Binding Ties
Page 2

 Shannon K. Butcher

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The grinding pain behind his eyes—his constant companion—grew worse with each problem heaped on the pile. He wasn’t even halfway through his twenty-year term as leader of his people, and the strain was already tearing at him. He bowed under the weight of all the lives that depended on him to be smarter, stronger and deadlier than their enemy. Of all the hundreds of things he needed to accomplish, dealing with a petty human squabble over a children’s class should have been so far down on his list of priorities that he couldn’t even see it.
And yet here he was, drawn to it—not by a sense of duty to the human parents, but instead by the idea of seeing the female Slayer who took up far too much space in his thoughts.
Lyka’s class was nearing its end by the time he finally made it outside. The sun was high overhead, making her hair look like spun gold. Even though she was a Slayer and practically immune to the cold, she still covered everything but her face and hands under a layer of clothing. The fabric clung to her skin, outlining curves that had kept Joseph awake and aching more nights than he cared to admit with the need to touch her. He’d never once laid a finger on her in any way, not even in greeting. Every time he got within arm’s reach of her, she would back off so fast he was afraid she’d hurt herself trying to get away from him.
He would have taken it personally if not for the fact that she treated all of his men the same way. No one got close to Lyka Phelan. Period.
She was a Slayer, sent here to serve as a hostage to guarantee that her brother would honor the treaty struck with Joseph. In return, Joseph had sent Carmen, the young woman he’d claimed as his own daughter, to stay with the Slayers. It was an old-fashioned way of ensuring both sides upheld the treaty, but one that had worked well for centuries.
And like it or not, there really was no other choice but to end their hostilities. Their two races had been at odds for too long, sacrificing too much time and too many resources fighting each other when their real enemy was growing stronger every day.
If Joseph was honest with himself, having Lyka here was no hardship. As touchy as she could be, the distraction she offered was a welcome respite from the weight of his station.
The high glass ceilings and openness of the central dining and living areas had been recently renovated. The colors were earthier now, with plenty of warm golden tones and rich, gleaming wood. Colorful tablecloths brightened the dining hall, where people gathered over meals or a cup of coffee. The magically enhanced glass let in sunshine without the risk of its summoning the Solarc’s deadly wardens if it touched the skin of a Sanguinar. Cozy alcoves were filled with comfortable leather sofas where kids could study, watch TV or play games.
The second he was through the glass doors leading outside, he saw her. As always, Lyka drew his complete attention, glowing like sunshine incarnate. He wasn’t sure why such a prickly woman would appeal to him on such a deep level, but there wasn’t much he could do to stop it.
Heaven knew, he’d tried.
As he watched her talking to the kids, the searing pressure behind his eyes began to fade. There was something magical about a beautiful woman, and Lyka was about as beautiful as they came. Long golden hair. Soft golden skin. Bright golden eyes. He couldn’t stare at her too long without feeling the need to shield his eyes from the glow.
Every move she made was filled with the sinuous grace of her kind. She took after her mother, showing off decidedly feline attributes beyond her catlike eyes. There was an alertness about her—a kind of intense awareness of the people around her. He knew that if he got to within twenty yards of her, she’d sense his presence.
He didn’t want that yet. He liked looking at her too much for her to know he was doing so. Maybe staring at her wasn’t appropriate, but he couldn’t seem to help himself. And he sure as hell wasn’t about to tell her that she was so beautiful that merely watching her had the power to ease his pain.
He only wished he could find a way to stop wanting her. There was nothing quite like groping a man’s sister to ruin a perfectly good peace treaty.
As he continued to watch, he realized that she was directing children in the open play area, though what was going on there was like no form of play he’d ever seen.
The kids were grouped by size. The largest four were in the center of a clearing, being watched by several smaller children. The big kids were clustered together, snarling at one another and grappling for supremacy as they tried to knock one another out of the rope boundary laid out around them. They used teeth and fingernails, elbows and knees. The blows were real, leaving behind both bruises and blood.
It was a small wonder that a broken arm had been the worst of the damage these kids had suffered—at least the worst Joseph knew of.
Lyka stood at the sidelines, shouting instructions to the kids. After a few seconds, she put two fingers in her mouth and let out a shrill whistle. “Time’s up!”
The kids stopped what they were doing and scrambled to line up at attention. One of them was limping. All of them were bloodied, even the young girl who’d been fighting right alongside the boys.
Joseph’s first instinct was to rush over and see to their wounds, but he forced himself to stay where he was, out of Lyka’s sight. It was the only way he was going to see exactly what she did when he wasn’t watching.
Lyka strolled in front of the kids, studying them. She lifted the girl’s arm, inspecting her wounds. One of the boys raised the hem of his shirt to show her where he’d been bloodied. After she was done looking at them, she pointed at each of them as she counted. “Four, three, two, one.”
The boy who’d been labeled one thrust his fist in the air, jumping in victory. The girl beamed at her second place, while the other two boys were clearly unhappy with their ranking.
Lyka addressed the rest of the class. “What did Hank do right?” she asked. “Why did he win?”
The kids started discussing moves and strikes, but Lyka deftly steered the conversation more toward battle tactics and the combatants’ traits.
“He wasn’t afraid,” said one of the kids—a new girl who’d only recently arrived at Dabyr.
Lyka turned to Hank. “Were you afraid?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am. Mary’s got a wicked bite.”
The kids laughed, but Lyka kept going. “He didn’t let his fear make him lose. We’re all afraid sometimes. The key is not letting it control us. Fear is just a bunch of chemicals tricking your brain. The good news is they can make you stronger, faster. All you have to do is let them.”