Joru was there when she woke. Alaun wouldn’t admit it to anyone, but it was him that she looked for immediately—not one of her sisters. He stood at the door of the most opulent and golden suite she had ever been in.
“Where are we?” She pushed the hair off of her forehead with a limp hand. “The key? My sister?”
He walked closer, uncrossing his arms over that massive chest. “The goddess has the key. She has gone to the city of healers to fetch your sisters; and her brother, the Great Healer. His female. Your aunt, Adelais.”
“She delivered me. And half of my sisters. Then disappeared.” She shivered. The blanket over her body was softer than silk. “Why? Is Ambrea…”
He shook his head. “Your sister weakens, but still lives. The goddess feels that when she and the remainder of your sisters are healed—”
“What? What happened to them?”
“Same as happened to you. And it is why the young one struggled to waken. Even some of the Adrastos males who were in your home have caught the same affliction, though much less than you or your sisters.” He slipped his arm behind her back and the other beneath her knees. He lifted her—onto his lap, blanket and all.
She wanted to protest. She did not know him, other than that he was her Rajni. And a demon. “Ambrea’s male, Rix?”
“Ill. But strong. He will recover when your sister does.”
She squirmed. He tightened his arms around her. “Stay, gamata. We have much to speak of.”
“That is for after everyone returns. No. We speak of this. You are my gamata. Same as Aureliana is for my brother Renakletos. And I am your male. Your Rajni. Your goddess has confirmed it—and I have chosen not to deny it. The bonds between us are already being tied. And I have sent the notices to all the kingdoms of the demon realm to announce that the second prince of Relaklonos has taken a mate.”
“Why? Why do you want me?”
“Why would I not? You were gifted to me by your goddess, were you not? I have been in your head, little kitten. I know the moment you realized that you and I were destined to be together.”
He gave her a smug look. One that said he liked the idea that she was his. Arrogant. How was she supposed to deal with him?
Alaun closed her eyes. “I am so tired. And I feel…weak. Why?”
“Whatever was raised from the earth in Thrun has poisoned your family. Some sort of ancient protection, the goddess believes.”
“Poison?” On top of her sister’s injuries, how was Ambrea to heal from poison? “What are we supposed to do?”
He held her arm out for her to see. “You cut yourself here, did you not?”
“On a shard of that rock. I pulled it from my sister and it cut my arm.” She barely remembered the small wound. But now…it had festered and her arm had turned green around it. She hadn’t noticed; it had been beneath her vestis. “Why?”
“The goddess seeks her brother’s answer. You are to be kept calm and quiet and feed from your mate in the meantime.” He leaned closer. “Come female, it is my right to give you what you need.”
“I’m afraid. What if they can’t cure it? My sisters? I can’t lose them, Joru. I can’t.”
“We will face what we must face as it comes, kitten.” He guided her head to his neck again. Addictive. Demon blood was far too addictive.
But this demon would not harm her. She could almost trust that. She fed from him until she was sated. Then pulled away to look at him. “What is a gamata?”
Her male smiled, and leaned his head back. For the first time she saw the silver horns on his head.
Her mate had horns. She was actually mated to a demon, just as the heroines in the books she had once written. The irony wasn’t lost on her.
“A gamata bond is much like your Rajni bond. Only my Kind chooses the bond. It is not forced upon us like that of your Kind.”
“And you chose me.”
“Yes. It was right.” His fingers sank into her hair, and he actually toyed with the ends. “Soft. Silk. Perfect.”
“But you are demon. I am not.”
“No. You are not a demon. I do not care. You are the female I want. You are the female I will have. But first, we deal with this key of yours. And the healers. After that, we will return to Thrun. To the home the demon king has given me within the city. Or if you prefer, we will return to the castle of my birth. It is getting a bit crowded there, but it is larger than my manor in Thrun. I also have a small city of my own six hours’ walk from Thrun. I rule over it, but it is still growing. It may not be the place you wish to live. To raise any spawn. At least not for a while.”
Spawn. Demon babes. He wanted demon babes with her. Spoke of them as if the idea was normal.
