Venture Unbroken, page 1
About the Author
by R.H. Russell
This one is for my son.
In the aftermath of the All Richland Absolute Fighting Championship, Venture Delving is ready to build a new future for himself. But his enemies have plans to destroy his dreams, his friendships, and his hopes for a life with his master’s daughter, Jade Fieldstone—plans not just to thwart him, but to break him.
Book three of the Venture Books. Ages 13 and up.
About the Venture Books:
Venture Delving is a bonded servant, a member of the lowest class in the world. Already fatherless, when he loses his mother, he veers from energetic to out of control. But when Venture's rage saves the life of Jade, his best friend and his master's daughter, Venture finds himself in the last place he ever expected—a center renowned for training young boys to be professional fighters.
When Venture realizes he's fallen in love with Jade, he knows that the only way he'll ever have her, the only way he'll ever be free to live the life he's meant to live, is to defy convention, common sense, the trust of those he cares about most—and sometimes the law—and become the best fighter in the world, the Champion of All Richland. Venture must battle not only rival fighters, but the ghosts of his past and the members of a privileged warrior class who stand between him and his dream.
Copyright 2012, R.H. Russell
All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, or stored in a database retrieval system, using any means, without the prior written consent of the copyright holder. This book is not licensed for resale or sharing.
Also by R.H. Russell, Venture Untamed, Venture Unleashed, and Boundless.
Twin Rivers, Richland
Spring’s First Month, 660 After the Founding
Jade crept down the hall, boots in hand. She lowered her foot onto the step, shifting her weight slowly, willing her father and grandmother not to wake. She slipped through the kitchen and into the washroom, then out through the servants’ door in the adjoining courtyard. The cool black of the night greeted her, and her breath caught.
The last time she’d stepped out this door and into the moonlight, the last time she’d sneaked out in the middle of the night, it had been to meet Venture. Sweet Vent. Jade’s throat ached to form a cry, but she forced it back. She didn’t have time to dwell on the past, to cry over something that might never be. Dasher was waiting for her.
Footsteps padded beside her, and Lightning’s cold, wet nose rubbed against her palm. After they took Venture away, Father had tried to give Lightning to Justice. Lightning always was really Venture’s dog. But Justice had looked at Jade, not with blame, but with a different sorrow added to his own. Compassion for her, for what she and Venture once had together. What they’d wanted together. Justice insisted Jade should have Lightning nearby, looking after her. “It’s what Vent would want,” he’d said.
“There’s my good girl,” Jade whispered to Lightning as she pulled on her boots. “Want to go for a ride with me? A lady shouldn’t ride alone. It’s dangerous.”
Lightning’s ears perked up. Instead of doing her usual dance at the prospect of being included in one of Jade and Sunrise’s rides, she cocked her head at Jade skeptically. Even the goodnatured retriever knew that neither of her masters—Grant Fieldstone by right, or Venture Delving, the master of her heart—would approve.
Jade knew the right things to murmur to the horses as she opened the stable doors. She knew how to keep them whickering soft greetings. She saddled up Sunrise and led her out of the stable and onto the grass. She didn’t steer her horse onto the road and mount until they were partway down the hillside that led to Twin Rivers Town, in the valley below.
Lightning bounded alongside Sunrise. She circled the horse as Jade slowed and dismounted. Jade tethered Sunrise to a tree on the outskirts of town. Riding was faster, but hooves on cobblestone would draw too much attention. She tried to stay in the shadows of the buildings’ eaves until she reached the yard. A few trees in the yard offered some cover, but eventually she had to sprint through the open grass.
Just as she neared the front steps, Jade froze. Were those footsteps? Her heart was beating so fast, she couldn’t be sure. She glanced around her anxiously. Where was Lightning?
“Lightning?” she called softly, coaxingly.
She sensed a flurry of movement behind her. Too big to be Lightning. Just as Jade’s mouth opened to form a scream, a hand clamped over it.
“Hush.” Dasher’s voice was ever smooth, even in a breathless whisper. His arm wrapped around her, pulling her to his chest. “It’s just me.”
Jade relaxed, and Dasher lowered his hand, but her heart was still thudding. Dasher’s arm held her tight. A part of her wanted to turn her face to his chest and hide there, safe in his arms, and pretend none of the events of the past several months had ever happened.
She pulled away. Nowhere was safe anymore, and she could never forget Venture.
Dasher took her hand and led her to the door with a couple of swift strides. “We don’t have much time.” He let go her hand and fished the key out of his pocket. Sensing her hesitation, he paused. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” she lied.
Dasher frowned, and Jade could tell he didn’t entirely believe her. Venture wouldn’t have believed her at all.
“No one saw you?”
She shook her head.
