Yes, impregnating her would be a grave offendment, but desperate times . . .

Even if she managed to escape to Rothkalina, Thronos still had more hope of seeing her. Though Rydstrom the Good was a demon, even he would never bar the doors of his kingdom to a father seeking contact with his child.

Thronos could be inside Melanthe. Tonight. The portal key could wait—until he’d made her his.

Was he succumbing to this reasoning because it was sound? Or because he wanted her so badly he’d commit any wrong to have her?

Lanthe cracked open her lids to find Thronos staring down at her, a curious expression on his face. She couldn’t believe she’d passed out. The rhythm of his breaths had lulled her, just as flying with him on the island had done.

“How long was I out?” Though still thirsty and hungry, she felt rested.

“I’m better now.” Her welts had faded to nothing. “I can walk.”

With clear reluctance, he set her on her feet, steadying her with his big hand covering her shoulder. She glanced around. They were in a dense forest, surrounded by trees so massive, they made redwoods look like saplings. They had to be moonrakers, a type often found on demon planes.

Not only was the stone of this realm black, most of the foliage was onyx and silver. Even the smooth bark of the moonrakers was black.

Though there was little sunlight—just a few rays stole through the canopy—enormous flowers grew in profusion, subtly scenting the air.

She inspected one bloom. Its large dark petals were shiny and open. In the center was a silver pistil the size of a baseball bat. Its pollen sparkled like white-gold dust.

Other weeping-willow-type plants swayed above them, their silver leaves glinting in the scattered spears of sun, like Thronos’s wing mosaics did. As a sorceress obsessed with metal, Lanthe found all these sights mesmerizing, yet her attention couldn’t stray from him for long.

As in the temple, she turned from infinite wonders to face him, a towering Vrekener warlord—who couldn’t intrigue her more. “So, any new threats I should be concerned about?”

He shook his head. “When was the last time you slept for more than an hour or two?”

“So what do we do now?”

“I’ve been following this overgrown path deeper into the woods, toward the scent of water,” he told her. “There’s prey all around us. I could catch something, but I doubt you’d eat it.”

“Like the first time you tried to provide for me?”

All these years later, he deadpanned, “The rabbit had it coming.”

A burst of laughter escaped her lips so quickly, so unexpectedly, she almost slapped her hands over her mouth.

Another joke! And more . . . “You do remember!”

“Everything.” He reached forward, tucking one of her braids behind her ear.

Why was he being so nice to her? Had she beguiled him so swiftly? She’d been unconscious for part of the time!

He canted his head at her, then continued walking, seeming deep in thought.

Her brows drew together when her gold senses pinged again. They had outside of Inferno, but she’d thought the temple’s proximity had continued to set them off. Now she glanced all around for the source. Her gaze kept returning to Thronos.

She’d bet her best headpiece that this Vrekener had gold on him. But how?

Her eyes went wide. Could he have collected that medallion? If so, and if he gave it to her tonight . . .

The Vrekener would get laid.

No, no! No sex with Thronos. Bad Lanthe! Clearing her throat, she said, “Karat for your thoughts.” When he hesitated, she asked, “Are you beating yourself up for what we saw?”

“Not as much as I should be.”

“Question: Are people like you and me called offendmenters?”

“Have your fun, sorceress,” he said without heat.

“Always. So tonight, we steal a key and use a portal?”

“But won’t angelic Thronos balk at thievery?” she asked in a playful tone. “I remember when I once asked you to steal for me. You were embarrassed for me, putting up your nose as you said, ‘I will never take what doesn’t belong to me.’ ”

“You asked me to empty the coffers of Skye Hall!”

He opened his mouth to explain, then must’ve realized she was kidding.

Sort of. “If we unlock a portal, how can you trust me not to direct it to Rothkalina?”

“You tried for Rothkalina last time and brought us to Pandemonia. I believe you’ll aim for the mortal plane. It’s a vastly bigger target. From there I can fly to the Skye.”

“Still bent on getting me to heaven? Look, I’m not saying I’d never go to your home. Of course, I’m not not saying that either.”

He raised his brows. “We can wed only there. I must claim you in a Bed of Troth, my lifelong bed.”

She knew of some factions that had the same tradition—basically the ones that weren’t forever scrambling for their very survival. When a male was born, a bed would be created that he would sleep in his entire life, eventually bringing his mate to it. “What does the bed have to do with marriage?”

“That’s how Vrekeners marry. When I claim you in a Bed of Troth, we’ll be bound.”

“No ceremony with tons of people? No fabulous dress and gifts of gold? No celebrating with far too much sweet wine?”

“We’ve no need for ceremony. In any case, my home is the only place where I know I can keep you safe.”

Har. “What would someone like me eat up there?” Vrekeners were omnivores, but they preferred meat.

“We have an entire island dedicated to growing crops. It’s the sole one that hovers below the clouds.”

“I’ve heard it’s austere up there. In Castle Tornin, I live in utter luxury, with all the mod-cons.”

“Don’t know what a mod-con is, Melanthe.”

She sighed. Of course he didn’t. “They’re things I couldn’t live without.” Lanthe and Sabine had endured some lean early years and felt like they deserved to be spoiled. Now that Lanthe had gone from her castle tower, to Order prison, to roughing it—in hell—the greedy sorceress in her demanded a return to pampering. “If your realm is above the clouds, wouldn’t that put it higher than the tallest mortal mountain? Vrekeners might be used to altitude and temperature changes, but I would suffer. Other Sorceri must suffer.”

