“I was . . . drunk.” An excuse he’d never expected to give, an excuse that shamed him. “I tried to fight off the effects, but at one point I lost consciousness. I woke unclothed.” He cleared his throat. “With their mouths upon me. I don’t know what I did or how long I was out.”
“I am! I want only you. It will always be this way.” He scrubbed his hand over his face. “I don’t understand how this could happen. If you knew how badly I desire you . . .”
“And you decided to confess this to me now?”
“I want you to come to my home. But I won’t trick you to get you there.”
“I know about the Nereids.” She looked unperturbed. “Nereus set it up so that I could see all of it.”
“But you’re not . . . upset? You don’t even care, do you? What would it take to make you give a damn?”
“They bespelled you, and you still didn’t do anything. You’re the first male ever to shake off their magics.”
That relieved some of his guilt, but his chest felt hollow at her lack of reaction. She’d witnessed those nymphs seducing him; if he’d ever seen a male’s hands on her naked body, it would have annihilated him. “You suffer no jealousy?” She might as well have sunk a sword into him. “Maybe I should’ve indulged them!”
She went up on her toes and grabbed his face. “When I thought you were going to succumb, I cried.”
After all the times he would’ve expected her to cry in the last week? Even in the belly of the beast, she’d somehow stemmed her tears. “You cried over me?” he asked gruffly.
She nodded. “And not just because of the bet I’d made with Nereus.”
“I bet Nereus that you couldn’t be seduced. If I won, we’d go free. If I lost, he’d bed me.”
Nereus would’ve taken my mate this very night! But Thronos had proved stronger than even the Nereids’ spells, and now he and Lanthe would be rewarded.
He seized her hands. “Then come with me to the Skye.”
She bit her bottom lip. “We could go to Rothkalina.”
“I need to return home to get something settled with Aristo. Changes must be made.”
“You still plan to rehab him?” She drew away.
He reluctantly released her. “I told you. I will make him see reason. You will help me. Once he understands what we have together, what we’ve overcome, he’ll have to conclude that his views are mistaken.”
“Why do you think I won’t use my power for ill while I’m up there?”
Earlier, he’d thought of the solution. “I have ways.”
“I’m going to trust you not to. I’m going to take you fully empowered to my home, because I trust you.”
Of all the things he could’ve said . . .
“You are trusting me to deal with my brother,” he told her. “I’m trusting you to use your sorcery in a way we both can live with.”
He lifted his chin. “That’s my plan. I know you, Melanthe. You’re a good person.”
“Lower your voice!” Her eyes darted. “If that got out . . .”
“Come, take this step with me.”
“You think King Aristo will let me stay empowered in the Skye?”
He quirked his brow. “If anyone tries anything, then I’m sure you can persuade them not to.”
“I know you won’t harm anyone unless you must do it in self-defense.”
Was this a good-with-the-bad situation? If a sorceress wanted a man who would stay faithful even when bespelled and accosted by nymphs, then she had to support that man even when he believed he could rehab his douchelord brother.
But Lanthe and Thronos had so many issues unsettled between them. She didn’t see how these things could be improved in the realm of the Vrekeners. To her, going there would be like going into the belly of the beast. Having actually been in the belly of the beast, she didn’t think this lightly.
He curled his finger under her chin. “In Pandemonia, you accused me of wanting something from you. I do. The opportunity to protect you and treasure you.” She parted her lips to argue, but he stopped her. “Not only because of my instinct.”
“I’d like to believe that. I would. But . . .”
“Do you want to know what Nïx’s advice was concerning you? One sentence: ‘Before Melanthe was this, she was that.’ I figured it out two worlds ago.”
“Before you were my enemy, you were my best friend.”
Just as it had centuries ago, her heart ached with yearning.
“You still are,” he told her. “And that is why I want you to come with me.”
He was nothing like Felix—or most other males she’d met.
Thronos was a good man. He was her man.
Hadn’t she wished for the opportunity to give him encouragement? She replayed the yawning loss she’d felt when she’d thought he would succumb. Now, she needed to say something, anything, but her thoughts were tangled.
He must have sensed she was on the ropes. He inched closer to her. “When we were children, we made big plans in that meadow, expecting every happiness to follow. I want to look back one day and say that our plans went awry for only the first five hundred years, but not for the following millennia. Lanthe, if you come with me, I’ll want to wed you. This very day.”
Marry him today? The word cleave had another meaning. To bind.
In a flash, she understood: on this night, she would either separate from Thronos or bind her life to his.
If she went with him, she would be all-in, committed to him, to them. She would do her damnedest to make a future with Thronos.
But could she abide Skye Hall? Could she bring her family around? And survive his?
He released her and moved to the edge of the portal, the threshold of something more, and awaited her.
With his eyes gone molten silver, Thronos Talos—a fierce, sensual demon—offered his hand, inviting Lanthe to her idea of hell, to become his bride.
She took it.
It was night in the Skye.
With Thronos leading the way through the portal, he and Lanthe stepped onto a cobblestone path in the Air Territories. He didn’t release her hand.
She’d asked him to go first—after all, she hadn’t had the best run of luck with portal directions. And she had to admit she still might be conflicted about this on some level.
Though she’d never been so high up, her gaze was drawn even higher. The stars were sparkling brilliantly, arcing above them like a diadem. “Wow.”
