“Vrekeners take pains not to get . . . overly excited.”

“I don’t understand. What about horny young newlyweds? And what about you, Thronos? I’ve discovered you hardly have ice in your veins.”

“Avoiding the truly licentious acts is supposed to help.” Gazing to one side of her, he said, “I’ve seen males with bite marks on their arms, from where they’d muffled their reactions. That’s a common enough practice.”

She knew she looked gobsmacked, but this was just too wrong. “What’s the point if you’re not getting overly excited? I guess you’ve never heard the phrase ‘bellow to the rafters’?” Especially since they didn’t have rafters.

At his blank look, she said, “When you throw back your head and roar with pleasure? Come on, roaring isn’t just for battle.” Or for unleashing fury in a tempest.

“In a sexual situation, that would indicate . . . a significant loss of control.”

She’d begun to recognize the expression he wore now, the one that said, This goes against everything I know. But, gods, tell me more.

“If we had sex, ‘overly excited’ would only be the beginning,” she explained. “Next would come the point of no turning back, when we’re angry at our clothes for getting in the way and our hips move on their own and we can’t seem to kiss deeply enough and your fingers grip the curves of my ass and my nails dig into the muscles of yours.”

“Then comes the really fun part of the program.” She was getting caught up in this, savoring her virginal Vrekener’s reaction: utter enthrallment. “The panting, licking, rutting, keening, sucking, mindless, animalistic, about to explode/erupt/die with ecstasy part.”

A sharp breath escaped his lips. She loved the puh sound he made. “Next?”

“The last part’s difficult to put into words. Better explained by example. Let’s just say that we would be anything but quiet.”

When he tried to speak, his roughened voice dropped an octave. He coughed into his fist, then finally managed: “I see.”

She expected him to make some comment about her sexual past, something along the lines of “How many men have you been rutting with? Did they all make you erupt with pleasure?” But he didn’t, so she asked, “What about flyovers?”

“Huh? Oh. It’s bad etiquette to fly over another’s home.”

“I’ve heard that all the buildings look the same and all the walls are white, with no color to be seen.”

“And there’s not a drop of wine in your realm? No gambling or carousing?”

She was surprised he’d acknowledged these things about his home, even as he knew how much she would dislike it. “What would you expect me to do all day?”

“Perhaps selfless acts, helping others. Or even studious contemplation.” He seemed to have found his footing again. “You could read about our culture, studying Vrekener history.”

She’d used to enjoy reading about history, but only if it wasn’t lame.

“Would those pursuits be so bad?”

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Which begged the question: How exactly did he plan to get her to stay there? Once her power was replenished, no one could hold her.

She skated away from that subject. “Thronos, if there’s a splinter group up there with its own agenda, then what’s to prevent someone”—your brother—“from attacking me now?” She expected him to deny, to bluster.

Instead, he said, “If someone disobeyed my order and tried to hurt you, or your sister, he will pay.”

Curt nod. “I give you my vow,” he said, having no idea of the bind he’d just gotten himself into.

And this was why Lanthe rarely kept her promises. “You’re starting to believe me?”

“I’ve learned your tells. I know when you speak untruthfully.”

Her eyes darted. That could prove disastrous! Damn it, what were her tells?

If he noticed her distress, he let it go. “There’s water ahead. But I also scent resin pits.” Seconds later, he pointed out a shallow depression filled with some kind of amber-colored gel. “Resin will trap you like an immortal-strength tar. Step where I step.”

In a pit farther ahead was a dead animal, an unidentifiable reptilian beast that had gotten its legs caught. Predators had eaten its guts.

Lanthe shivered. What if an immortal like her got trapped? Those predators would chomp on her, but she might live through the ordeal—only to regenerate for subsequent feedings.

Being an immortal had its downsides.

“I’ve been pondering something,” Thronos said. “How did Rydstrom forgive Sabine?”

Ah, so the Vrekener was moving his mind toward a pardon for Lanthe? With his new tenuous trust of her, he was starting to look for more between them. He probably figured he could shed some of his anger if he absolved her.

One problem: Lanthe didn’t see her sexual history as something that needed absolution.

Especially not from him.

Did she wish Thronos hadn’t found her with Marco? Sure. Did she want Thronos’s forgiveness for sleeping with that vampire?

Hell. No. “Why do you ask?”

“Rumor holds that Sabine trapped him to use as a sex slave, tormenting him until he agreed to wed her. Then he made a slave of her.”

She blinked at him. “Like those are bad things?” At his look of astonishment, she said, “They enjoyed tons of bondage, some master/sub stuff, a real-live dungeon with shackles, role and cosplay. Spankings and repeated orgasm denial. You know, typical BDSM. But don’t worry, they were doing it before it became cool.”

“BD what?” Thronos’s expression was priceless—part confusion over the lingo, part horror, part helpless fascination. She’d bet this angel had an untapped wicked streak.

“Look, it’s not for us to understand. It worked for them.” The whole truth was much more involved. Sabine had wanted to overthrow Omort, seizing the kingdom for her and Lanthe to rule, while gaining control of the mysterious, demonic Well of Souls in Castle Tornin. No one had ever expected Sabine to fall for Rydstrom—least of all Sabine.

“Fine. Rydstrom was able to forgive her because he got a like revenge. Everything she did to him, he did to her.”

“The parallel would be for me to bed scores of other women. Which is impossible.”

“Then lucky for me I’m not looking for your forgiveness. I’m happy to have experience and to know my own mind.”

He appeared to be grinding his molars to dust, but he didn’t make any slut-shaming comments.

