Before Lanthe’s eyes, the nymphs’ flirtation transformed to brazen desire.
What would Thronos think about their interest? As they raked their gazes over him, she delved into his mind, but found his shields up.
Because he was thinking lustful thoughts about them and didn’t want her to know?
So this is jealousy. How had Thronos lived with it for so long?
She glared daggers at the females. Back off, nymphos. He’s mine.
Merely thinking that word was like a gunshot triggering an avalanche of emotion.
She and Thronos had literally been through hell together. Act like partners . . . They’d become a team, and the idea of parting from him—or sharing him with nymphs—hurt.
When the gaggle of Nereids finally sashayed away, Lanthe said, “Perhaps I should go without this top? Since the nymphs wear none, I don’t want to be overdressed.”
He drew closer to her. “That is not going to happen.”
“You sure? You seemed as taken by them as they were by you.” Jealousy sucked.
What did that mean?
Thronos changed the subject. “If we’ve been healed and dressed, have we escaped a fate as ‘entertainment’?”
“No, not necessarily.” She didn’t need to be hissying over Thronos; she needed to be plotting. “This could be part of the setup. Be wary. I’ve heard that if guests bore him, Nereus smites them down.”
As she and Thronos neared the sounds of revelry, she squared her shoulders, feeling like she was going to a court event in Castle Tornin.
Under the reign of Omort the Deathless.
Intrigues, plots, and machinations had been constantly in play. To lower one’s guard could mean a stolen power—or death.
She was ready for this, had been honed in a war zone like no other.
Outside an arched doorway, she murmured, “Our goal is to get him to transport us. Just follow my lead. Remember, nothing can get in the way of escape. Okay?”
“I understand.” He pinned his wings as much as he could, until they jutted only slightly past his broad shoulders.
“And, Thronos, this sea god considers himself a Casanova. I’m going to have to flirt, and you’ve got to roll with it.”
“Of course,” he said, even as he draped an arm over her shoulders. “Lead the way.”
They stepped into the hall to find the feast in full swing. The area was resplendent with shimmering shells and garlands of sea grass. Pearls the size of bowling balls adorned the walls and ceilings. There were more floor cutouts revealing the sea; serving nymphs emerged from them with bubble-encased platters and pitchers.
Hundreds of guests were in attendance. Their species ran the Lore gamut from oceanfolk to woodland beings—but none from the air.
In addition to the mercreatures, she saw selkies with their seal-skin coats, tree nymphs, and satyrs. Kobolds and gremlins scurried about underfoot. Lanthe even spotted a no-nosed fuath—one among an evil species of water spirits. It had webbed feet, a blond, shaggy mane down its back, and a spiked tail.
The dining table was immense, a weighty glass surface laid over coral tubes. The chairs were made of polished driftwood. Smiling Nereids served drinks to guests. Others danced and played instruments.
One blew on a conch to signal their arrival, announcing them as “Melanthe of the Deie Sorceri, Queen of Persuasion, and Prince Thronos of Skye Hall and all Air Territories.”
“Welcome, my honored guests!” a male called from the head of the table.
Must be Nereus. He was strikingly tall. His long red hair and beard were streaked through with blond. He wore only the bottom half of a toga, displaying the brawny muscles of his oiled chest, arms, and shoulders. Gold bands encircled his beefy biceps.
His emerald-green eyes roved over her with such intensity that Thronos’s arm tightened around her.
Nereus waved them over. On the surface, he seemed in a joyous mood. Yet there was an undercurrent of something in his gaze, something that turned his handsome mien almost creepy.
She could handle creepy. Lanthe cast him a bright smile. Showtime.
Once the god had greeted Melanthe and Thronos, all the revelers stared.
Though not as intently as Nereus himself had ogled Thronos’s mate!
Out of the corner of her mouth, she said, “Just smile and wave, boys. Smile and wave.”
