I know what they see when they look at me. The charming, soft-spoken dragoness bred from the most powerful of royal bloodlines. A disguise stronger than any battle shield that allows me to keep all suitors at tail’s length. A technique that’s worked until him. Until Ragnar the Cunning, handsome barbarian warlord and warrior mage from the desolate Northlands. Unlike those who’ve come before him, he does not simply submit to my astounding charm and devastating smile. Instead, he dismisses me as vapid, useless and, to my great annoyance, rather stupid!
Yet I’ll allow no male to dismiss me. Soon he’ll learn my worth, my many skills, and the strength of my will. For this one challenges me enough to make me want to ruthlessly taunt him, tease him and, finally, when the trap is set, bring him to his knees.
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“Laugh-out-loud funny—I loved it!”—Thea Harrison, New York Times bestselling author
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LAST DRAGON STANDING
By G.A. AIKEN
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 G.A. Aiken
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTwo years later ...
Was he supposed to be dead?
Keita the Red Viper Dragon of Despair and Death-Keita the Viper, for short-leaned in a little closer and sniffed the male human lying prone in his bed.
He definitely smelled dead. And she could hear no heartbeat, nor the sound of blood rushing through tiny little human veins. All things she could easily do when a living being was anywhere within a one hundred-foot radius of her.
But this human, the Outerplains Baron Lord Bampour that once was, was not supposed to be dead. Not yet. Not until she'd actually killed him.
Letting out a breath, Keita stood straight and placed her hands on her hips. She wore a gown given to her by the late Baron Lord, made of the finest silks gold coin could buy. She also had on the bracelet he'd given her, a thick gold bangle, and the matching necklace. She hadn't asked for these things, but, as happened with most needy males, he'd happily given them to her. She knew why, too. In the hopes that she'd give him a lusty ride and enthusiastic cries of ecstasy ... blah, blah, blah.
Males were all the same. A few compliments, a sweet smile, a little teasing, and Keita would be inundated with goods she'd never asked for and didn't necessarily want. She didn't mind, though. If males wanted to give her things, why should she stop them? What irritated her, though, what had always irritated her, was the belief some men had that a few gifts would somehow gain them access to her bed. They didn't. In fact, Keita chose her bedmates as carefully as she chose the accessories for a particular gown. Males on a whole were far too irritating for her to ever think of letting those who brought nothing but gifts, and little else, into her life.
As she explained to a friend once, "I'll take their gifts, but that doesn't mean I'll take their cocks."
So she'd taken the Baron Lord's gifts. Happily, for unlike some, he had excellent taste. She'd also put up with him for the last three weeks. Him and his son. She'd bedded neither and had had no intention of doing so. Mostly because she had no desire to, but also because Keita had come here with a purpose. For Bampour had crossed a line that made him a danger to those Keita loved. Too bad, though, someone had beaten her to the task. Especially since she was ever so good at taking care of such things.
Debating whether she should get rid of the body herself, she heard it. An extra heartbeat in the room that did not belong to the late Baron Lord since his heart had already stopped beating.
Keita looked over her shoulder, eyes narrowing on a dark corner. That's when the human came rushing out. She wore only a sheet, blond hair loose around her shoulders, small blade slashing wildly.
Keita grabbed the woman's wrist and twisted, putting her on her knees. She thought about breaking that wrist just because the little bitch had come dangerously close to cutting Keita's precious face, but the banging on the door quickly pulled that option from the table.
"Open this door!"
Keita looked down at the woman. She could snap her neck and be gone, but it didn't seem right when the blond had only done what needed to be done anyway.
"It's your lucky day, wench," she said over the continued banging.
Keita released the human and ran to the largest of the windows. She pushed it open. It was small but would do. "Ren!" she called out.
"Hold on then!"
The woman watched Keita rush back to her. "What are you going to-eeeh!"
Keita swung the human up into her arms, spun on her heel for a little momentum, and flung the female through the open window. Poor thing squealed until strong arms outside that window caught her.
"Take her. Go."
"Break it open!" someone yelled from the other side of the door.
A second later, the door flew open and guards marched in. The Baron Lord's aide walked in behind the guards. He looked Keita over, his lip curling in disgust. They hadn't liked each other from the beginning. Then he focused on the bed. He walked over quickly and pressed his fingers to the Baron Lord's throat. "Get the Baron Lord's son," he ordered one guard. When the guard ran off, the aide paced in front of Keita.
"I know how this looks-" she began.
Her arms crossed in front of her chest, Keita told him, "Well, you don't have to be rude about it!"
Good day, my little thunderstorm!
Ragnar the Cunning of the Olgeirsson Horde sighed loudly and said without thought, "Do not call me those pet names, insolent female."