“Not at all. The same forces and wards that conceal the Territories and bind the islands together provide breathable air and warmth.”

“Forces and wards? Sounds like sorcery to me. I’ll bet sometime in your history, a Vrekener was chummy with one of us.”

“It’s possible,” he conceded. “We have machines in place to move and shape the islands, and engineers to run the machines, but we don’t know what the source of the power is.”

Interesting. She pictured sorcery-fueled steampunk contraptions. In another lifetime, she might have liked to see such a sight. But in this lifetime . . . “Just because I don’t want to go to the Skye doesn’t mean we couldn’t date each other. If you accompany me to Rothkalina, I could introduce you to nice dragons.”

“If I even consider it, then I’ll know you’re enchanting me,” he said. “Your sister would plot to murder me the second I stepped into that kingdom. You forget I’ve witnessed the manifestation of her powers.”

When Sabine had forced Thronos’s father to see his worst nightmare. Whatever she’d shown him had made the male claw at his eyes.

“Your sister doesn’t seem to bear ill effects from her . . . deaths.”

“Not surprisingly, they left her deadened, blasé about tragedy.”

When Lanthe had accused her of not caring about anything, Sabine had replied, “That’s not true. I care about nothing very much.”

Lanthe added, “At least, she was blasé before Rydstrom came along. But she weaves illusions over her face, so you rarely know what she’s feeling anyway.”

“How many times has she died?”

“Over a dozen. Not all by Vrekeners.” When he raised his brows, she admitted, “Sorceri plotted against her. Humans executed her for being a witch. And so on.” She paused a moment, then said, “What about your own sibling? Will your brother not plot to murder me?” Might as well dip a toe.

“Aristo? I grant that he hates Sorceri. It’s the cause of much strife between us.”

“Yes. But if Aristo harmed you, his brother’s sole fated female, it would be like harming me. It would be like killing my future offspring.” He held her gaze. “We hold mates sacred.”

Thronos will never believe me. Lanthe remembered Sabine lamenting that she couldn’t get Vertas warrior Rydstrom to trust her—just because she’d been a Pravus player who’d lied to him and tricked him into a dungeon imprisonment. Sabine had sighed, “How was I supposed to know to act like my word was good?” I hear you, sister.

“Would Uncle Aristo accept those future offspring of yours?” Lanthe asked. “You made it clear that Sorceri blood would be a detriment to any child we had.”

“I was angry when I said that. I would not love a halfling any less.”

“But others might look down on them.”

Thronos’s face turned cold and intent. “I will not tolerate the slightest disrespect to our children.”

Our children. “Aren’t you worried about the insanity tainting my line?”

He scrubbed his hand over his face. “Again, I was angry when I mentioned that.”

“It was true. My mother wasn’t well. With me, you risk having crazed offspring.”

He told her of a brief encounter, when he’d seen Mother worshipping her gold. She’d called him hawkling.

“Wait, Elisabet had known I was seeing you?”

He nodded. “Your mother was harmless, Melanthe. Yet my father murdered the parents of my mate.” Thronos’s eyes grew matte gray. “I looked up at him that night in the abbey and saw a stranger. I grieved his death, but gods I blamed him. I lost you because of him.” He glanced up sharply, as if he hadn’t meant to say that much.

“Why didn’t you tell me about my mother?”

Clearing his throat, he said, “I wanted to. Never seemed like a good time.”

She could scarcely believe her mother had known that secret. Why hadn’t Elisabet feared an attack? Lanthe would have to get Sabine’s take on that.

“Usually, but Vrekeners have stolen so many powers that they’re not being reincarnated. Children are born without souls.”

His lips thinned, but the wheels were obviously turning. “How old were you when you discovered your persuasion?”

“Really young. I told Sabine to close her mouth. She couldn’t open it for a week, not even to eat. She was starving but no one could figure out what had happened to her. You should know, these kinds of things happen with Sorceri kids.”

Instead of appearing horrified by the prospect, he confidently said, “We can handle it.”

It was then that she noticed how much steadier and calmer he’d grown since the island. She would bet steady was his default setting—unless he suspected that his mate had slept with her brother among her string of other men.

Didn’t mean she wouldn’t call him on his bullshit. “Oh, come on, Thronos. What would you do with Sorceri young? If we had a teenage daughter and her skirt was short, I’d think it’d be even cuter if shorter. How would you react to that? And if she hadn’t stolen gold by the time she was twelve, I’d put her in counseling.”

“Not at all. We’d have you not knowing up from down.” But this didn’t even bear discussion, because if she and Thronos ever did end up together and she got pregnant, the reality would prove far different: She’d happily go to tell him the good news, all fa la la. He’d ask her if he was the father. She’d behead him in a maniacal rage. . . .

“While we’re on the subject, Vrekener, would you expect me to dress differently up there?”

He raked his gaze over her. “Not behind closed doors.” He must have realized how objectionable she found his words, because he added, “I’m sure you wouldn’t want to stand out as the least dressed female in the Territories.”

“You’ve just given me a title to aspire to. And besides, behind closed doors, I wouldn’t dress at all.”

She tapped her chin. “Unless I was in the mood for leather or lace.”

Then she frowned. “What’s this talk about having no roofs?”

Seeming occupied with his own imaginings, he took a moment to answer. “We feel more comfortable with nothing except sky above us.”

“Yes, but can’t you hear couples having sex all the time?”

He rubbed the back of his neck, as if the skin there had just heated. “We are quiet in matters like that.”

She stopped in her tracks. “What does that mean? Sometimes it can’t be controlled.”