At long last, the first draft of Part 14 of The Zodiac Heir is ready. Get a glimpse of Jud's negotiating skills and the Archer's dedication to the girl. Enjoy!
The Zodiac Heir Part 14 (Draft)
"Girl, what did I say about talking to strangers."
Jud's jaw clenched at the blatant disrespect of being ignored. No wonder the girl had the social skills of a hermit. With a role model like the Archer.
The girl dropped her gaze, her face a mask of utter misery. "Apologies, Master. I thought—"
The girl flinched as if struck.
"Sir, I was hoping to steal away your charge."
"Rose." Of all the ways to phrase a request. His sister had terrible timing rediscovering her courage.
The single word was lost under the menacing thud of the Archer's boots as he advanced on Rose, forcing her to back up against the wall.
More weapons clattered to the floor as Rose's head hit the rough stone with a dull thud, as she craned her neck trying to look up at the much bigger threat.
"Nobody steals away my charge." The snarl came from a throat that seemed to be made of razor wire.
Rose's face drained of all colour.
"You touch her, you're dead." Jud was amazed at how steady his voice sounded.
Inside he shook with the need to kill the man.
The Archer's mouth lifted into a sneer. "I know who she is."
"Then you know that to you her word is law. My sister will take a walk with the girl." Jud's voice brooked no argument.
He gave his sister an imperceptible nod. Rose ducked away from the Archer's overbearing presence on unsteady legs, to wrap her fingers around the girl's thin wrist.
Grip white-knuckled around the axe in his hand, the Archer's voice was as hard as Jud's had been. "You will be back in an hour."
"Yes, Master." Eyes wide, the girl allowed herself to be dragged off by Jud's sister, who kept throwing worried glances over her shoulder.
Jud forced a smile onto his lips that he hoped looked at least reassuring. In all honesty, he wasn't certain what the women would discover when they came back.
When the last of their footfalls died away, the Archer's focus returned to Jud. "A word of advice, Heir." He adjusted his grip on the axe. "One does not start negotiations with a demand."
Jud met the challenge in the Archer's eyes steadily. "My sister will treat her well." He picked up the gun sword that had skidded to a halt in front of his feet, his palm learning the feel of the weapon. "Your charge seemed in need of a friend."
Fire sparked and hissed in the forge behind the Archer, as if coaxed to life by the anger Jud could sense boiling underneath the other man's skin.
"She has me."
"And dogs have a handler. Does this mean they don't relish the company of other dogs?"
"Are you comparing my charge to a dog?" The question was lethally quiet.
Jud stroked his index finger across the trigger. He was physically no match for the Archer, but even in the Zodiac world an axe couldn't outpace a bullet. "I would be comparing my sister to the same species."
The Archer regarded him for a tense minute, before his shoulders sagged. "You have a strange way asking for favours."
He laid the weapon on a nearby table stacked neatly with tools.
A measure of relief skittered down Jud's spine. Killing the man would have been a terrible mistake. A mistake Jud would have made gladly and without hesitation. Family was sacred. Until Sarah was his through the Archer's bond, Jud was still in charge of his own free will.
Keeping a close eye on the other man in case he decided to pick up the weapon again, Jud shrugged. "Whatever works. Some men appreciate gifts. Others appreciate strength. You—"
"I appreciate solitude," the Archer cut him off.
Jud's gaze flicked to the entrance where the girl had left her whittling knife in her haste to leave the cave. "Do you?"
Some unnamed emotion flashed across the Archer's features too quickly for Jud to discern what it was. Guilt? Self-loathing? Frustration? Something else entirely?
The Archer didn't wait for him to figure it out.
"State your business and be off." The growled order lacked the violence from moments before.
Jud slid his index finger away from the trigger. "I need to be mated. To a human." As you well know.
"Impossible." The Archer didn't pretend surprise as he held out his hand out for the gun sword. "Zodiacs and humans are not to be mated, as decreed by the King."
"I know the law." Jud handed over his own weapon after a moment's hesitation. "I also know that you are honour bound. You can't refuse a true love mating."
"Does she love you?"
Placing the gun sword next to the axe the Archer began polishing both with a soft, worn cloth. "Then why are you here?"
Jud watched the sure movements of the Archer's hands that spoke of long familiarity with the task. "I want your word."
The cloth stopped moving along the ornate barrel. "If I am honour bound, why do you need my word? Is keeping my word not an honourable deed. If I forgo one, wouldn't I the other?"
"I think not."
The Archer raised a brow.
"My father, the King, he has his ways. I must know what he offered you."
A humourless laugh was his answer. "The King doesn't deal in gifts."
"A threat then." Jud remembered what Rose had said about Maverick's sister.
"What did he say?"
The cloth resumed its movement, passing over the metal one last time, before the Archer laid both, cloth and weapon to the side, his ham-sized fists gripping the edge of the wood. "I am to loose my charge if I agree to perform the ceremony."
"Indeed." Anger was pulsing off the Archer in waves, but this time it wasn't directed at Jud.
"What did you tell him?"
"The same I told you. Nobody steals the girl from me."
"Yet you claim to like solitude."
A glance that told Jud the Archer knew he was being played. "I gave my word."
To whom? Jud wanted to ask, but knew no answer would be forthcoming.
"Two honourable deeds weighed against each other," he mused. "An untenable position for a man of your integrity."
Jud joined the other man at the table, running his finger over the polished wood. The Archer was skilled with far more than forging weapons.
"How long have you practiced your craft?" he asked.
If the change in topic surprised the Archer he didn't show it. "Close to twenty years."
"How long since the girl started living with you?"
"Four, maybe five. Time out here doesn't work the same way as it does in the city."
Jud nodded. "She's no longer a child."
The Archer's jaw tightened. "She is still considered one by law."
"That's not what I'm saying." Jud kept a close eye on the other man's expression. "The girl needs guidance." By Libra, a name.
"I'm doing my best."
"Undoubtedly." But power was shifting between the pair and the Archer had no idea how to handle his protective streak around the adolescent female.
If the conflict warring on the Archer's face was any indication, he knew it, too.
Jud decided to take his chances. "The palace could provide the necessary guidance."
Within one moment and the next, Jud found himself at the receiving end of the Archer's ire once again. "I will never hand her over to your father."
"I wasn't talking about my father."
"Who then? You?" the Archer scoffed. "What the hell do you think you are proposing?"
"A transfer of guardianship. Hear me out." Jud raised his hands. "I will find the best teachers to educate her. I will take personal responsibility for her well-being."
"How personal exactly?" It was but a snarl.
Jud got right back in the Archer's face. "She's a child by law. How personal do you think? If that's not enough, I'll be mated to my Gemini. For life. Do you understand?"
Glaring at him the Archer backed down. "You will set her free as soon as she reaches maturity?"
"If this is what it takes to be given your word on the mating. She will be allowed to visit as often as she likes."
The single syllable brought Jud up short, but he didn't question the Archer's decision.
"If any harm should befall her, while in your care, I will kill you," the Archer said.
"Killing me will cost you your head."
"So be it."
Jud regarded the steady gaze of the Archer and nodded. "So be it."