“I thought you did IT for the aristos. Computers and desk stuff.”
Thia laughed out loud. “You’re so stupid, D. You really think your uncle keeps a body like that from lifting microchips? Yeah… Stay delusional. The planet Oblivion needs more occupants.” She moved to untie the lorina so that it could patrol for others. “I don’t know how they got through my traps and alarms that I set earlier.”
“Don’t think about it, Thee. I promise, they won’t get through me.” Hauk confiscated more of the assassins’ weapons and tucked them into various places in his clothes. He met Sumi’s gaze. “Any of them friends of yours?”
Sumi shook her head. “Never seen them before.” When she reached for a blaster, Thia actually shot at her. The blast barely missed her head, and by the look on Thia’s face, she knew the girl had expertly placed it, but wouldn’t be so considerate next time.
He narrowed his eyes on Sumi as if trying to read her thoughts. “Let her have it. The one at her feet was going for her while she slept. Leads me to believe he wasn’t working with her. Or if he was, they had a falling-out.”
Thia hesitated. “You sure?”
He nodded. “Besides, she’s not much of a killer.”
Sumi resented the teasing humor in his deep voice. “I am a chief field assassin, you know? I’ve never failed a mission or missed a target. I’m damn good at what I do.”
“Ooo,” he said sarcastically as he rose to his feet. “Someone cue my fear pheromones.”
Sumi put her arms on her hips. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That he’s less than impressed by your rank,” Thia explained wryly. “By the time my father, his best friend since childhood, was my age, he was top ass.”
Sumi tried not to be impressed, but she couldn’t help it. Very few made the rank of command assassin of the first order, and only one had ever attained it by Thia’s age.
Nemesis was the most brutal of them all.
But then, as she looked over the bodies, Sumi was glad that Hauk wasn’t threatened by her skills. It didn’t work out well for anyone he perceived as a threat.
And she didn’t want to meet the brutal end of the men on the ground around them.
Thia clapped Sumi on the arm. “You got a lot of confirmed kills to go, puddin’.” She winked at her. “Not to mention, Uncle Hauk left The League as a teenager with the rank of special agent.”
Darice made a rude sound of disagreement. “Lorina shit. Dancer was still in training when he washed out.”
Hauk cocked and locked his jaw at his nephew’s snotty dismissal. “For your information, punk, I rose to the rank of captain during training.”
Sumi made an exaggerated gape at him. Yeah, okay, that rankled. Captain was the fourth-highest rank an assassin could aspire to. And it was the one most assassins never rose above before someone violently ended their career and life.
Darice raked his uncle with a scathing glare. “If you were a captain, how did you wash out, huh?”
Hauk didn’t answer as he began carrying bodies off to the side of camp.
“Your mother,” Thia snarled at Darice. “After Hauk had gone through two years of grueling training where she hoped someone would kill him, she ran to his CO and told him that Hauk couldn’t graduate to full assassin because he was pledged to her. The League discharged him immediately.”
Sumi winced at what Thia described. That would do it, since assassins were forbidden to marry. But what a callous thing to do, especially if Dariana had no intention of seeing their marriage met. Why not let him have that much in his life, if it was what he wanted?
Not to mention, it would have guaranteed that he’d never marry someone else. For that matter, why would his parents allow him to go through League assassin training, knowing he couldn’t graduate? Did they not love him at all?
As a full-grown woman when her courses had started, Sumi had seen firsthand the horrors and degradations of it all. The young boys and girls, Darice’s age and only a year or two older, who were ruthlessly put into arenas and forced to fight for their survival. It was why she was so desperate to get her baby out of that system before they forced Kalea into training.
Kill or be killed. The League didn’t respect age or pull punches for recruits. It was pass or fail, and failure was a brutal death at the hands of another student or instructor. It was the worst sort of daily beat downs.
Thia was right. Only a first-rank bitch would let a teenager go through all that, and then have him tossed out right before graduation. Why would Dariana be so vicious?
Unless, as Thia had said, she’d wanted him dead.
Darice scowled at Hauk. “Is that true? Is your pledge to my mother the reason you were thrown out?”
With a heavy sigh, Hauk picked up the Partini. “Yes.”
“Then why do you tell everyone you washed —”
“What does it matter?” Hauk snapped at Darice, cutting him off. “The end result is the same. I was dishonorably discharged just before graduation for not disclosing the fact I was pledged.”
Confused, Darice looked between them for an explanation. “I don’t understand why my mother would do such a thing when she has no desire to go through with unification.”
Hauk tossed another body over his shoulder. “Doesn’t matter.”
“It does matter!” Thia stepped forward and gestured toward Darice. “For once, Uncle Hauk, tell him the truth.”
“It’s his mother. Leave it be, Thia.”
“Leave what?” Darice asked. “What happened?”
Thia’s eyes flared before she defied her uncle’s wishes. “Your mother couldn’t stand the fact that Uncle Hauk was a better soldier than your father. That he had more honors, awards, and kills as a recruit than Keris had as the head of the Andarion armada. She knew if Hauk stayed in The League, he’d outshine Keris’s glory and —”
“Thia!” That ferocious growl made Sumi’s heart leap. “Enough!”
“No, it’s not. I’m sick of listening to him attack you all the time when he knows nothing but the lies his selfish mother has told him. If he’s old enough for Endurance, he’s old enough to know the truth.”
