Lanthe couldn’t stop the grin that spread over her face. “Why indeed?”
Nereus gazed at her smiling lips for long moments, then leaned in with a get-down-to-business look. “You want to get to know me, but I want us to get to know each other.” He might as well have cracked his knuckles. “So tell me, what is the favorite pastime of a sorceress like yourself?”
“Drinking wine and watching TV.” She illustrated the first with a deep draw from her glass.
“Admirable. And how would you react if you developed gills?” he asked, as if he was ticking off a mental list of questions.
“I’d wonder how to accessorize them.”
“Generally not a fan.” The dick was speed-date interviewing her! “I’m high-maintenance, usually more than one male can handle.”
Thronos snorted. He might as well have said, “Preach.”
“In five years, where do you see yourself?” Nereus asked. “With more than a dozen spawn? Or fewer?”
“Pets in the bed. Yay or nay?”
—Yes, Melanthe, tell us. How would you feel?—
Nereus hesitated, then let her off the hook on that one. “If you could meet any Lorean, alive or dead, who would it be?”
Finally a question that wasn’t laden with skeevy undertones. In all honesty, she would have liked a chance to talk to her mother.
She wished she could tell Elisabet that she now understood how difficult it must’ve proved to be the vessel of an Accession, to be banished from her Deie Sorceri family, to leave her home and all she’d known.
Lanthe now knew Elisabet had done the best she could. Their father, too.
But Lanthe could never answer honestly. So she glibly said, “Naturally, it would be you, Nereus.”
If the god noticed that her mood had changed, he didn’t indicate it. Yet she felt Thronos’s penetrating eyes on her.
“Flattering sorceress,” Nereus fake-chided, but she could tell he was pleased. The questions resumed. “What’s your favorite art and music, across all planes and worlds?”
She felt herself relaxing. This was an easy subject for her. “For art, I enjoy the Helvitan masters. The way those vampires use ground bloodroot on a canvas of cured flesh is nothing short of inspiring. For music, I like a mortal genre called top one hundred. Or, of course, classical Draiksulian. Those fey know how to compose a jaunty tune. I noticed earlier that your Nereids were playing thirteenth-century sirenades. Lovely.”
“They were indeed! I hadn’t thought anyone would notice.” He narrowed his green eyes. “You are clearly well educated. How are you at trivia?”
Sometimes she would play trivia games with Sabine, Rydstrom, Cadeon, and Holly, going from third wheel to fifth wheel. “I guess I’m not too bad. When I was young, I’d often read to pass the time.”
“Then answer this: Who was the leader of the Three-Century Rebellion in the Quondam realm?”
She’d expected a trick question from a trickster god. “Actually, that rebellion was in the Quandimi realm. The leader was Bagatur the Battlecrafter.”
“My sister and I studied ruthless leaders to pick up pointers. We were convinced we would rule the worlds in one great co-queendom.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Thronos cast her a quizzical look. —You know a great many things.—
—Maybe I earned my idle pastime of TV viewing? I’m not an empty-headed bimbo. Which is why I didn’t take kindly to your suggestion that I study Vrekener history and spend time in contemplation.—
Nereus too was impressed with her knowledge. “I find you to be quite learned about art and culture and the ways of the world. I’ve made my decision.” His hand landed on her knee. “With your beauty and sexual prowess, you would be ideal for spawning.”
He had been interviewing her. She glanced down, saw Thronos’s arm muscles bulging as he clenched his fists.
—You said you’d roll with this!— She sipped from her goblet to buy time.
Thronos drained his. —If you’d been alone, would you have received Nereus?—
—Anatomically, I would have concerns.— So how should she lead Nereus off this spawning path? Bait and switch? Whom could she throw under the bus?
It came to her in a flash. “My dear Nereus, while I’m humbled that you would think of me for such an honor, I fear I can’t betray my queen.” Morgana was a big girl. She could handle an infatuated god.
Lanthe peeled his hand from her knee. “Surely you know of Morgana’s interest in you? She constantly rhapsodizes about your prodigious . . . intellect.”
“I was not aware of this.”
“For me to cross the Queen of Sorceri in this would be a fatal mistake.” Actually, crossing her in anything would prove fatal.
Morgana was a queen in two senses. Just as Lanthe was the Queen of Persuasion, with a persuasive ability greater than that of any other, Morgana—the Queen of Sorceri—possessed the ability to control her subjects and their powers absolutely. Plus, she was also the regent of the Sorceri.
“We are all fairly much helpless before her.” Well, except for her arch-nemesis La Dorada—who, incidentally, had risen for this Accession. “Taking something Morgana wants would be a treasonous act.”
He stroked his beard. “I will have to think on that.”
Had Lanthe done enough to deflect him?
An army of Nereids began serving the main course: lobster still in the shell, with sea vegetables as an accompaniment.
“This looks amazing!” Lanthe said, though she would never touch the lobster.
“Enjoy, my winsome sorceress.” When Nereus rose, she jerked her gaze upward before she got another eyeful. “Allow me to circulate so that my other guests don’t accuse you of monopolizing me. I’m not the only one who considers smiting a solution to social blunders.”
“Of course. Take your time.” She waved bye-bye, then turned her attention to Thronos, who was presently slouched in his chair, wings slack, regarding everything with a gimlet eye. Probably pondering how to kill a god.
“When Nereus gets back, I’m going to ask him about the portal.”
Thronos’s knuckles were white on his goblet when he drank.
Under her breath, she said, “I don’t have a choice in this. I refuse to die here, and I refuse to be trapped as some spawner beneath the ocean. I’m doing the best I can in a honey/vinegar situation.”
