Ivar Holok watched the auction from the edge of the crowd. All around him, men cheered and laughed as the woman on the platform twisted and fought to free herself from the manacles.
Ivar could have told her that was pointless. He knew they were reinforced with kaptum. Dario might look like he was short on brains, but he was a savvy businessman. He took no chances with his merchandise.
And this female was a prime specimen. Taller than average, she had long, lithe legs that flared into gently curving hips. Her full breasts were proud and high, her small nipples a becoming rose color. His cocked twitched as he watched her breasts bounce with her movements.
Dario faced the crowd as he rattled off the woman’s attributes. An appreciative murmur ran through the assembled men when she aimed a kick at his ass, her booted foot nearly connecting with her target. She threw her head back and screamed.
Ivar winced. Healthy lungs.
“Better watch out, Dario!” a man near the front called. “If looks could kill, you’d be a dead man already!”
The merchant gestured to Axos, who grabbed her legs and jerked off her boots and socks. He sailed the boots one by one into the crowd, followed by the pants that had puddled around her ankles. One man brandished them in the air like a trophy.
Now fully divested of her clothing, the woman gazed across the crowd, her eyes searching and desperate. Her long red hair had fallen over her shoulder in her struggle with Axos, and one dusky pink nipple peeked through the bright strands. The sleek muscles of her legs flexed continuously as she struggled to remain on her toes. Even after such a short time on the pole, Ivar knew her arms had to be on fire from bearing almost her full body weight.
Dario sidled up to her and swept her hair away from her breasts. “As you can see, gentlemen, this one is hot as flame!” He moved his hand to her flat belly, then slid it lower and cupped her bare sex. “As to whether she’s a natural redhead, you’ll just have to take my word for it!”
The woman jerked away from his touch, giving the men a look at her shapely ass as she twisted sideways. Her chest was a mottled red, and her breasts heaved as though she’d just run a long distance. Ivar discreetly adjusted himself.
He looked out over the crowd, which had swelled with the nude woman displayed on the platform. She raised up higher on her toes, her small, delicate features twisted in obvious pain. Dario attempted to pry her lips apart to show the men her teeth. She snapped at his hand, and he danced back. The crowd guffawed.
Ivar narrowed his gaze. She didn’t lack for courage. Most women would be weeping and begging for mercy by now. Most men too. But she kept her head high as she looked over the leering, boisterous crowd.
Her gaze connected with Ivar’s, and it was like a punch in the gut. He sucked in a breath. It was impossible to see her eyes clearly from where he stood, but he couldn’t look away. It was as though she held him captive with her stare. He crossed his arms over his chest and glowered at her, then watched, astonished, as her chin rose a notch higher.
“It’s a shame such beauty fell into Dario’s hands,” Porter said next to him, ending the unsettling moment. “He’ll sell her to the highest bidder without a second thought.”
Ivar looked at his second-in-command and grunted. “That’s the way auctions generally work.”
Porter gestured with his chin toward the other side of the crowd. “Not this one. Not with him here.”
Ivar followed the direction of his gaze. A small group of men strode to the edge of the crowd and began shoving their way to the platform. Their leader punched a man in the back of the head, making him crumple to the ground and then kicked him out of the way and kept moving. The crowd immediately parted. The leader swaggered toward the platform, his long black hair loose over his shoulders.
Dario’s face split in a broad smile that didn’t fool Ivar. The fat little merchant made his way down the steps, moving quickly despite his girth. “Raddoc! We are honored by your presence!” He bowed, his nose almost touching his knees.
Behind him, the woman stilled, her gaze now fixed on the huge man dressed all in black. The long column of her throat convulsed as she swallowed.
“How much?” Raddoc asked in a deep voice, his gaze never leaving the woman. One hand rested on a broadsword at his hip.
Dario wrung his hands. “Ah…well, we haven’t started the auction yet. If you wish to bid—”
“Five liters.” Raddoc snapped his fingers, and one of his men flung an old rucksack to the ground. It fell open on impact, revealing five canisters beaded with condensation.
The crowd gasped. The men closest to the canisters jostled each other as they tried to get a better look. One man crept close, his hand outstretched, only to be sent sprawling to the ground by another of Raddoc’s men.
“I do believe that’s a record bid,” Raddoc said, gesturing to the precious water.
Dario stared at the canisters, and Ivar could almost see the gears turning in his brain. In a blink, his expression changed from subservient to calculating. He glanced back at the naked woman. “It’s a princely sum, to be sure. But as you can see, this slave is fit for a king. Everyone should have a chance to bid—”
A meaty hand fastened around his throat. Raddoc lifted him off the ground, the muscles in his arm bunching. Dario’s legs flailed.
The merchant sputtered and coughed. “P-please.” His eyes bulged.
Raddoc paid him about as much attention as a gnat. Still clenching the merchant’s throat, he pivoted slowly, his black-eyed gaze falling on the crowd. “Who here can match my price?”
A tense silence fell over the crowd, the only sound Dario’s gurgling protests. All around, men lowered their eyes. A few turned and shouldered their way out of the gathering.
Ivar glanced at the platform and caught his breath. The woman was staring at him again. For the first time, she looked afraid. She sagged against the chains.
Raddoc pulled Dario forward until they were eye to eye. “Looks like I won your auction, fat man.” He opened his hand, and the merchant fell to the ground, his face an angry purple. His mouth gaped as he sucked in air. Raddoc snapped his fingers at one of his men and pointed to the platform.