She leaned back against the golden pillow. “I don’t know…I…my sisters…”
“Can accompany us if they wish. They are now the sisters to a Relaklonosian princess. They will be well treated. Protected. Until they find the males meant for them.”
“I am not a princess, Joru. I wouldn’t even know how to be.”
More fear. He knew his words overwhelmed his female, at a time when she needed to be resting. But he needed the words to be said. No one knew what the poison would do to his mate.
As his gamata, and him being such a strong member of his Kind, he would perhaps be able to keep her soul tethered to his long enough for the healers of her Kind to find a way to purge the poison from her body. At least that was what the girl goddess believed.
But her sisters would be another story. He did not know if he would be strong enough to tether them all.
They were bringing the Laquazzeana Adelais to the goddess’s home. She was said to be able to hold souls within her arms and protect them.
They did not have any other answers at this time. And that terrified him.
Joru, who hadn’t been so frightened of anything since he had been a very young boy. This was his female now, and he could feel the ties between them.
Before he could say anything else to his female, the doors of the suite burst open. He jumped to his feet and blocked his female from the threat.
The threat turned out to be four females who greatly resembled his. From the soft yellow scarves wrapped around their waists he assumed they were some of the sisters.
One stopped when she saw him. “Who are you?”
“I am Joru Malickus. Who are you?”
“Why are you standing over my sister, demon?” Distrust and fear. Her hand wrapped around the hilt of a small sword.
“Kellis…don’t. He’s…he’s…” Alaun looked at him with wide, vulnerable eyes. He waited. He knew what words were coming. “He is my male. He found me.”
Utter silence met her declaration. Joru understood the enormity of her words, as did the sisters. By declaring him as hers, she had accepted the bond between them. It worked the same in gamata bonds, as well.
She had accepted him. His female. Always.
He sank down on the bed next to her, sensing how unsteady she truly was. She would not want the sisters to see it, of that he had no doubt.
“He looks like Elshuk,” one young one said. She could be no more than thirty and was just a babe, practically.
“That is because we share a father. But Elshuk will face punishment for what he has done. I will see to it myself. After your sister is well again.”
“We’re sick,” another sister said. He heard the fear and his heart softened for these girls. He could see so many bits and pieces of his female in her sisters. Some had the gold hair, others had eyes the same shape. The one with the sword had the same sunspots over the same cheekbones.
They would be as his own sisters, and dear to him as Danae.
And he would protect them from all threats. “Sisters, it is honored I am to meet you.”
They eyed him with distrust, but that would remedy itself in time.
Demons had wronged these females greatly. He would see the cost of that was paid by those who owed them.
One sister was on the bed opposite him. She was helping Alaun brush her hair. He could have done that, but it was easy to see that the sisters wanted—needed—to fuss over her. To reassure themselves that she was safe.
“What happened?” the one with the sword demanded. “Where did you go? All Rix would say was that Ambrea sent you for something. You should have come for me. I could have gone with you or instead of you.”
“No,” Joru said. “You were not meant to be there. She was. I found her. I would have simply arrested you for breaking curfew and turned you over to the Laquazzeana to be dealt with. But her…the instant she bit me, she knew she was meant to be mine. And I knew that she was destined for me.” A small lie, but it was close enough to the truth.
“You bit him?” another sister asked quietly. It was the first time she had spoken and she had a small speech impediment. It was all that separated her from the nearly identical sister on each side of her. Anyone seeing these five next to each other would struggle to know which was which.
Except for him. He would always know Alaun.
“I did not know him and he had come out of the darkness at me.”
“I was in charge of patrolling the ruins. The evil was one that we all knew as uncontained. I was only keeping you safe.” He smiled at her. In reality, all he had been consumed with had been feeding from her.
How his world had changed in an instant. He leaned closer and kissed her on the center of her forehead.
The sisters just gasped and stared. He allowed it for a moment. But they had greater things to worry about. They did not look healthy, these four. And there were two more sisters out there. “Come. I am thinking the Laquazzeana will arrive soon. We will meet them below.”
He stood then lifted his female into his arms. The one with a sword grabbed a blanket and wrapped it around her.