“Look, my sister went to Rydstrom a virgin. In a hundred years or so, do you think she’ll imagine what it’s like to know another male? Maybe she will, maybe she won’t. But do you think Rydstrom will worry that she’s imagining it?” She continued, “All those virgin females out there will always have to wonder. I won’t. I am informed. I’ve done my due diligence, and now I’m ready to settle in for the long haul of eternity.”

“That is something to consider, I suppose.” Then his brows drew together. “By that logic, in a hundred years you’ll wonder if I’m thinking about other females.”

In a throaty voice, she said, “Thronos, understand me: if I ever decided to bed you, there would be no doubt. You’d be completely undone, absolutely taken, forever mine. If you were ever inside me, you would be broken down at a molecular level—altered irretrievably.”

His expression told her he very much wanted to be altered irretrievably. “You guarantee this because of your . . . experience?”

When she merely shrugged, she expected him to launch into a tirade about her past. Again, he held off.

Yet she didn’t think this was because he’d had a change of heart. He might not be calling her a harlot, but he still had to think of her as one.

Lanthe had a theory about his turnaround. Before, he’d seen her as a sexual object for other males; after Inferno, he now viewed her as a sexual object for himself to enjoy—and, sadly, she believed he’d learned his first lesson as a potential sexual partner: Act like an asshole and you won’t get any.

Which meant he was biding his time and biting his tongue until he could get what he wanted.

Just like every other male she’d been with.

Oh, look! Pitha fruit.” Melanthe stretched for a black gourd above her, just out of her reach. She scratched at the bottom of it like a little kitten.

He pulled the fruit down for her, scenting it. “This could be poisonous.”

He cracked open the gourd for her. The inside was succulent and smelled sweet.

When he handed the halves to her, she scooped some into her mouth, then rolled her eyes with delight.

“You’re certain of that?” he asked. “Though Sorceri are vulnerable to poisons?”

She was already finished with one half. “Poisons and venoms.” Between chews, she said, “But I’m sure of this.”

“How did you get cured of that morsus anyway?”

“When Omort died, his poisoner—a fey female dubbed the Hag in the Basement—delivered the antidotes to us. Otherwise we would’ve died.”

Yet another time Melanthe might’ve perished when she’d been outside his protection. “This hag did so despite the fact that you called her that?”

Dragging his gaze from her, Thronos surveyed their surroundings. Though he’d scented water nearby, he still hadn’t found the source, and it was growing darker. Dusk was abnormally long here—and as the sun had begun its lazy descent, the dragons had retreated from the field, their enormous shadows wavering over the treetops.

He and Melanthe had decided to return to the demon valley tonight, but they remained without water. And he hadn’t recuperated whatsoever.

Plus, he had plans for them. . . .

When a breeze blew, rustling all the flowers, she set down her finished fruit. “It’s beautiful here.”

Her black, black hair matched the petals of those flowers. Gaze still on her, he muttered, “Yes. Beautiful.”

Since Melanthe had described what copulation between them would be like, he’d found it difficult to look at anything except her. When he took her home to his Bed of Troth, would he not want to hear her keen with ecstasy? Would Thronos not want to empty his lungs as he emptied his seed inside her?

He’d been vacillating over his decision to claim her tonight—up until the time she’d said those blood-heating words to him. After that, he knew nothing could stop him. All he needed was a secure place to commence his plans.

But how to get her naked and in his arms? His skin flushed when he realized that would mean he too would have to be unclothed.

Naked. In front of her.

Finding another pitha, he used his claw to stab a hole in the bottom to drink from. Its juice was sugary, but welcome. He handed her another pierced gourd to drink.

When some juice ran down her chin, she grinned mischievously—as she used to do when a girl.

That grin affected him differently, yet just as strongly. He wanted the kiss he’d almost taken.

Whatever she saw in his expression made her murmur, “Thronos?”

Before he could stop himself, he took her face in both of his hands, leaning in closer to her.

“Whoa, tiger!” She pushed against him. “You promised me water. Even I can smell some nearby.”

He surprised himself by letting her go. As he bit back his disappointment, he caught movement out of the corner of his eye.

A bubble filled with water was floating through the air between them. He and Melanthe silently watched it bobbing along. Without a word, they both hastened in the direction it’d come from.

He lunged in front of her. “I lead the way.” He pushed past some brush into a clearing, bordered by moonraker trees. The massive roots encircled the area like walls, while tightly woven branches made a ceiling above them. Countless water-filled bubbles floated up like helium balloons, bursting against the impenetrable canopy.

Drops fell over this glade like a cool summer rain, then rose up to coalesce again.

Not a peek of sky could be seen, making this literal rain forest feel like a pocket of muted light and sound.

With his and Melanthe’s every step, more drops pattered up from a mat of silver grass. Bubbles were even released by flowers fringing the tree roots.

“This is wild!” Melanthe cried. “Like a fairy ring, or an enchanted glade. Let’s name this place . . . Zero-G Glade!” She popped a bubble into her cupped hand to drink.

“Let me test the water first.” When she offered her hand, he leaned down to scent and taste it. “Clean.”

After they’d both had their fill, he pierced a large bubble over his head. Water poured as if a bucket had been tipped over him, a cool splash over his ash-covered skin. He tossed his sopping shirt onto a root, then scrubbed at his face and hair, his chest and arms.

Another bubble burst over Melanthe’s shoulder, making her shiver. Thronos watched, riveted, as each drop slowly trailed down her body—only to be sucked back up to fuse again.

When she let loose a peal of laughter, he asked, “What?”