Dasher turned the key in the old lock. The click was so loud in the stillness of the night. Jade cringed, but Dasher didn’t seem to notice. “We will be careful. We will be quick. No one will know.”
Venture would know, eventually. And if he found out about Dasher’s part in it, he’d kill him. Jade followed Dasher into Beamer’s Center. She was going to learn everything she could, and she was going to get Venture back, no matter what the cost.
Nine Months Earlier
Founders Rock, Richland
Summer’s First Month, 659 After the Founding
“Ready?” the healer said.
Jade’s hand brushed softly over Venture’s close-cropped hair.
Venture tipped his head back to look at her. She stood behind the bench he was sitting on, trying not to look nervous. He gave her a smile, and she edged closer.
“Yeah,” Venture told the healer. He looked away from the needle, poised to pierce the tender flesh around the gash Will Fisher’s hidden razor had made during his final match of the All Richland Absolute Fighting Championship.
The partition door slid open a few inches and Chance slipped in, a towel awkwardly bundled in one hand. Venture frowned. Where had he gone? The tournament guard, who was watching over Venture—as though th
The healer made his first stab with the needle, and Venture shut his eyes against this new pain, added to so many others. He felt a hand slip next to his, and his eyes flashed open. Chance. The kid placed something cool and metallic just within reach of Venture’s fingertips, under the towel Venture had draped over his right arm. Venture had covered that arm in order to hide the swelling of his injured elbow from the healer. The torn tissues in his elbow were much more serious than the cut on his left arm.
Venture’s fingers traced the cold steel and found the leather-wrapped hilt of the dagger he’d secretly worn to the arena. He’d slipped it to Dasher in time for his friend to check it in with the tournament guards as though it were his and not the illegal property of Venture Delving, a bondsman. Though only lawmen were allowed into the arena armed, a bondsman wasn’t permitted to be armed anywhere, anytime. How had Chance gotten it back? And what was he doing giving it to him now?
Venture gripped it hard as the healer stitched him up. He made sure his face didn’t betray anything beyond physical discomfort to the tournament guard standing just a few feet away. He was just as likely to arrest Venture as he was to protect him.
Or was he? Less than an hour ago, Venture had become Champion of All Richland, and his master, Grant Fieldstone, had torn up the contract bonding him. But how much would a title change things for a young man of eighteen, brought up as a bonded servant? He had a feeling it would only intensify the deadly desires of the men who’d attempted to have him killed today. The Crested elite, with their twisted sense of honor, their territorial grasping at their long-held position as the greatest fighters in Richland.
Jade’s attention turned to Chance. She’d seen the knife. Chance gave her a proud, nervous smile. But the guard was focused on the sliding door to the partitioned-off room, and Venture’s trainer, Earnest, was busy scrutinizing the healer’s work. Earnest’s hands clenched under his crossed arms as though to stop himself from shoving the man aside and taking over.
Dasher, Venture’s coach and last year’s Champion, had stayed outside to lend his charm and his way with the crowd to the lawmen. They had poured into the arena and joined the tournament guards in trying to keep the masses, who’d just witnessed the strangest final Championship match in Richland’s history, under control.
Though they’d stubbornly refused to disperse, the spectators had settled into an orderly chant of Venture’s name. It throbbed in his ears along with the pain in his torn elbow and the piercing and tugging of the needle and thread through what had been his good arm.
Jade’s fingertips rubbed soothing circles into the taut muscles on the sides of his neck. He’d never dared to imagine that she could be here with him after his first Championship win. It was the one good thing that had come of defying her father and his master, Grant Fieldstone, in order to come here and fight. Jade had come to the capital to be with him, win or lose, whatever the consequences of his recklessness.
Too often it was Jade who suffered those consequences. It had been that way ever since they were kids. She was happy for him, but she had to realize the unpleasant reality that waited for her. And right now he was racking his brain, trying to block out the whirl of emotions and the pain and to figure out what he could do about it.
“As soon as he’s done, we’ll get you washed up and out of here, Vent.” Earnest’s eyes flicked from the healer to Venture’s right arm.
Venture gave his trainer a sharp look back. He’d already told Earnest that arm was going to have to wait until they got back to Twin Rivers, until the healer he trusted could have a look at it. He didn’t want anyone else touching it, and he couldn’t have word getting out about how bad it was. Just because he’d won a Championship today didn’t mean he didn’t have to worry about his opponents anymore. He wasn’t done yet, and that stupid injury was just as likely to end his career as any Crested conspiracy.
“There.” The healer gave his work a satisfied nod.
Earnest already had the bandage in his hand. “Looks good,” he said. “I’ll take it from here.”
The healer shrugged and began gathering his things.
Venture gave him an apologetic smile. “Thank you,” he said.
