“I’m telling you, Ture, he will come for us.”
Ture scoffed bitterly at Zarya’s blind optimism and devotion. “Honey, the only one coming for us is death, and I just hope the petty bastard stops on his way here and brings us a biscuit.... Sooner rather than later.”
Zarya rolled her eyes at Ture’s acerbic tone and facetious humor. She wasn’t sure at this point how long the two of them had been held. Since there were no windows in hell, she couldn’t judge night from day, and while they slept between their torture sessions, she had no idea for how long. It never seemed to be more than mere snatches that were interrupted by severe pain and utter misery.
Her entire body aching, she winced at the sorry condition Ture was in. He’d always been so fastidious with his appearance. Never so much as a strand of dark reddish brown hair out of place.
But today that hair was matted with blood and gnarled with tangles. His gorgeous face was bruised with one eye swollen completely shut. Someone had left a perfect image of a handprint in the form of a bruise along his chiseled jawline. Worse were the handprints where he’d been choked.
Guilt racked her. But for her and her stupidity, he wouldn’t even be here. It’s all my fault.
Under no circumstance should she have asked him to don a Resistance uniform. For that one favor to her, the League had assumed him to be one of her men and no matter how much she tried to tell them the truth, no one listened. They continued to torture him for information he didn’t have, and her for information she refused to give.
“I’m so sorry I got you into this.”
Ture wanted to curse Zarya for her naive stupidity in thinking she could pull off a peace mission between lunatics. He really did. But as he looked at her and saw the sincerity in her gaze— her agonized guilt over the pain she’d caused him— his anger vaporized. In all the universe, she was the closest thing to family he’d known in a very long time. And that was how he’d gotten caught up in this mess.
For her, he would do anything.
Sighing at his own epic stupidity, he opened his arms to her and she quickly accepted the invitation for a hug.
In spite of the pain caused from her body touching his, he held her to his chest. She tucked her head beneath his chin like his sister had done when she was a little girl just returning from her treatments. How he hated his own weakness. Mara had been everything to him and he still mourned her. Zarya reminded him so much of her that he, who had sworn to let no one back into his life, had been an utter fool for her from day one. He was that way with any woman in pain.
A sucker to the extreme.
And the last thing he wanted to do was lose another family member he loved.
“You have to tell them what they want to know, Z.”
“I can’t. They want me to give them the names of the Sentella High Command.”
The Sentella was the only organization in existence that truly threatened the League’s iron grip on their United Systems. They alone could break the League apart and free the governments that lived in fear of the League’s tyranny. But this wasn’t about the freedom of people who wouldn’t spit on them if they were on fire.
This was about their own survival. The League interrogators had already killed her once. Next time, they might not revive her.
He brushed the bloody hair back from her face. “You need to think of your baby, honey. You’re lucky you haven’t miscarried already.”
Still, she held on to a blind hope he couldn’t even begin to fathom. “Darling will come for us. I know he will.”
Ture ground his teeth at her childish devotion. Not once since they’d been taken had it faltered. She honestly thought her boyfriend would come risk his own life and free them from this hellhole.
How he wished he could believe it, too. But he knew better. “Heroes aren’t real. They don’t come charging in to save their damsel. Trust me. They vapor trail off at the first sign of trouble, leaving you behind to face the invading army all by yourself, hoping they’ll burn the house down on top of you so they don’t have to deal with you again.”
“No, Ture. Those are selfish ass**les. A hero doesn’t give up or give in. Ever. Darling told me he would crawl naked through Kere’s fiery and frigid domain, over broken glass, just to hold my hand, and I believe him.”
“Men will say anything to get into your pants, love. They don’t mean a word of it.”
She took his hand into hers and held it tight. “I’m sorry that you’ve never been in love with a man who really loved you back, Ture. But I’m telling you...I have seen what Darling and Maris have gone through for each other, and they won’t leave us here. They won’t rest until they’ve rescued us. I know it.”
Ture opened his mouth then closed it. There was no need in arguing. She had her delusions and he had his. Maybe there had been a time in his life when he’d been so blinded by love that he, too, believed such bullshit. But too many years of being bitch-slapped by selfish dicks had taken its toll on him.
Not even his own family had ever been there when he needed them. So why should a stranger?
People, by their very natures, were users. That was just the way it was.
But in spite of his past, he wouldn’t take away the only thing that gave her comfort in this unending misery. Let her have her delusions while she could. He tightened his grip, his heart breaking for her, and for the letdown she’d set herself up for.
They had actually killed her today during her torture and then brought her back just so they could continue on with it.
Damn them all for their cruelty.
“I hope you’re right, sweetie,” he breathed against her hair. The last thing he wanted was for her to learn the harsh lessons that had been rammed down his throat with a violent fist. He wept for the loss of anyone’s innocence, especially when the loss was brutal. And deep down in a place he hated, was that last vestige of his own hope that she was right. That maybe, just maybe, there were people in the world worth something. Someone who could stand by you even in hell and not betray you.
He cleared the knot in his throat as he asked a question that made him hate himself and his own blind optimism even more. “Tell me what it’s like to be held by someone who really loves you.”
Zarya swallowed hard. His request wrung her heart. While almost everyone she’d ever loved had been brutally murdered, Ture’s family had abandoned or disowned him. Or worse, they used him. Because of that, he’d had an even harder time trusting people than she did. No matter what, he expected the people around him to turn on him.
The saddest part?
They always had.
“It’s the most wonderful thing you can imagine. There’s truly nothing like it.”