As she was speaking to a single male, Thronos figured this was another cultural reference he didn’t understand.
The entire trek here, he’d worked to remain calm because he’d sensed that Melanthe was nearing her breaking point. Perhaps she had been, but no longer.
Now she looked like a knight about to enter a fray: focused, confident, yet aware of the stakes.
“Join me here,” Nereus called. At the far end of the table, he pointed to a pair of chairs just to the right of his throne.
Why would he seat them in such a place of honor?
The festivities ramped up once more, the music restarting. The nymphs’ song was strangely relaxing, but Thronos knew he needed to stay sharp.
He assessed his environs. Exits: only the doorway and floor cutouts. Adversaries: unknown. So he’d consider every single being a potential enemy—except the harmless nymphs.
Disadvantages: they were deep beneath the ocean, not exactly his preferred battleground. A week ago, he would have said this was his worst nightmare.
Now he knew that losing his mate was.
As he and Lanthe made their way down the length of the table, Thronos worked to limit his limp—in hostile situations, opponents always scouted for weaknesses. Though his arm and wing had been healed, his old injuries still plagued him.
Other guests were already seated, some Loreans he’d never seen before. Most wore skimpy togas, their heads decorated with wreaths.
Thronos counted himself lucky to be dressed in traditional Vrekener attire.
At some sections of the table, water-filled tanks had been pulled up for the comfort of mercreatures. They drank heavily from shell goblets. Though the tanks were transparent, tentacles groped or . . . probed.
That’s just not right. But Thronos showed no reaction.
Farther down the table was even more lechery. Nymphs perched across knees or astraddle males, their hands busy beneath the glass tabletop. The way one nymph was writhing over a satyr’s furry lap, Thronos figured the male had to be inside her, concealed by her sea-foam skirt.
Melanthe cast him a look from under her lashes, probably thinking he couldn’t handle the iniquity of these scenes. After Inferno, he was growing more accustomed.
As he and Melanthe passed, revelers cast amorous glances at her. How could they not? None of the females here could hold a candle to his. She was a sensual sorceress, blessed with unmatched beauty.
He hadn’t seen her dressed like this in ages. Her glossy braided hair shone in the hall’s light. Her eyes were sky blue behind her mask.
He pictured her wearing these garments in the Territories. Compared to the bare-breasted Nereids strolling Sargasoe, Melanthe appeared almost demure. Thronos supposed everything was relative—a startling realization for an all-or-nothing thinker to have.
Nereus told the crowd, “Everyone, partake heartily of libations, feast on rich foods, and fill my hall with merriment!”
Melanthe murmured to Thronos, “Libations? Rich foods and merriment? In other words, this is your special kind of hell.” She made him sound like a killjoy. She’d called him a killjoy.
He could be merry if he wanted. If it was so bloody important to her . . .
Yet with each new detail he registered in this hall, he became more certain that “feasting” would never be a favorite activity. He was used to action, used to searching for Melanthe.
Now he merely wanted to begin a life with her.
Once they’d seated themselves beside Nereus with formal greetings exchanged, the god snapped his fingers and two serving nymphs arrived.
They poured wine for her and ale for Thronos, again showing a perplexing degree of interest in him. Earlier, he’d noted Melanthe’s displeasure over this. When he’d felt her delving, he’d shielded his thoughts, wanting her to wonder what he was thinking about for once.
“My dear travelers, this is a time of celebration,” the sea god explained—to Melanthe’s breasts. “Though a foe breached our walls last month, he didn’t seek any of my offspring! Only wanted to settle a small debt.”
Nereus finally met her gaze. “And now I have new and interesting visitors at my table. My dinner guests have been so boring of late.” He stroked his lengthy beard. “I have to execute them just to salvage the night!”
Still smiling serenely, she asked Thronos: —Now do you understand the stakes?! We’ve come this far. I don’t want to die in Sargasoe.—
—I’m rolling with it, aren’t I? Even though his gaze has scarcely left your chest.— Thronos’s wings tensed with the need to lash out against the male, his fangs and claws readying to rend flesh.
