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Authors: Jacquelyn Frank

Trusted

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Trusted

Prologue

Bone popped and cracked as it was first dislocated, then broken. Sinew was stretched to its utter limits before it began to tear like taffy pulled too far, only flesh did not have that sort of easy flexibility. Blood first showed as skin was torn at the creases of the knees, the elbows, where thigh met hip and where shoulder met arm.

“Has he said anything yet?” Janusia asked.

“How can he? All he can do is scream,” the first torturer remarked.

But the screams we dying down now as blood loss claimed energy and life. The tormentors watched the swelling bloodstain on the floor dispassionately.

“Reign Veddig will not be pleased. You shouldn’t have killed him.”

“I’ve been working on him for a shona. I had to get extreme I wasn’t getting anywhere.”

“And now you are nowhere,” Janusia said, “And he is dead.”

“He wouldn’t have talked.”

“There are other ways besides the threat of death to make a man talk. No…these men are a special kind of breed and they require a special kind of attention. If we want to get to their leader we must rip through the foundations he stands on one by one. We will destroy every man he depends on. And eventually they will either turn on him, or they will all be dead.”

“Impossible,” the torturer said. “Not unless you kill every man there is. For as soon as one of them falls, another rises up to take his place. They are like weeds. They are rampant and wild and choke the life out of all living things around them.”

“True. It took some effort getting this one,” Janusia said, looking at the dying man. “It will not be easy to get another.”

“Get him and I will make him talk.”

Janusia snorted. “Like you made this one talk? No. This time we will work in concert. Your way, and my way. We’ll see which of us gets information first.”

“Is that a bet? It hardly seems fair. How will we know which of us is successful…which of us is the cause of the man breaking?”

“True. How about this. I will get to him first and use my methods,” Janusia said. “Then if I am unsuccessful we will use your methods. If the two of us working in concert cannot find success, then there is no success to be had. At least we can tell Reign Veddig that much.”

“He still will not be pleased.”

“Never…” a garbled whisper came from the mass of torn and bloody flesh.

“What’s he saying?” Janusia asked, his attention perking toward the prisoner.

The torturer leaned in and put his ear to the man’s lips.

“You’ll…never…win!” the prisoner grunted out before expiring with a gurgling sigh.

“Well. That was disappointing,” the torturer said, relaying the prisoner’s final words.

“They are a special sort of breed these Vena,” Janusia said.

“Special?! They are disgusting. An abomination!”

“Yes. They are all of that and more. But you have to admire their strength. Have you ever failed before?” Janusia asked. “Ever once?”

“No,” the torturer admitted. He was proud of his record with getting people to talk under the duress of his talents. This Vena male had ruined an otherwise perfect accounting. “But I have never had a Vena male here before. One needs to learn weaknesses through trial and error.”

“Vena males are not easy to come by. Though there are many, capturing them alive takes quite a bit of effort. For that alone you must consider them special.” Janusia paused to think, taking a step back when the growing blood pool threatened to stain his boots. “This is going to take some effort. We are going to have to use a measure of deceit and maneuvering.”

“What are you thinking?”

“I am thinking that perhaps the males are not the answer. The weakness might lie in the females.”

The torturer scoffed. “Females are useless.”

“To you and I and any civilized man, but to the Vena males, their women hold a certain measure of importance.”

“What do you think to do? Capture one of them for me to torture? I am not opposed to torturing a woman.”

“Perhaps. Or perhaps we might send a woman to the Vena to act as our agent. Perhaps through such a woman we might finally get close to their ruler. Destroy the ruler and you destroy the Vena.”

“That has been the idea all along,” the torturer said with an eye roll. “But the same problem remains.”

“Yes. How to get close enough to kill him.” Janusia drummed his fingers a moment. “A woman is the way. Either we use one of our own or we capture one of their most treasured females…a woman is they way.”

“Let us hope so. Reign Veddig will not be happy with what we have wrought here today.”


We
?” Janusia scoffed. “
I’m
not the one who killed him.” But when the torturer paled he said, “Don’t worry. I will appease our lord with my new plan. It may make him forget to be furious with you. But look on the bright side,” he said with a smirk, “if he were to throw you in the dungeons, you wouldn’t have to look forward to facing his
best
torturer.”

Janusia laughed, but Reign Veddig’s best torturer was not amused. He hoped Janusia failed in his attempts. Then he would see who was laughing…and who would be facing the torturer.

Chapter One

Dakon hurled the spear with all of his strength, the conglomeration of muscles in his body working in perfect concert to send the spear soaring. It flew with precision and power until it landed in the grass, where it burrowed eight inches into the ground.