Dardaptoans were so susceptible to the cold.
The sister stared at him for a moment. He tried to read her mind, but like her sister she had a block against the intrusion. Her face, very much like his female’s, tightened with confusion. She coughed lightly.
The fever was taking her too, but she fought it. “Come little sister, let us find the healers. For you, and your sisters.”
His hands were strong and sure on her. His tone was soft and gentle with her sisters. Not at all harsh and cruel like she would have expected from a demon.
Every demon that had interacted with her family had been evil. Dangerous. Monsters.
But this one…he was not like that. And she knew that. Her arm went behind his neck and she held on to him. He was strong, far stronger than a Dardaptoan male.
She thought. She hadn’t exactly been carried by many. Just Rix’s brothers when they had pulled her from the rubble of her home.
“We need to go to Ambrea and Alleah.” The idea that her sisters were ill terrified her. Especially Ambrea and Alleah. Would the two of them be strong enough to fight this?
He carried her into the great hall of this weird castle that reminded her of a bird’s nest. People were waiting. She wanted to bury her face in his neck, to hide from what they were about to face.
Instead, Alaun rested her head on his shoulder, but where she could still see the crowd. A female in healer blue stepped forward. Alaun gasped, seeing her aunt for the first time in at least fifty-two years. She had been thirty-one when her aunt had delivered her sister Jume.
Adelais stepped closer.
She looked so much like Alaun’s mother that she wanted to weep.
“My dearest Alaun.” Her aunt put her hands on Alaun’s cheeks. “I did not know that the female who had been poisoned was you.”
“My sisters, too. They need help, Aunt Addy.”
Her aunt nodded. “I can feel it. But you first.”
“Her male is bringing her shortly, along with Bronwen. She stays with her cousin.”
Alaun’s breath caught. Her cousin Bronwen was one of the strongest healers to ever live, or so rumors said. That she was with Ambrea lessened some of the fear. “Alleah?”
“With them, as well. I am sorry for the loss of your mother.” The grief on her aunt’s face was one Alaun would never forget. Her mother, Aunt Addy and Bronwen’s mother Alita had all been so close. As close as she and her own sister.
They had lost two sisters between Alleah and Jume, after her aunt had disappeared. “We missed you, Aunt Addy. Greatly.”
“And I missed you and your sisters, and all of your cousins. And I am overjoyed to meet the nieces that have been born since that day. Now, let’s get you someplace you can rest—and not be carted around in your male’s arms like potatoes. Though his arms certainly look strong enough. I think he is one of the largest demon males I have ever seen.”
“He is called Joru. He found me last night.” And changed everything.
“It is funny how they are there at the moment that we need them. My own male was there the instant my daughter and I needed him. You will meet her soon, she comes through with her grandmother Eaudne. She reminds me greatly of you. The tendency to make up wild stories about demons of all things. Just as you did. Yesterday one stole her best shoe. A demon named Remy, I believe. I think he is imaginary, but…what do I know? I just remember the stories you would tell me when we would play while your mother tended Riv.”
As she spoke, Adelais was running her hands over Alaun’s body. She paid close attention to the arm that had been injured. Then she looked up at the demon, just as portkey purple mist formed in one corner of the room. “You have given her blood?”
He nodded. “Several times.”
“Good. We have learned demon blood can have pain-killing effects. And healing properties.”
“Then take all that you need from me, for the sisters of my female, as well. I am Incubi. There will be plenty for my family.”
Alaun saw the immediate approval in her aunt’s eyes.
Eyes that were just like Alaun’s mother’s.
Like Ambrea’s, and Kellis’s, too.
The mist grew.
A tall male in white and Adrastos turquoise stepped through. Her sister Ambrea was cuddled in his arms, much like Joru held Alaun.
Alaun’s cousin Thadd carried Alleah in his own arms. Bronwen, Thadd’s younger sister, walked between them.
A tall male that Joru had only seen once or twice trailed behind them.
He was the ancient of ancients. The one so many feared.
Joru’s arms tightened around Alaun as the male walked closer.