“That’s how I feel right now.” He squeezed her hand.
She lowered her face to behold just as wondrous a sight: Thronos smiling down at her with starlight reflecting in his eyes.
Just like that, the apprehension she’d felt at crossing that threshold began to fade.
When she could drag her attention away from him, she observed her surroundings with interest. They were in a shallow, sandy vale, with treeless mounts and hills rising up on all sides. White, sun-bleached buildings covered those heights, connected squares or rectangles of various sizes—like one might see on a cliffside along the Mediterranean.
Bordering the structures were cobblestone streets and walkways, all seeming to be straight and narrow, all leading down to this clearing.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“It’s certainly . . . uniform.” And monochromatic. “How far are we from the edge of the island?” She’d expected her fear of heights would have kicked in by now, but she felt no different than if she were standing on terra firma.
“We’re about in the center.”
“The climate extends for miles around the Territories.”
“Where is everyone?” Not a soul could be seen.
“I believe it’s the middle of the night. Morning comes very early here.” He pointed toward the largest building in the area, one elevated above all the rest. “That’s Skye Hall.”
“I never knew it was an actual hall.” The seat of Vrekener power.
The grand edifice was the only building with the slightest ornamentation; Corinthian columns fronted it, but like all the others, it apparently had no roof. What might be this island’s only trees grew around it.
“The building was constructed against a ridge. The assembly rooms front the elevation, while the royal residence is above it.”
After all she and Thronos had been through, the prospect of entering that hall and facing Aristo left her queasy. “Can we wait till tomorrow to talk with him?”
“Yes. We must be wed first,” Thronos said decisively.
“He might not even be in residence,” Thronos pointed out. “He often travels.”
Busy, busy Aristo. Wonder what he’s up to now . . . “Okay, then, show me your digs.” Even if there was some kind of air mojo up here, she was getting dizzy from the altitude, having gone from miles below sea level to miles above it.
“Don’t know what digs are, Melanthe.”
“Our place.” She knew the exact moment when he comprehended he was truly going to claim her—and soon. He swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing, his piercing gaze sweeping over her body—as if he was deciding what he wanted to do with it first. He didn’t block his thoughts, but she didn’t delve.
In a huskier voice, he said, “We live there.” With his free hand, he pointed out another structure high on a cliffside, at the edge of the village. Though unconnected to the other structures, it wasn’t more than a hundred yards or so from them.
“Hmm.” They started toward it.
“I guess I was expecting a palace or something. Our roofless house is really close to other roofless houses, huh?” How ’bout those wedding night sex acoustics?
“We’re not without problems in our kingdom, Lanthe. We live immortal lives, yet our lands are finite. We face overpopulation.”
Interesting. “When we talk to Aristo, you can tell him we’re going to go found a Vrekener offshoot colony in a different realm. We’ll call it LantheLand.”
“As appealing as LantheLand sounds, I don’t see it happening. The Vrekeners will always live together. Our unity is our strength.” Thronos stopped to gaze down at her. “So eager to leave? When you just got here?”
“I fear things won’t turn out with your brother as you expect them to.”
“Maybe I don’t expect a resolution. Maybe I just need to say I tried.”
That she could accept. She nodded, and he continued leading her toward . . . their home.
On the way, he pointed out a trio of obelisks of differing heights. “I learned to fly by dropping from those columns—the smallest one when I was but two or so.”
She imagined him as a toddler, fearlessly leaping into a parent’s arms, wearing the determined expression she knew so well; maybe that look had been born there. His wings would probably have been oversized for his little body. “I’ll bet you were absolutely adorable.” A thought struck her. “Does your mother still live?”
“Most Vrekeners don’t go on without their mates.”
So Sabine had essentially killed both of his parents. Were Lanthe and Thronos kidding themselves?
He swiftly changed the subject. “On the other side of Skye Hall is the bastion, an area where we eat and socialize. It used to be a prison, but we had to reclaim the space.”
“Of course. There’s a gathering hall on each island.”
“How does that work, if you can’t drink or gamble? I’m guessing dancing is out?”
“We have sporting events and contests. Those of a more studious bent gather to read and debate.”
Bully. When all the dust settled, Lanthe would be portaling to Rothkalina weekly, just to tie one on. She’d force Thronos to come with her. “I’m sure your people will be overjoyed to have someone like me living among them.”
“At first they might not know what to think. But they’ll come to see you as I have. It will happen.” His utter certainty reassured her, his confidence proving contagious.
They started up a steep walkway with a series of switchbacks. “I’m surprised you guys bother with steps.”
“We do have Sorceri who live here. And injuries occasionally happen to the wings of the young.”
A very generous way of putting the latter. He was doing everything possible to make her comfortable.
“How many islands are there? How many Vrekeners?”
“Tens and tens of thousands are spread over one hundred and seventy islands.”
She’d had no idea there were so many of them. But it made sense that an immortal faction would thrive in a hidden realm.
“I’ll take you over the entire kingdom in the coming days,” he said as they reached the landing in front of his—their—place. The wooden door was of simple construction, with a rustic latch and no lock. He opened it, ushering her inside.
Filled with curiosity about the man he’d become, she took in details. The best word to describe the area: spartan. The few pieces of furniture were no-frills—a table with a couple of backless benches, additional benches in a sitting area. Just as with the rest of the realm, there was no color.