When Kyrian opened his mouth to speak, all that came out was a hoarse croak. He hurt so badly that his unclenched teeth chattered from the weight of his physical suffering.
Kyrian’s throat was so sore and parched that he choked, but by sheer force of will, he finally spoke through trembling lips. "Uncle."
"Can it be, he can actually speak?" Valerius asked, joining them. "He’s said nothing in four weeks. Nothing other than this…"
Again he laid a hot brand to Kyrian’s thigh.
Clenching his teeth, Kyrian jerked and hissed.
"Cease!" Zetes cried, pushing Valerius away from his nephew.
He tenderly cupped Kyrian’s bruised face in his hands. Tears fell down Zetes’s cheeks as he tried to clean the blood away from Kyrian’s swollen lips.
He looked up at Valerius. "I have ten wagons of gold and jewels. His father promises even more if you release him. I have been authorized to surrender Thrace to you. And his sister, the Princess Althea, has offered herself to you as a slave. All you have to do is let me take him home."
No ! She heard Kyrian’s inner scream, but the word was lodged in his burning throat.
"Perhaps. I’ll let you take him home… After he’s executed."
"No!" Zetes said. "He is a prince, and you-"
"He is no prince. Everyone knows he was disowned. His father was quite public with his decree."
"And he has recanted it," Zetes insisted. He looked back at Kyrian, his eyes kind and soothing. "He wanted me to tell you he didn’t mean what he said to you. He was foolish and blind when he should have trusted and listened to you. Your father loves you, Kyrian. All he wants is for you to come home where he can welcome you and Theone with open arms. He begs you to forgive him."
Those last words burned through Kyrian more painfully than Valerius’s iron brands. It wasn’t his father who should apologize. His father wasn’t the one who had been a fool.
It was Kyrian who had been cruel to a man who had never done anything other than love him. The agony of it swept through him anew.
Gods have mercy on them both, for his father had been right all along.
Zetes glanced to Valerius. "He will give you anything for his son’s life. Anything!"
"Anything," Valerius repeated. "How very tempting, but how stupid would I have to be to release the one man who has come close to defeating us?" He glared at Zetes. "Never."
Valerius took the dagger from his belt. Roughly, he grabbed the three long, thin commander’s braids at Kyrian’s temple and sawed them off.
"Here," he said, handing them to Zetes. "Take those to his father and tell him that is all of his son he’ll ever get from me."
"Guards, see to it His Highness is taken away."
Kyrian watched as his uncle was seized and dragged from the room.
Kyrian struggled against his restraints, but his body was so sore and broken that all he succeeded in doing was hurting himself more.
He wanted to call Zetes back. He wanted to tell him how sorry he was for all he’d said to his parents.
Don’t let me die without their knowing.
"You can’t do this!" Zetes screamed an instant before the doors slammed shut, cutting him off.
Valerius turned to his servant. "Fetch my mistress."
As soon as the servant was gone, he returned to Kyrian. He sighed as if greatly disappointed. "It appears our time together has ended. If your father is so desperate for your return, then it is only a matter of time before he marches against me. I certainly can’t take a chance on him actually rescuing you, now can I?"
Kyrian closed his eyes and turned his head away from Valerius’s triumphant sneer. In his mind, he saw his father on that last, fateful day as the two of them stood, toe to toe, in the center of the throne room. Julian had dubbed that day the Clash of the Titans. For neither he nor his father had been willing to listen or to yield.
He heard the words he’d said to his father. Words no son should ever utter to a parent.
The agony of it was a hundred times more severe than anything Valerius had dealt him.
While he grieved over his actions, the doors of his torture chamber opened to admit Theone. She walked into the room with her head held high, like a queen holding court. She stopped next to Valerius and gave him a warm, inviting smile.
Kyrian stared at her as the weight of her betrayal coursed through him. Let this be a nightmare. Dear Zeus, please don’t let this be real. It was more than his broken body and soul could take.
"You know, Kyrian," Valerius said as he wrapped his arms around Theone and nuzzled her neck. "I will commend you on your choice of wife. She is exceptional in bed, isn’t she?"
It was the cruelest blow yet dealt him.
Theone met Kyrian’s eyes without shame while Valerius circled behind her, cupped her br**sts in his hands and kneaded them. There was no love on her face. No remorse. Nothing. She stared at him as if he were a stranger.
It cut him all the way to his battered soul.
"Come, Theone, let us show your husband what he interrupted the night he came home."
Valerius removed the clip from her himation and let it fall to the floor. He pulled her nak*d body into his arms and kissed her.
Kyrian’s heart splintered at the sight of Theone removing Valerius’s armor. The sight of her eagerly welcoming his touch.
Unable to bear it, he closed his eyes and turned away. But still he heard them. He heard his wife begging for Valerius to fill her. Heard her moaning in pleasure. And when she cli**xed in the arms of his enemy, he felt his heart wither and die.
At last Valerius had broken him.
He let the pain take him then. Let it wash over him until he felt nothing at all. Nothing but utter and complete desolation.
When they were finished, Valerius sauntered over to him. He wiped his wet hand across Kyrian’s face and Kyrian cursed the scent he knew so well.
"Have you any idea how much I love the smell of your wife on my body?"
Kyrian spat in his face.
Enraged, Valerius pulled a dagger from the table and embedded it savagely in Kyrian’s stomach. Kyrian gasped as the cold metal invaded his body. Maliciously, Valerius rotated his wrist and twisted the knife, pushing it in deeper.
"Tell me, Theone," Valerius said, his eyes never leaving Kyrian’s as he pulled the dagger out and left him weak and panting. "How should I kill your husband? Should I behead him as befitting a prince?"