He sighed wearily. “I don’t know how you can take such a beating and still protect him.”
How could she not? Darling would do the same for her, and then some. She had no doubt. He really was that kind of man. “Did I ever tell you what my mother’s last words were to me?”
He shook his head.
“It was the morning when she went to confront my father’s killer. I asked her why she wouldn’t let one of the soldiers or gerents handle his rescue. And she said to me that all little girls, regardless of what they say, dream of a prince to come in and sweep them off their feet and save the day. But what no one ever mentions is that all little boys dream of a princess to do the same thing for them. But the problem with princes and princesses is that they’re spoiled and self-absorbed. They act in their own best interest. They don’t go after their loved ones to rescue them so much as they do it for their own vainglory, and to serve themselves. While she’d had many princes try for her hand, it was a king who had claimed her heart. Unlike princes, kings take responsibility. They think of others instead of themselves and they will risk everything, even their very lives, for those they love. It is never about them, but rather about the ones they cherish most. They love to such depth that they would sacrifice all just to see their family smile. For every thousand princes, there is only one king. And such rare men do not deserve a useless princess who sits on her duff and orders others to worship her and do her bidding. Kings deserve queens— rare women who never flinch to do whatever it takes to keep their king safe. Women who have the courage to face any attacker and to rally to whatever challenge life throws at them. I will not sit here, she said to me, and let your father suffer while I hide in comfort. He risked his life to keep us safe and I will do no less for him. If it means my life, so be it. After all, he is my life and I don’t want to live without him. He deserves only my best and that’s exactly what he’s going to get, no matter the personal cost.”
Ture drew a ragged breath as the tears welling in her eyes choked him. “Though I never had the pleasure of meeting her, I love your mother. You know that, right?”
She squeezed his hand as her tears began to fall. “I love her, too. And I’ve tried every day of my life to do her proud and to be the queen she wanted me to be.”
He kissed the side of her head. “Sweetie, you are better than any queen. You’re a freedom fighter for our people, and if your Darling is the king you think him to be, you will live to be an empress.”
“Then I shall be an empress. You will see.”
Ture smiled at the sincerity of her tone. How she could still believe in fairytales after everything life had tossed in her face, he had no idea. “Fine then. Just make sure when you’re empress, you find a king for me.”
Ture tightened his grip on her as she went limp in his arms. Fear seized him until he assured himself that she was still breathing.
Thank the gods she wasn’t dead. That was something he couldn’t even bear to contemplate. Never in his life had he known anyone as precious and loyal as Zarya.
But she wouldn’t be able to survive much more. For that matter, neither would he. Every day got harder. They couldn’t break him because he knew nothing. They couldn’t break her because she was the most stubborn creature alive.
He admired that even though it made him want to wring her neck.
His one greatest hope was that her Darling was the king she’d convinced herself that he was. In Ture’s world, such men didn’t exist. They were fables and lies.
Still, he couldn’t stop imagining a world where people didn’t disappoint each other. A world where you could put your life and heart into the hands of another and not fear betrayal or harm. A universe populated by people like Zarya...
You sound like an old woman.
He felt like an old man. Jaded. Cold. Aching. He licked at the blood on his lips and forced his thoughts away from things he knew were lies. Things that were impossible. People sucked. They were users and no matter how much you gave, they never stayed.
Closing his eyes, he prayed for death. And why shouldn’t he? He had no reason to live. Nothing to live for. Life was just something you suffered through to reach the other side.
And he was so tired now...
On the edge of his falling asleep, a loud and rude noise blared outside their cell. At first, he thought it was another form of torture.
Until he realized it came from the yard and there were soldiers responding.
He scowled at the strange sounds.
No. It couldn’t be. No one attacked a prison. Ever. It must be another escaped prisoner who would be gunned down soon.
Yet there was no denying the blaring warning siren or the sound of running feet and shouts that they were under attack. Hoping he was right, he shook Zarya awake.
“Do you hear that?” he asked her.
Zarya could barely understand Ture’s words. Something kept buzzing in her head and it wouldn’t stop. “Hear what?”
A blast hit their door. At first she thought she imagined it.
Until it struck again.
Could it be…?
No. You’re dreaming. It’s not real. Just a hallucination brought on by your fever and pain.
In her mind, she saw Darling carrying her out of this nightmare like he’d done when she’d sprained her ankle in the palace kitchen. Of him holding her close and telling her it was over and that she was finally safe.
I swear, if I ever get out of this I will never leave the palace again.
A heartbeat later, the door in front of them lifted. Smoke billowed into the room, filling it instantly. She choked and coughed, trying to breathe around the odor.
Ture held her close as two League soldiers spilled into the room, then turned to speak to another soldier who stayed in the hallway, firing at targets Ture couldn’t see. He was ready to fight them to the bitter end if they tried to take either of them again, but they didn’t move closer.
Preoccupied with whatever was happening in the hallway, neither of soldier even looked at them.
“Grab the woman!” Someone shouted from outside their cell. “We have to have her or we can’t leave.”
The two soldiers came toward them then.
Zarya’s heart pounded as she tried to understand what was happening. Aching to the point it hurt to breathe, she didn’t move until they closed in on her. In their hurry earlier to dump her and run, they’d forgotten to handcuff her.
She reverted to her strict military training. Grabbing the blaster from the first one to reach her, she used it to shoot his partner.
Shrieking, the soldier hit the deck and died.
Before she could move, the one she’d grabbed brought his fist down across her face with a blow so fierce, it made her head explode with pain. The room spun, nauseating her.