A roar of approval erupted from the crowd and Dakon hurriedly checked to see what his ruler, his king, thought of his performance. To Dakon’s frustration, King Garrick’s head was bent toward the pretty woman sitting at his right elbow in the viewing stands.

He hadn’t even seen the throw! How was he ever going to become on of the Trusted if he couldn’t make an impression on the only man able to elevate men to this exalted position?

Becoming one of the Trusted was every young man’s ambition, but no one wanted it more than Dakon. Or so Dakon thought. There were only six men at any one time who were risen up to become the Trusted, and right now five of those men sat in the viewing stands equally divided on either side of the king. There should be six, but there were only five. And everyone believed that was because Ulric, a most beloved cousin of the king and one of the Trusted, had fallen upon ill winds. The general consensus was that he was dead. How and why were a mystery, but it had been five misra since the man had been seen and it was time to accept the truth. It was time for the king to select a man to fill his vacant position. And Dakon was determined to be that man. The Vena were notoriously healthy and long-lived, so opportunities to become Trusted almost never came up. Vacancies in the position of Trusted only happened when one of the Trusted died, or if they voluntarily stepped down and retired. It was almost unheard of for the king to remove a Trusted from his position for any other reason.

So, as unfortunate as it was for the king and the king’s presumably dead cousin, it was a rare opportunity for Dakon. These games, it was widely known, were part of the methods the king used to select a man to become Trusted. There was always the chance the king would simply choose from one of his many cousins to fill the position, as had been done before, but there was equal chance that he would choose the best and brightest of his young warriors.

And Dakon was the best and the brightest.

If he could only get the king to
see
that! This woman in the stands beside the king was flirting with him outrageously. Everyone could see it. Whoever she was, she was working hard to garner his attentions and, no doubt, his bed for the night. More likely she had loftier goals, say perhaps becoming queen, but she probably figured she could work her way to the position flat on her back.

And right now she was standing in the way of his becoming Trusted.

Frustrated, Dakon walked to the sidelines where his sister, Sarea, was standing waiting for him.

“What’s wrong?” Sarea asked knowingly. “You have thrown the farthest! You should be pleased and yet you are not.”

“The king spends more time looking down at the bosom of that wench in the stands than he does the performance of his men,” Dakon said bitterly.

Sarea looked up at the stands where the king was presently having a conversation with the woman at his right. The king was seated in the large central chair, as was right and custom, and a smaller chair sat to his right for his favored concubine or female companion to sit at. Were there a queen she would have sat at his left in a chair equal to his. But, as it stood, there was no queen at present. The queen had died ten yana ago after only being wed to the king for nine misra and the king had not seen fit to replace her. Since his wife had died the king had remained quite the unattached bachelor with what had proven to be a healthy sexual appetite. However, his appetite waned for a particular woman rather quickly, and then he was on to the next.

“Sarea! You should go up to the king and gain his attention!” Dakon said with sudden brilliance. “You are fair as far as women go. Surely he would find you diverting. Just long enough to whisper in his ear about making your brother Trusted!”

“As far as women go?!” Sarea was appalled and insulted. “You would have me sell myself to the king for benefit of your advancement?”

“Not sell!” Dakon grabbed hold of her hand. “Give. Can you not see how much this means to me? I would do anything for this!”

“Including besmirching your sister’s virtue!” Sarea exclaimed. “And there’s no guarantee anything I say or do could ever influence his decision about something as important as choosing Trusted!”

“But it is worth a shot! Do you not care for me? You know I would do anything for you. Can you not do this one small thing for me?”

“Small? You call this small? Father would never forgive me and if mother so much as glimpsed me within sight of the king she would have my hide!”

“You have father in your little pocket,” Dakon said, a charming smile deepening the dimple on his right cheek. “And mother would do anything for her beloved son. If I told her you go to the king to speak for my benefit she will encourage you to go.”

The trouble was, Dakon was right. In Vena houses sons reaped all the attention and glory. A daughter’s only use was to wed and bring a new son by marriage into the family, and then give birth to more sons. That and do all the more menial chores about the house. She was to keep her family’s house in comfort and cleanliness. When she wed she was to do the same for her husband. Sons were meant to become warriors or learned men. Warriors reaped all of the glory and respect, however. No young boy ever grew up dreaming of being a man in one of the learned positions. They made believe they were of the Order or one of the Trusted.