"No," she said as she wrapped her himation around her and secured it with the brooch Kyrian had given her on their wedding day. "He is the spirit and backbone of the Macedonian rebels. You can’t afford to make him a martyr. Were I you, I’d crucify him like a common thief. Let him stand as an example to Rome’s enemies to know that there is no honor or glory in assaulting Rome."
Valerius smiled cruelly, then turned to face her. "I like the way your mind works." He kissed her lightly on the cheek, then dressed himself.
"Say good-bye to your husband while I make arrangements." He left them alone.
Kyrian struggled to breathe through his pain as Theone finally approached him. His body trembled from rage and agony. Still, her gaze was blank. Cold.
"Why?" he asked.
"Why?" she repeated. "Why do you think? I was the nameless daughter of a prostitute. I grew up hungry and poor with no choice except to let any man use me as he saw fit."
"I sheltered you," he rasped through his split, bloody lips. "Loved you. I kept you safe from anyone who would have hurt you."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "I am not about to let you war against Rome while I sit at home in fear of them tearing down my walls to get to you. I don’t want to end up like Julian’s wife, executed in my own bed, or sold into slavery. I’ve come too far to go back to scrounging for scraps, selling my body. I want my security and I will do anything to protect it."
She couldn’t have hurt him any worse. She had never seen him as anything other than a rich pocket.
No, he couldn’t believe that. He refused to believe it. There had to have been a moment, just one, when she had cared for him. Surely, he couldn’t have been that blind?
"Did you ever love me?"
She shrugged. "If it’s any consolation, you were the best lover I’ve ever known. I will certainly miss you in my bed."
Kyrian let out an agonized bellow of rage.
"Damn, Theone," Valerius said as he returned. "I should have let you torture him. I never once got that much pain out of him."
The soldiers came in with a large cross. They laid it on the floor next to the table, then cut Kyrian down.
His limbs broken, he sank to the floor.
Roughly, they picked him up and dropped him over the wood.
Kyrian continued to watch Theone. Not even pity graced her brow. She merely looked on in morbid fascination.
Again, he saw his parents’ stricken faces when he had left his home the day of the wedding. Heard Zetes’s offer to Valerius.
Kyrian had betrayed them all for her. And now she couldn’t even pretend to be sorry for what she’d done to him. What she had cost his family and his country.
He was Greece’s last hope to stave off Roman tyranny. He was the only thing that stood between their people and slavery.
With one act of treachery, she had laid waste to all their dreams of freedom.
And all because he was a stupid fool…
His father’s final, parting words rang in his ears. She doesn’t love you, Kyrian. No woman will ever be able to love you and you’re a damned fool if you ever believe otherwise!
A soldier placed a metal spike over his wrist and held it there as another drew back a heavy iron hammer.
The Roman guard brought it down on the spike…
Amanda came awake screaming as she felt the nail piercing her arm. Sitting up, she grabbed her wrist to make sure it had just been a dream.
She rubbed her arm, staring at it. She was just as she had always been and yet…
The dream had been real. She knew it.
Driven by a force she didn’t understand, she left her room to find Kyrian. She ran through the dark house, just after dawn, up the mahogany staircase and down a long hallway. She followed her instincts to a set of doors on the west side of the house.
Without hesitating, she threw open the double doors to a bedroom twice the size of her own. A single candle burned next to an old-fashioned, curtained bed, casting shadows against the far wall. The gold and brown curtains were pulled back and fastened to the posts while cream-colored sheers shielded the bed. Even so, she could see her Hunter writhing on the rust-colored sheets as if caught in the midst of the same nightmare she had seen.
Her heart hammering, she ran to the bed.
Kyrian woke up from his nightmare the very instant he felt Amanda’s cool, gentle hand on his chest. He opened his eyes to find her sitting by his side, her gaze dark with horror, her brows knitted as she examined him.
He frowned while her hands roamed all over his chest. It was as if she didn’t really see him at all, as if she were in some kind of strange trance.
He lay in complete silence, stunned by her presence.
She pulled back the silk sheet and touched the scar on his stomach, just to the left of his navel.
"He drove the knife in here," she whispered, stroking the narrow scar.
Then she grabbed his wrist and tenderly traced the scars there. "They hammered the spikes in here and here."
Next she went to his hand and rubbed the pad of her thumb over his fingertips. "They pulled your fingernails off."
She reached up and cupped his stubbled cheek in her palm. Her eyes held a thousand emotions and the sight of those crystal-blue depths stole the breath from him.
No woman had ever given him such a look.
"My poor Hunter," she whispered. Tears streamed down her face and before he knew what she was doing, she pulled the sheet away from him, baring his entire body to her questing gaze. He hardened instantly, his body throbbing at the sight of her concern for him.
She touched his scarred thigh where Valerius had once placed a hot brand to it.
"Oh God," she gasped, her fingers brushing his puckered skin. "It was real. They really did that to you…"
She looked up at him, her eyes swimming in tears. "I saw you. I felt you."
Kyrian frowned even more. Was that possible?
He’d been dreaming of his execution when she woke him. Could their powers have combined to allow him to reach out to her even while he slept?
It was a terrifying thought. If it were true, then it meant they were bonded together on a much higher level than the physical.
He didn’t finish that thought. There was no such thing as a soul mate, especially when one of them no longer had a soul. It just wasn’t possible.
As Amanda stared at him, she ached all the way to her heart for the man before her. How had he borne such torture and betrayal?
He had carried it with him through the centuries. Alone. Always alone. Always hurting and wanting, with no relief.
"So much pain," she whispered.
How she wanted Theone’s head for what she’d done to him. But most of all, she wanted to soothe Hunter. Wanted to ease the torment in his heart. Erase the pain of his past.
She wanted to give him something to hope for.