“I know this!” Thronos exhaled, then said in a lower tone, “I know. And that was clever to throw Morgana into the mix.”
Appearing to shake away the worst of his ire, Thronos raised his goblet before her. “Taste this ale.” He seemed almost buzzed. “It’s delicious.”
She took a sip from his cup, then handed it back with a grimace. “Are you crazy?”
“That’s demon brew.” Loved by demons and hated by most others in the Lore.
He swallowed loudly, nearly choking on the liquid. He must know that this drink left one steadily tipsy, until abrupt drunkenness hit like a sledgehammer.
“Why would they serve me demon brew?” he demanded.
Lanthe gave him a bless your heart look.
He bit out a harsh laugh. “So the evidence continues to mount? And Nïx wants to know if it matters that we might be demons.”
“How much have you had, Thronos?”
“Three? You’re going to be tanked.” Though she’d only had a little more than a goblet of wine, she would taper off, just in case.
He gazed at her mouth, his lids heavier. “My impending drunkenness should please you, no?”
“You’ve misunderstood me. I don’t care if you drink or not; I just don’t want you to tell me not to. But tonight, I’ll take it easy, so one of us is on guard.”
A Nereid squeezed between them to fill his goblet. The female all but pressed her voluptuous breasts in his face, before traipsing off.
Even though he was buzzed, he kept his mind blocked.
As her glare followed the Nereid, Lanthe told him, “If she shoved her breasts any closer to your ear, I believe you could’ve heard the ocean.”
“Compared to the belly of the beast, this situation is a vast improvement,” he said nonchalantly.
She turned her glare on him. “Because the belly of the beast lacked topless nymphs? Talk to management.”
“You’re jealous.” He leaned in closer, the electricity between them sparking. “I knew I was growing on you.” With a crooked grin, he said, “After all, you loved hallucinated sex acts with me.”
Had she ever! She sipped her wine to cover her reaction to him.
When she licked her lip, Thronos muttered, “Lucky lip.”
Lanthe’s fine line had just gotten finer. The brew would hit Thronos soon. “You need to eat something.” She pointed to his platter of lobster. “A full stomach might forestall some of the effects.”
He had to be starving, but he was clearly at a loss. “Crustaceans are not something I’ve much experience with. What I wouldn’t give for a nice haunch of venison.” He looked around as if to see how others were handling their lobsters. The mercreatures ate the entire thing, including the shell, probably throwing up that part later. He turned back to her. “I’ve got nothing.”
With a look of commiseration, she started on the salad of seaweed, sea lettuce, and kelp. She found it surprisingly tasty.
The god noticed. “You show no interest in my lovely nymphs?”
“Melanthe is my mate,” Thronos said with unmistakable pride. “I have interest in only one female.”
Nereus’s gaze was shrewd. “Ah, but does the interest run both ways? Well, sorceress? Are you as besotted with the Vrekener as he is with you?”
I might be falling for him.
But the next step in their relationship was her accompanying him to Skye Hall, an all-in scenario. Going with him to heaven would be the craziest thing she’d ever done. Yet as she peered over at him, she realized that wasn’t true.
Letting this one go might be.
How proud Thronos had sounded when he’d said, “Melanthe is my mate,” declaring interest only in her. For years, she’d imagined what it would be like having a male to prize her and hold her hand in public. To take her to court events.
Instead of into the shadows for whispered assignations.
Thronos would never wince at his watch, claiming, “Got a really early morning tomorrow, sweet.” He would never, ever blaze.
The situation with him—with their families and factions—was anything but ideal. Yet Thronos, the man, was getting there.
“We’re taking it day by day,” she finally told the god, earning a black look from Thronos. “So, let’s get back to you.” Resting her chin on her hand, she gazed at Nereus with—seemingly—utter absorption. “Won’t you tell me about the Marianas Trench siege? That was supposed to have been a doozy!”
She planned to go in for the kill soon. Would Nereus let them leave immediately? Or make them wait till after the feast? She wanted to get Thronos out of here as soon as possible, before the brew hit him.
“I remember that one,” Nereus began. “I was only a millennium or two in age. . . .”
Once he’d recounted the tale, she sighed, “The stuff of legend. Nereus, your hospitality has been as fabulous as your spectacular realm. I can’t wait to tell my fellow Sorceri all about you, as well as my friends among the witches and Valkyrie. The Vertas alliance will know of your generosity. . . .” She trailed off, frowning at a nearby wine pourer.
The nymph was giving Thronos another assessing glance.
No, not assessing. Something darker.
Lanthe gazed around, saw other nymphs with the same expression. They looked . . . proprietary.
As if they already owned him.
—Stop drinking, Thronos. We might be in trouble.—
—This ale is hitting me hard, Melanthe.— Even telepathically, his words were slurred.
When fogginess overtook her as well, she knew it wasn’t only the demon brew affecting him. —I need you to fight it.—
At once, she scented blood. He was digging his claws into his palms. But it was a losing proposition.
She swung her head around at Nereus, and almost toppled out of her chair. “What are you doing?” she snapped, her words sounding far away. The Nereids weren’t the only ones looking proprietary.
As her head lolled, she heard Thronos murmur aloud, “Lanthe?”
Black dots swirled at the edges of her vision. The last thing she saw was Nereus throwing back his head to give a loud laugh.
And then nothing.
She was having a hard time marshaling her thoughts, felt like she was riding waves—or beset by that spinning-bed feeling. Had she drunk that much wine? Had she wandered into the wrong room, then passed out fully dressed?