The Shadows(Black Dagger Brotherhood, book 13)(13) by J.R.Ward
“You were so close! We nearly had the throne! The dominoes were aligned, the glymera was going to do your bidding—”
Xcor pressed that dagger in again, ending the tirade. “Is this traitorous meeting about my ambition—or yours? Permit me to inquire precisely whose loss you are mourning.”
“You are not leading us anymore.”
“Let us ask them.” Xcor broke off and stalked around the room, looking at the bent heads of his soldiers. “What say you all. Are you going with him or staying with me?” As curses broke out in the tense air, he pivoted to Throe. “Because that is what you’re doing, is it not? Presenting them with a choice—either you or me. So, I say, let us proceed to the endgame with all due haste. Where dost thou stand, bastards mine?”
There was a long pause.
And then Zypher lifted his eyes. “Who is she?”
“That is not the question I posed to you.”
“That’s the question we want answered.”
Xcor felt his temper rise. “She is none of your business.”
There was no way in hell he was going to explain the liaisons with his Chosen.
Zypher’s nostrils flared as he took a deep breath. “Jesus … you’ve bonded with her.”
“I have not.”
“I can smell it, too,” someone said. “Who is she?”
“She is of no consequence.”
Throe spoke up, loud and clear. “She is a Chosen. Who lives with the Brotherhood.”
Annnnd herewith the chaos he had previously anticipated: The room erupted with male voices, all of them talking over one another, snippets of the Old Language mixing with English and German curse words.
Meanwhile, Throe took out a pristine handkerchief and pressed the white square to the wound at his throat. “I fail to understand why she meets with you—just what do you have over her? There must be some kind of inducement—money? Or is it a threat of some kind?”
Xcor let the insult stand, as it wasn’t just close to the truth; the male had hit the nail on the head. The only reason the Chosen Layla met with him was that he knew the location of the Black Dagger Brotherhood’s mansion, and she was terrified he was going to sack the property: There had been one night, nearly a year ago, when he had followed her blood trail and stumbled upon the great secret. And Throe was right—he had leveraged the discovery to his benefit.
She had promised him her body in exchange for his keeping the site sacrosanct.
And though he had yet to call upon her in a carnal way, out of respect for her pregnancy, her virtue, and her station … he would have her.
Eventually, he would take what was his and mark her as his own—
Shit, had he bonded?
Xcor refocused on Throe and his Bastards. “Let us concern ourselves with this mutiny and not anyone’s imagination. So what say you. All of you.” There was a long pause. “Any of you.”
He supposed, as he awaited a response, the fact that Throe remained upright and breathing was proof that Xcor had, in fact, somewhat softened. Trained by the Bloodletter, he had not forgotten what he had learned in the war camp, but of late, he had come to realize that brute force and bloodshed were simply one means to an end—and there were others that could be more effective.
For example, Wrath had proven the point with the way he had handled the final assault against his throne. That king and his mate had shut down even the most foolproof attack against his rule—and they had done so not only without one life being lost, but with a castration so complete, the very powers of the glymera had been stripped away.
And Wrath, as a leader now chosen by his people, had unassailable power.
Throe broke the silence, addressing the fighters. “I believe I have made myself clear. I feel strongly that we should resume the quest for the throne. We shot Wrath once—we can get at him again. He might be democratically elected, but he cannot continue to rule if he isn’t breathing. And then we need to remarshal support within the now-disenfranchised glymera. By coordinating a constitutional strategy with the former members of the Council, we can argue that Wrath overreached his powers and—”
“You are a fool,” Xcor said quietly.
Throe spun around and pegged him with a hostile glare. “And you are a failure!”
Xcor shook his head. “The people have spoken. They chose to put Wrath on the throne he had previously inherited, and there is no fight to be won when there is not one front, but one thousand. Traditional laws and cultural norms are flimsy mantles of power and influence. Democracy, however, when it is truly exercised, is a stone fortress that cannot be surmounted, blown asunder, or burrowed under. What you fail to understand, second in command, is that there is nothing further to battle with—assuming that you are conducting this assault with any hope of prevailing.”
Throe narrowed his eyes. “Tell me something, has your Chosen been educating you? I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything close to that come out of your mouth before.”
Xcor forced himself to stay quiet.
He and his fighters had been banded together long before Throe had come into the mix. But if those males could not see past this ill-fated ambition? Then Throe could have them all.
Xcor would bow to none herein.
In the silence that followed, Throe looked around at the fighters who had once shunned him for his dandy weakness, but had grown to respect him as a warrior over the last two centuries. “Manipulation is most successful when waged by one of the female sex. Think not that he speaks propaganda the now? Fed to him by precisely that which can most seduce his mind, his body, his emotions? You have smelled the bonding for yourself. Know that the soul follows the heart, and his is no longer with us, with our goals, with what we may accomplish. This is not strength that addresses you, but the sort of weakness he once deplored in others. See? Even now, he stays quiet!”
Xcor shrugged. “I have no taste for pontificating.”
“Did you even know the definition of that word six months ago?” Throe countered.
“What say the lot of you?” Xcor glanced around with a sense of abiding boredom. “The choice is yours, but know this. Once it is made, like ink in the skin, it is indelible.”
Zypher was the first to get to his feet. “I have but one allegiance.”
With that, he went over to his gear and unsheathed his steel dagger. Slicing his own palm open, he approached Xcor and put out his hand.
Xcor shook what was proffered and found that he had to clear his throat. Balthazar was next, taking the same knife and cutting himself, putting forth his blood—and Syphon moved with equal efficiency, pledging himself.
Syn watched it all with lowered lids, staying still. He was, as always, the wild card—but even he rose and came across to Xcor. Taking the blade, he stabbed his palm and twisted, his upper lip curling up as if he liked the pain.
Xcor accepted the last of his soldiers’ vows and then he looked over at Throe. Bringing his dripping red palm up, he bared his fangs and hissed, biting his own flesh and then licking the combined blood clean.
“As if this would go another way.” He smiled cruelly. “You have never been one of us.”
Throe’s handsome face twisted into a nasty expression. “You forced me to join you. You did this to me.”
“But you shall undo it, is that correct? Fine, I gave you your freedom a year ago. Let your ambition exercise your destiny if you wish, but once you walk out that door, it is a permanent closure. You are dead to us, your deeds your own and no one else’s.”
Throe nodded once. “So be it.”
The male marched across and picked up his holsters and his coat; then went to the door. Pivoting, he addressed the group. “He is wrong about much, but most especially the throne. A war with a thousand fronts? I think not. All that must needs be done is eliminate Wrath. Then the mantle shall be assumed by the strongest hand—and that male is no longer among this group.”
The fighter closed the door behind himself with a clap.
Xcor ground his molars, knowing damn well Throe must have set up a contingency plan before he made his bid to them all—or he wouldn’t have been so nonchalant about leaving with mere minutes before dawn.
Throe had gambled and lost—except only when it came to the lot of them. Where would this take him next? Xcor had no idea.
But Wrath should well be worried.
There was some shuffling around. Throat clearing. And then, of course, commentary.
“So,” Zypher blurted. “You gonna tells us what color her eyes are?”
“’Tis the least you could do,” Balthazar interjected. “Paint us a picture.”
“How in the world did you—”
All at once, the house was back to normal, male voices crowding the air, drinks being summoned and poured, bandages coming out to wrap up those injured fighting hands.
Xcor exhaled in a relief he was shocked to feel—but he wasn’t fooled. Though his fighters had stood by him, he now had a new enemy against whom to fight—and Throe, thanks to Xcor’s very own training of the male, was dangerous indeed.
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