He couldn’t wait to get washed and get out of there. But doing that would mean facing the crowd again. And now that Will Fisher had been hauled off on a stretcher—and in irons—the interviewers would no doubt be let through. He’d have to talk to them. He’d be expected to respond to questions there were no good answers to. And what if they directed their inquiries at Jade instead?
Jade’s hand stilled on his neck. She took in a sharp breath, tensing. Venture looked up. Grant Fieldstone entered, flanked by Dasher and Venture’s older brother, Justice. Dasher looked irritated, Justice even more grim than usual.
“Let’s go, Jade,” Grant said firmly.
Jade slid her hands onto Venture’s shoulders and held them there with a possessive defiance.
Grant’s eyes burned with increased anger. “Don’t you think her reputation has suffered enough for one day?” he said to Venture. “You know she can’t stay in here.”
“He was getting stitches! Do you honestly think I was planning to stay and watch him wash and dress?”
Venture rose, willing every overtired fiber in his body not to let him down. “Jadie, you should go with your father.”
He lifted his freshly stitched arm to tuck a stray blond hair behind her ear. “Wait for me outside . . . with him.”
Grant flinched even more at his last words than he had at Venture’s familiarity with Jade, and Venture knew he’d had no intention of waiting for him. He’d wanted to haul his daughter out of there and home to Twin Rivers. Venture didn’t want to let her out of sight, to give Grant a chance to take her away and marry her off before she was old enough to legally refuse. But Jade wouldn’t willingly leave the arena without Venture, and he was gambling that Grant wouldn’t risk making a scene.
Grant met his eye again. They may be two men at odds now, but they were also two men who’d been bested time and again by Jade Fieldstone. Grant gave Venture a curt nod. Jade stepped toward her father, biting back her protest, and Grant took her by the elbow and led her out.
Earnest uncovered the pitcher of steaming water and poured some into the basin.
Dasher looked pointedly at the guard. “I think we’re okay now.”
“Oh. Certainly, Mr. Starson—ah—Glen.”
“Thank you,” Dasher said steadily, but Venture knew him well enough, after four years of training together, to catch the trace of a flustered look on his face. Dasher had answered his share of personal questions out there with the crowd, who’d just found out he was not only Dasher Starson, the four-time Champion of All Richland, but a Crested man—Dauntless Dasher Starson of the Glen. A man who’d broken the traditions of his class and left a privileged life in order to train and test himself with Uncrested fighters.
Once the guard was gone, Venture threw the towel off his swollen arm and transferred the blade from his useless right side to his left. “Chance, how did you get this?”
Earnest’s eyes widened.
Chance lifted his chin. “A guard give it to me.”
“Why would he do that?”
“He say you need it.”
Was that supposed to be a threat?
“How’d he know it was Champ’s?” Dasher frowned. “I checked it in as mine.”
“His initial.” Earnest tossed Venture’s bloodied shirt into the trash bin.
Venture traced the simple crest Jade had designed for him. It included a D and the symbol of his faith.
“Before we can leave, I have to go out there and get my prize.” And he’d tuck his dagger into his boot, out of sight, before he did so.
“We’ll be there with you, Champ,” Dasher said, though something in his voice told Ventur
Dasher’s hands were swollen and raw from the ruthless beating he’d given Fisher. Dasher had saved Venture’s life, but he’d nearly killed his rival. Now that the rush of fear and anger had worn off, was Dasher just as afraid of what he might do as he was of what might happen to Venture?
“Vent,” Justice said.
Venture made himself look at his brother. He braced himself for the usual pile-on of guilt. Justice had watched their father die fighting in a barn for a prize, and he’d just watched his little brother nearly killed fighting the son of their father’s killer for the ultimate prize, in defiance of his warnings.
“Are you really going out there?”
Venture would be surrounded by guards and lawmen, but one of them had let Will Fisher into the arena with that razor. Weapons tucked into wraps and gloves were precisely the sort of things they were supposed to check for.
Though it was tradition for the crowd to wait until the winner had been cleaned up and watch him come out to stand on the winners’ stage and claim his prize, then leave the arena as Champion, that had never been a part of Venture’s dreams about this day. He’d only considered what he could do with his winnings—for his family, for Jade. Now, that moment was yet another thing his enemies were taking from him.
Before he could decide how to answer Justice, voices rose outside the door. Venture grabbed his dagger. Then he recognized the deep, rough tones. Calling Fox, arguing with the guards.
Dasher slid the door open. “Let him in!” he told the guards.
Calling entered. Though he was cleaned up and changed, his face was red and he’d broken into a fresh sweat. “I talked to Foster. He’s bumped up to third now that Fisher’s out. He agreed. None of us are going up there, Vent.”