As a demon’s might. But he bridled his rage.
“A toast is in order!” When Nereus stood, Melanthe coughed, her wide eyes on the god. What was she looking at?
Oh. Nereus was grossly endowed, so much so that when he’d stood, his member had swung like a pendulum beneath the thin fabric.
Melanthe gawked. —It’s his very own kickstand! You could snuggle it like a body pillow.—
—And then some! No one will believe me when I tell them about this.—
“To our castaways,” Nereus said, with a grand gesture toward them. “May they find everything they seek in my domain.”
His tone made Thronos’s wings twitch, but when Melanthe elbowed him to raise his goblet, he played along. Yet he couldn’t shake the feeling of a threat.
—Drink it. Nereus can make you if he wants to.—
Scowling into the cup, Thronos took a drink, and found the ale . . . delectable. He’d downed the goblet’s contents before he’d realized it.
At once, a Nereid crossed to him with a pitcher, shoving her breasts into his face as she poured.
Naked breasts in his face, and all he could think was: I hope Melanthe is seeing this.
Lanthe would soon have to walk a very fine line.
She needed to intrigue and arouse Nereus, a debauched libertine. And she needed to do that without inflaming Thronos’s jealousy beyond his control.
Easy as easy pie; except it wasn’t.
When Nereus turned his full attention to her, she felt like footlights had just lit up. “Do you like your Sorceri wine? The vintner assures me it’s sweet enough to please a sorceress’s tongue.”
Lanthe took a sip. “Scrumptious! It’s not often that I get to enjoy it away from home.”
“How did you come to be upon Sargasoe’s coast?”
—Pipe down. I need to concentrate here.—
—Then go on, weave your spell. I could almost pity the sea god.—
She laid her hand over Nereus’s. “Instead, let’s talk about you. It’s not every day I get to meet a divinity.”
“What would you like to know, sorceress? Am I attracted to your charms? Absolutely. Next question.”
She grinned at Nereus, even as she sensed Thronos turning away, refusing to watch their interaction. “What enemy dared to descend on Sargasoe?”
“A vampire,” Nereus answered. “You might know him—Lothaire the Enemy of Old. I’d been indebted to him, but no longer!”
“I suspect half of the Lore is in his infamous book of debts.” Unfortunately Rydstrom was; he and Sabine had been hunting the diabolical vamp over the last year, figuring a dead leech couldn’t collect. As of a few days ago, Lothaire had been an Order prisoner, obviously escaped now.
In the past, Lanthe had considered the Enemy of Old to be one of the sexiest males in the Lore. But now . . .
Her gaze slid over to Thronos. He didn’t even act like he was with her, just sipped from his goblet, glowering at his surroundings. —Easy with the booze, tiger.—
—Just get this over with.—
She turned back to Nereus, inwardly frowning as a thought occurred. The god had said his foe Lothaire had come last month. Between Pandemonia and the belly, how much time had she and Thronos lost? Sabine must be out of her head with worry!
Nereus observed, “I wouldn’t have expected to see a sorceress and a Vrekener as traveling companions.”
“Cheap airfare,” she said with a wink.
He smiled, revealing straight, white teeth. A nice smile. Fangs would make it better. “Yes, but I sense that you are a hedonist like myself. And the Vrekener is not.”
—Thronos, come on!— She reached for her wine again.
Nereus waved her statement away. “I detect a great many things about you. You’re a sensual connoisseur, are you not?”
She paused over the rim of her goblet.
“From one hedonist to another,” he continued, “I find it refreshing when women know their way around the bedroom. A humanoid female who happens to be a connoisseur of males is a most coveted creature in nautical realms.”
“Not so much in other realms.”
In a bemused tone, Nereus asked, “Why is sex the only endeavor where a male hopes his partner is a rank novice?”