Dakon had been so delighted the day he had become one of the Order…the king’s soldiers. Their parents had been so proud. Now he sought to elevate himself to the position of Trusted and, like many men of the Order, he was willing to do anything to secure that position.

Including giving away his beloved sister’s virginity.

He was lucky she loved and understood him; otherwise she would have kicked him in a very tender area right then. Even so she still might.

She nibbled at her lip anxiously. Perhaps there was a way to simply flirt with the king, maintaining her virginity, and her self-worth, and bring her brother to the king’s attention.

But what use would that virginity be at that point? The minute she was seen in the king’s company for any extended period of time, it would be assumed he had lain with her and no one would believe her claims otherwise. Nor would they understand her claims otherwise. To be the king’s castoff was still a very vaunted and valuable position to be in. To have been wanted by the king spoke much about a woman’s worth.

But she did not have dreams of being one of the king’s cast offs. Her dreams included a nice little home with a kind husband and many young children running about. She didn’t even want to marry a warrior, which to others seemed a bit odd. She would have been happy with a learned man. At least then she wouldn’t be worried about whether he would be coming home at the end of the day. Learned men did not die in battle.

And she wanted her husband to know no one had come before him. She most certainly did not want to end up carrying one of the king’s bastards, of which it was said there were many. Again, it was a vaunted position, to be mother of the king’s child…and equally of value to be a man who wed such a woman and raised the child as his own.

Yet again, she did not want to put a husband in such a position. It might be lauded by some, but it could be equally said that it diminished a woman to sell herself to a king just for bragging rights.

If only there was a way to be a woman and be a friend to the king. A true companion who might share laughter and advice without besmirching her reputation with doubtful advantages. But the king took great pride in his conquests, flaunting them hither and yon. To take such a step toward the king invited him to take anything and everything he wanted and a woman dare not say no. He was, after all, a king.

“Do not ask me to do this, Dakon,” she begged in a hot whisper.

“I do ask you,” he said, his infamous temper starting to show. “Is it not your place, as a sister and as a woman to do whatever you can to see to the comforts of a man in your house?”

“Is it not my place to make an advantageous marriage that will see to the comfort of my father in his aged yana? Not to mention our mother.”

“Your value as a former lover to the king would increase! Any man would be proud to wed a beauty so golden as to tempt the king!”

“I want to have value other than as the king’s former lover! I want my husband to know none have come before him! I want him to know he holds a special place in my body as well as my heart!”

“Pah! You are a romantic. The odds are that father is just going to marry you off to some lowly farmer.”

“Father would never do that and you know it. Not that I would mind a farmer. They are steady men. Healthy and hearty.”

“And poor. You are of wealth born. You will marry into wealth and, as you said, secure the comfort of our father.”

She wanted to add “and mother” but they both knew men far outlived the women in their society. Not that they were fragile, but in Sarea’s opinion it was because they were worked harder and given to dying in childbirth. Why, their youngest sister was but three yana old, a fifteen yana age difference between Sarea. And still her mother was expected to bear children. More sons, it was hoped. As if the four she had already borne were not enough.

It was a miracle that out of six live children their mother had not had any complications. But there had also been three stillbirths and miscarriages in between those live children. It was a wonder her mother had not died of a broken heart already. But their mother, Lela, loved her living children much too stubbornly to let go so easily. Sarea believed that her mother would live well past their father, an idea that, if she had shared it, would have been laughed out of existence.

“Sarea, just…go up to him. Maybe keep his interest focused on the games. Keep redirecting him to watch…especially when I am about to perform. My prowess will prove the rest.”

“He already has company,” she pointed out. “I cannot simply go up to him and sit in her lap!”

“The games are going to last three days. This is only the first. Use your wits. I know you have them.”

“Well, that’s something at least,” she muttered. “Fine. I will try and go up to him during the daytime and redirect his attentions during the games. But I will not be seen with him in the evening when it will be assumed I am entertaining him in other ways.”

“Aha! Now there’s a good sister!” Dakon cried out joyously, scooping her up off the ground and spinning her about. She laughed and beat him on the shoulder until he put her down. “Look now. ‘Tis a break in the games and he goes to socialize with the nobles. Make your way to him. Be flattering. Make him feel at ease. Make sure to—“

“Dakon! I know how to please a man. I’ve been pleasing father all of my life. Not to mention you and Honor, Denro and Murl. All my brothers. Now let me to your business and you worry about the games. You had better perform your best otherwise I am likely to kill you for making this a waste of my time!”

“Never fear, sister! I will be Trusted before this shona is out!”

“No thanks to me I’m sure,” she said dryly.

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