Shit, piss, and death. He'd forgotten he wasn't alone. No. He was in an extremely long meeting with the representatives of the other Hordes he and his kin hadn't crushed beneath their claws. An important meeting since the war of the last two years was nearly behind them and a time of peace was-he hoped-sometime in their future.
Then again, if the other Hordes all thought he was mad, the peace he hoped for could easily slip away.
I'm not going away, a singsong voice said in his head. She always said these things in that singsong voice. It irritated him beyond all reason, and Ragnar was all about reason.
Knowing she truly would not go away, Ragnar lifted off his haunches and said, "If you all will excuse me, Vigholf will keep things going until my return."
Vigholf, one side of his mouth raised in a grin, nodded and returned his attention to the representatives. Vigholf knew who drove his brother insane, and he found it amusing. "She never calls to me," he'd whined more than once, forcing Ragnar to lob a boulder at his sibling's head. Most of the time, though, Vigholf moved out of the way fast enough to avoid any real damage.
Ragnar walked through the Olgeirsson stronghold, which had been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years, from dragonlord to dragonlord. Yet it was rarely handed over like someone passing the cream. Instead it was usually taken. It would have been taken from Ragnar's father as Olgeir the Wastrel had taken it from his father, but Ragnar never had the chance. His father, so determined to bring his son to heel, had stupidly followed him into the Southlands and had fallen to the swords of human females. Although Ragnar had not allowed the truth of that to spread past the Southland borders. Going against his innate sense of pride, Ragnar had claimed that kill as his own. Not because he wanted to, but because it was necessary. To be the son of a dragonlord who couldn't fight off two women was to come from a weak bloodline, something Ragnar and his siblings simply could not afford if he hoped to calm the unrest his father had been stirring up for centuries by being a right bastard.
Through caverns and alcoves he moved, trying his best to ignore the humming inside his head. Yes. She was humming. In his head. He hated humming in general. It was one of those annoying habits many had that, to Ragnar, only proved their weakness. People couldn't stand the silence, the quiet, so they hummed. But this female ... she hummed because she knew it annoyed him. She enjoyed that it annoyed him.
"I'd have been better off selling my soul to demons from the underworld than this wench."
What was that? I didn't hear you clearly, my raging tsunami.
Gods, and the nicknames. He hated nicknames almost as much as he hated humming.
Honestly, Ragnar had met some brutal females over the last two and a half centuries of his existence, but none quite like this one. None who seemed as heartless as the Northlands were cold. But she'd served a purpose these last two years. A purpose that he could not now ignore because she wore at his brain the way sand wore at his scales.
Ragnar walked out onto one of the mountain plateaus. Brutal winds from the nearby ocean brought ice and snow across his field of vision and nearly froze his claws to the ground beneath him. Few of his kin knew why he came out here, where it was icy cold whether summer or winter, spring or fall. But his kin couldn't feel the Magick that came up through this sacred space. Only he and those who studied the Magickal arts knew the true worth of a place like this, a worth that made risking the freezing winds and ice quite rational.
Ragnar closed his eyes and raised his left front claw. He called to the gods who watched over him and his Horde, who endowed him with powers that few of his kind were lucky enough to ever have. The Horde dragons, like all Northlanders, were about war and strength and battle skills. They also believed that Magick was for the old females who lived alone in caves or small houses talking to their gods, or for males not worthy of picking up a sword or a warhammer. Magick was definitely not for dragonlords who hoped to eventually rule not only one Horde but many. Perhaps all. But Ragnar never bothered to fool himself on how far he could go among his own kind. His time as Dragonlord Chief of all the Hordes would not last long. He knew that, understood it, and already had plans to transition the title and most of the power to his brother. Vigholf didn't know that, though. Not yet. Why bother him with the little details?
And although not being Dragonlord Chief until his last breath was something that should bother Ragnar, it didn't. He'd known from early on that his life would never be simple. If he'd chosen one path or the other, either warrior or mage, his kin would be fine with that. Yet he'd chosen both paths. Ragnar simply couldn't imagine not getting up early in the morning, at the coldest part of the day in the Northlands, and training hard with his favorite sword and ax. He also could not imagine not going to the ocean when the moon was at its fullest, and offering up a sacrifice of his blood to the gods. All of these things were a part of him; he refused to choose one over the other.
Yet raw ambition had never been Ragnar's goal. To see how far he could go in the shortest amount of time. What an empty, useless goal. Instead, he simply wanted more for his people. For the Horde dragons who populated the mighty Northland Mountains he wanted more than the hard life they'd all endured for so many eons. Yet that didn't mean they needed to be as ridiculously lazy as the Southland dragons; or constantly dazzled by their own brilliance like the Eastlanders; or superior to all beings that had or ever would live, like the Iron dragons of the west; or purposely cut off and removed from everything outside their own territories like the Sand dragons. In other words, Ragnar wanted more for his kind than merely a higher level of being annoying.
