongue inside. She tasted the same, felt the same—slick, wet heat and a tongue that met his in a mating dance to send his acute senses spiraling into madness.
There was no protest, no resistance from her as Magnus ran his hands across her back and shoulders, sliding lower to cup her buttocks in his hands and lift her so that her pelvis rested hard against his. He had expected something from her, a struggle to put some distance between them, but Leida sank into his embrace, opening her mouth for a deeper penetration of his tongue.
It was as it had always been between them, and four years of separation faded to dust as Magnus held her, lost to the heat they generated. His cock was so hard, it almost pained him. He would take her, here on the rock floor of the judgment chamber, with her skirts shoved to her waist and her long legs draped over his shoulders. The wisdom of centuries faded beneath the onslaught of his desire as Leida wiggled her arms partially free to raise them and rest her palms against his neck in a light caress.