Hauk moved faster than Sumi would have thought someone so large could manage. He towered over Thia with enough fury that the girl finally took a step back and swallowed. “The past is done. Leave it where it belongs.”
Thia gestured toward Darice again. “But —”
Sucking his breath in audibly, he bared his fangs to her. “There are other things to focus on right now.”
Thia held her hands up in surrender. “Fine.”
Hauk retrieved another blaster from the ground near Thia’s feet then handed it off to Sumi. “We need to break camp. There’s nothing on them to say who or what hired them, or how they found us. For safety’s sake, let’s assume they have friends who might miss their stench.”
The kids ran to collapse their tents while Hauk headed for his.
Sumi went over to the bodies to search them herself. True to his words, they had no marks whatsoever.
But that didn’t make sense. Kyr wouldn’t have sent amateurs when he had an entire army of highly trained assassins at his disposal. Her own tracking device had been temporarily disabled so as not to alarm or alert Hauk to her mission or make him suspicious.
She knew Hauk wouldn’t be tagged.
Which left her with another thought.
Sumi headed to the tent that Hauk was quickly stowing in his pack. “Are the kids chipped?”
He shook his head. “Their parents know better. They wouldn’t risk an enemy tapping the signal and using it to trace them.”
“Do you know who the assassins were targeting?”
He glanced over to make sure the kids weren’t in hearing range before he spoke to her in a low, hushed tone. “They were after me. It was my tent they beelined to, and I heard them talking about it.”
“But they gave no clue as to who sent them?”
He shook his head. “My enemies are many, and it’s really not unusual for me to be attacked.” He ran his tongue over his right fang as he glanced back toward the bodies. “I just don’t know how they found me here. That’s what’s bugging the shit out of me.”
And not the fact they tried to kill him while he slept.
She checked the charge levels on her weapons then hesitated as she realized exactly how skilled Hauk really was at his brutal craft. “Did none of them get a shot off before they died?”
“No,” he said simply.
Her heartbeat picked up its pace. If Thia’s father was a better assassin than Hauk, she hoped to the gods that she never faced him as an enemy. “Captain, huh? How old were you when you earned that rank?”
She let out a low, appreciative breath. Still, it was hard to believe him. “You killed over one hundred targets, half of them trained soldiers, by age eighteen?”
“I’m a War Hauk,” he said simply, as if that explained it all. He started for the blankets.
Sumi pulled him to a stop as she tried to digest what he was telling her. “That’s more than five kills a month, during training. How did you manage that?”
A tic started in his jaw as a dark anger engulfed him. “I was younger than most of my class. Because of that, I had a lot of challengers.”
She winced at what he was really saying. His classmates and instructors had chosen him for the ring more often than the others because he’d been so young and was scarred from the fire. “They thought they could kill you easily and advance.”
He gave her a brief nod.
“I’m sorry, Hauk.”
“You should have been at home with your mother being a kid, and not forced to fight for every breath you took.” Every meal he ate. Every minute he was allowed to sleep… Her heart aching, she pulled him into her arms and hugged him close.
He went absolutely rigid. “What are you doing?”
Suddenly, she became aware of just how ripped and hard his body was. Damn, he couldn’t have more than two percent body fat. If that. It was like leaning against a stone wall. “Hugging you.”
Her answer appeared to baffle him. “Why?”
She clapped him on the back before she reluctantly stepped away. “It’s what people do to comfort each other.”
He didn’t respond.
She looked up to see his attention focused behind her. Turning, she caught the angry glare Darice had pinned on them.
Hauk mumbled something under his breath that had to be Andarion.
With long, angry strides, Darice closed the distance between them. “Have you dishonored my mother?”
For a moment, she thought Hauk might actually strike the boy for his impudence. “No.” It was a low, guttural sound in the back of his throat.
“You better not.”
Thia pulled Darice away from Hauk. “Son, we need to talk about your inability to sense near-death experiences.”
“What are you talking about?”
Thia glanced back to Hauk, who still hadn’t moved. He hadn’t even blinked. “Can you not see how pissed off he is?”
Rolling her eyes, Thia sighed. “You’re an idiot, Darice. I seriously hope you have no intention of entering any kind of military service.”
He lifted his chin defiantly. “Of course, I am. I’m Andarion. I’m going to be a fighter pilot like my parents.”
“No, punkin’.” She patted him on the cheek. “With those well-honed survival instincts, you’re going to be a bright stain on someone’s blast shield.”
Darice curled his lip at Thia’s warning. “What do you know?”
“Stop arguing and pack,” Hauk growled at them. “We need to move like your lives depend on it.”
It was only then that Sumi realized he was already packed up completely.
And within minutes, he had the kids packed, too. When he handed the haul bag to Darice, his nephew balked. Loudly.
Darice jerked his chin toward Thia and Sumi. “Why can’t they carry more?”
Hauk mumbled in Andarion again. Sumi was beginning to suspect those were foul curses he was spewing. “Thia’s right. You’re just a walking stain. Stop bitching and soldier up. Take my minsid pack and march. You need to build the muscle mass.” He grabbed the huge haul bag and slung it over the sword strapped across his back before he led the way. Illyse trotted after him.
Holding on to the straps of her pink floral rucksack, Thia rolled her eyes at Darice, who continued to pout at all of them. “In a fight, as a rule, women are quicker and more nimble than men, moron. We’re also much smaller targets.”