“Go fetch my new slave.”
Ivar uncrossed his arms. “Ten liters!”
* * * *
Nadia watched as heads jerked toward the warlord standing on the edge of the crowd. Up until now, he’d been so still, she’d wondered if she was imagining him. The only thing he’d seemed to move were his eyes, which occasionally roved down her body with a heat that made her cheeks burn until she was certain they were as red as her hair.
Even with the distance between them, she could tell his eyes were an unusual color—a pale, glowing gold that reminded her of the holo-vids she’d seen of lions that had once roamed Earth. His hair was shaved so close to his head it was impossible to tell the color, but everything else about him was golden, from his strange eyes to his tan skin.
He shouldered the men in front of him aside. Murmurs rippled through the crowd as he and another man moved toward the platform, their pace unhurried.
Raddoc scowled and put his hand on his sword hilt. “The auction’s over, Ivar,” he growled. “The slave is mine.” The wind caught at his long mane of hair, sending the lank black strands whipping around his shoulders. At first, she’d thought his face was dirty, then she’d realized it was tattooed with strange swirling symbols a few shades darker than his skin. His men bore the same markings, although none had his monstrous teeth, which were filed to sharp points.
When he’d grinned at her, she’d felt truly hopeless for the first time since the head magistrate had read her sentence back on the starship. Until that moment, she’d thought that being stripped naked and chained to the pole was the worst thing that could happen to her. Then the black-haired warlord had flashed his razor-sharp smile, and she’d nearly given in to the blackness that beckoned at the edges of her mind.
For some reason, she’d sought out the golden warlord on the edge of the crowd. Their eyes had locked, and he’d stepped forward just as she’d begun to slump into a faint.
Now he and his companion had reached the space in front of the platform where Raddoc stood surrounded by his men. The golden-eyed man stepped deliberately over the canisters and stood over a still-gasping Dario. He gave the little merchant a considering look, then lifted hard eyes to Raddoc.
“Ah, Raddoc. You never did like playing by the rules. You heard our friend here. The auction hasn’t started.”
Raddoc’s hand tightened on his sword, and he took a step forward, bringing the two men toe to toe. Seeing them like this, there was no question they were both warlords. If Axos and his men were giants, these two were inhuman. They towered above the men around them, their big bodies roped with muscle. More than that, they practically bristled with weapons. Sunlight shined off the edges of blades tucked into belts and pockets. Like Raddoc, the golden warlord had a broadsword, but he wore his strapped to his back, its thick hilt a visible reminder that this was clearly not a man to be trifled with.
“I bid five liters,” Raddoc said, his eyes glinting. Metal flowed down the insides of his arms and formed into knives. His men stirred but didn’t pull any weapons.
The warlord he’d called Ivar leaned into him. “And I bid ten.” Behind him, his companion drew a short sword from a sheath on his leg. It rippled and sprouted a jagged edge where it had been smooth a moment before. Nadia gasped. Kaptum could transform, yes, but the transition had been flawless—like living art.
“You’re outnumbered, Ivar.” The pointed teeth flashed. “I could kill you where you stand.”
Ivar’s reply was so quiet, Nadia had to strain to hear it. “Do it. You and your people will be dead in a week.”
Something on his arm drew her eye, and she squinted as she tried to make it out. At first, she thought it was an insect, but that was impossible. There were no insects on Tolbos. A darkly-inked tattoo slid from his biceps to his forearm, where it curled around his skin like a snake. She blinked and shook her head, trying to figure out what she was seeing.
The wind whipped around the platform. Nadia sucked in a breath, waiting for either man to make the first move. Raddoc stepped back, and she exhaled on a shudder. He glanced at her, then leaned to the side and spit. A wad of glistening saliva hit the ground with a wet smack. Without another word, he pivoted on his heel and walked away, the knives dissolving and slithering back up his arms. His men gathered the canisters and then hurried to catch up to him.
Ivar watched them go before casting his gaze over the crowd. “Does anyone else wish to bid?” Men shuffled their feet and kept their eyes trained on the ground. Seemingly satisfied, he reached down and hauled Dario to his feet. “You know where to find me. I’ll have your ten liters waiting.”
The merchant massaged his throat and nodded, his bald head shiny with perspiration.
The golden eyes fixed on her. She tensed. The weight of his stare was even more intense up close. He strode to the platform, planted a hand on the wood, and vaulted his body over the edge. He stopped in front of her, and she fought the urge to shrink away from him. Instead, she forced herself to look at him, craning her neck back as her eyes traveled up and up his body. He stared down, his cruelly handsome face a mask that revealed nothing of his thoughts or feelings. His gaze dropped to her breasts as he reached a long arm up and tapped the manacles. The metal bracelets snapped open, startling her.
She fell forward, and he caught her, mashing her breasts against his chest. Big hands massaged her arms and shoulders.
“How…” She stared at his chest. “How did you do that?”
She tried to pull back, but he held her in place, his fingers still kneading her arms. “The manacles. You just touched them and—”
“Ask your questions later.”
She snapped her mouth shut. His order rankled, but she was hardly in a position to argue with him.
He stopped kneading and slid a hand to her wrist. “Come.” He pulled her to the platform’s steps.
“Wait!” Her bare feet skidded on the rough wood.
He rounded on her. “What?”
She stepped sideways so his body blocked her from the crowd’s view. “I…I’m not wearing any clothes.”
His gaze flicked to her chest. “I noticed. Now, come.”