The brutal winds faded away, and the warmth of the two suns beat down upon Ragnar's head. He opened his eyes and saw her. She stood by a tree, picking the ripe fruit with her tail and watching him.
"Hello, my cheery squall," she said, smiling. So many fangs for a dragoness not yet that old. All bright white and twinkling like stars in the sky.
Ragnar dipped his head and said, "Queen Rhiannon. You summoned me."
"I did, Dragonlord. I did." She pulled a fruit down and tossed it to him. Ragnar caught it, marveling at the feel of it in his claw. Gods, now this was power. She'd not only created a space for them to meet between worlds, but a space where everything felt real and was real. The grass beneath his claws, the light wind blowing against his neck, the crows and hawks playing in the trees. Ragnar could never create something like this. He wasn't powerful enough. But he hoped to be. One day.
"So you are finally Dragonlord Chief of the Hordes."
"At the moment."
"Gods. Are there already those trying to take it from you? Do you Lightnings not rest?"
"It's not that someone's trying to take my title away. Instead, when the time is right, I plan to hand it to my brother."
Her white head cocked to the side, her white horns glinting in the sunlight. "You'd give up your power?"
"I'd do what is best for my people, lady."
She let out a little laugh, her white claw covering her snout. "You are just so damn adorable."
"It wasn't me, you fool," Keita continued to argue. "I didn't kill the old bastard. And you can't prove otherwise."
"Really?" The aide stopped in front of her and caught hold of her hand. He turned it, palm up, and peeled back the sleeve of her gown. "And what's this then, my lady?" He snatched the vial she'd tied to her wrist and uncorked it. He sniffed. "Kitto Bloom." He held up the vial. "Three drops of this on the tongue and your victim would be dead in seconds."
"Very true. But there'd be much more blood and some suffering. Look at him. He clearly didn't suffer. So it couldn't have been the Kitto Bloom, which means it wasn't me!" She smiled, proud of her logic.
"Right," the aide said.
"Right," Keita said, her grin growing wider.
The aide motioned to the guards. "Take this murdering bitch to the dungeons."
"Dungeons? But I already explained that it wasn't me. This is a complete injustice!"
Two guards grabbed her arms and pulled her out of the room.
"You'll regret this, servant!"
They took her down the backstairs and through the kitchens. With more guards falling in behind them, they all took another set of stairs down into the bowels of the Baron Lord's fortress.
They took Keita to a large cell filled with at least ten men.
"See how you like spending your time with these blokes, you murdering whore!"
They shoved her inside and slammed the cell door behind her.
"But it wasn't me!" she yelled, which they completely ignored. "Well ... aren't you at least going to give me something to eat? I haven't had first meal yet. I'm starving!"
Laughing at her, the guards locked the gate, and one of the men ordered an enormous dog with a spiked collar, "Watch her, boy. If she sticks an arm out, tear it off." The guards laughed more and walked off.
Annoyed and truly starving, Keita stamped her bare foot and crossed her arms over her chest. "This isn't fair. You should at least feed your prisoners."
Hoping the guards would return with some food, she faced the other prisoners.
"I can assure you I've murdered no one. Today," she told them. "Nor am I a whore. Unless, of course, you're talking to my sister. But she doesn't count because she's an uptight prissy tail."
One of the prisoners, a very large, swarthy fellow, slowly stood. Keita watched him, but after about three steps in her direction, he stopped, swallowed, and backed up again.
Not surprising, really. Keita had found over the years that predators knew predators. And smart predators knew when they were in the presence of something much more dangerous than they could ever hope to be.
Already bored beyond all reckoning, Keita again faced the front of the cell. She knew she could shift to her natural form and escape this dungeon. True, she was small compared to many She-dragons, but her true form would still go through at least the kitchen and servants quarters above and possibly the floor above that. Plus she'd destroy at least three of the walls around her and many humans. Not only the bastards who'd put her here, but possibly the sweet servant girl who combed her hair at night, the old baker who always made sure to set aside treats for her, and the house maid who kept her laughing with all sorts of castle gossip. Killing them would be unfair in Keita's estimation, since their only mistake would be that they were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time.
No, Keita didn't like that idea at all. So she'd wait. She had talked herself out of worse situations-she'd do it again.
So Keita stared through all those bars hoping to see the guards returning with something to eat. When they didn't, she rested her hands on two of the bars and that's when the guard dog right outside her cell leaped at her, snarling and snapping at her hands.
She immediately pulled away and watched the crazed beast attack the bars again for good measure.
Keita smiled and said, "Why ... hello there, you yummy-looking little thing you."
Excerpted from LAST DRAGON STANDING by G.A. AIKEN Copyright © 2010 by G.A. Aiken. Excerpted by permission.
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