When we left our intrepid explorers, they were still lost in a dream, drowning in the discovery of pleasure in a kiss. Now Thommas has woken up, and the torture he endured at the hands of the king of Zaharoth awaits his waking self. What will Nem do when he's faced with the truth of his father's abuses?
Find out in Chapter 13!
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I woke screaming. Some part of me knew, of course, that the pain had to be simmering beneath the surface, pushed aside by the thrill and adrenaline of Nem’s kisses from the dream. Kisses that I’d wanted, needed on some level. I pulled myself upright and tried to catch a breath in between the screams. Nem ran to me, frantic, and then his eyes grew wide with shock and slowly, very slowly, he backed away, his hand over his mouth.
Desperately I ripped at the fabric of my shirt and began to peel it from my body. The shirt was already badly ripped, mere tatters hanging from the flesh of my back, glued there by bits of blood and gore that had dried into the skin as my body tried desperately to heal from the very real damage the king of Zaharoth had dealt to me in the dream.
Nem had fallen to his knees, his mouth desperately forming the word “no” over and over as he looked at me. And then he stood abruptly, his eyes dark and furious as he walked over and knelt next to me. He pulled a small vial from a chain around his neck and held it to my lips.
I shivered in the cold of the morning as I shook my head. My throat had gotten raw from the screams and all that I could manage was a sort of rasping gasp. Nem pleaded with his eyes. “Just drink,” he said softly. “Please.”
He held my head gently, tilting it back as he poured the liquid down my throat, his fingers caressing my cheek, brushing against my beard when it was done. I shivered in the cold, but the pain was blissfully gone.
I couldn’t look at him. “That was for you, to protect you,” I said.
“It was for me to use in a time of need,” said Nem, leaning forward to kiss my forehead. “Last night you protected me. You kept him from coming and doing that to me. But I would have woken whole and—”
“He has never left you whole,” I said, leaning my cheek against his hand. I hesitated. “Don’t pretend that he has.” The words came slowly. If I said the wrong thing… “And I couldn’t let him hurt this,” I said, setting a hand against his chest. “He wounds you, Nem. Each time, he wounds you.” Was it too far? Was he ready to see his father for what he’d done?
Nem shook his head. “What about how I feel about him hurting you?”
“I do not matter. I am only of the Real.”
“You matter to me,” said Nem. “You matter a lot.” He took hold of my shoulders and turned me gently so he could see. Where only moments earlier my back had been torn and ripped by the lash, now there was no sign, no scar. My skin was smooth and healthy —vibrant. “Besides, now I get to look at your body all day,” he added, giving me an appreciative look.
I grunted, too aware of my own physical failings to be comfortable with that idea. “And I get to freeze,” I replied, then set a finger to his lip before he could say anything more. “Thank you.”
He took hold of my wrist and kissed the finger, then he stood up, pulling me up with him. He moved to where he had slept, lifting up the cloak he used to cushion his head and shaking it free of leaves before draping it over my shoulders.
“I thought you wanted to see me.”
Nem blushed and his hand moved to the side of my face, brushing hair back behind my ear. “I do. But I want you to be warm. And I want you to smell me near you. And I want”—his eyes glanced down along the path of my chest—“later, I want you to make us both warm,” he said, his eyes darting to my face and eyes and quickly looking away again. He gulped, and patted his hand against my cloak-covered shoulder, and then turned away.
After a moment I stepped after him, wrapping an arm around him to splay my hand against his stomach and pull him back against me. I could feel Nem trembling. “You play a dangerous game, prince of the Realm.”
“I offer it freely as a gift,” said Nem. “I think you know what the gift means. I think you know why I offer it to you. I hope you know.”
I hesitated, breathing in the scent of his hair. How he kept it smelling so…
A tremor ran through his body. “I am untouched, Thommas.”
I couldn’t keep from making it, the soft gasp against his ear as my grip on his stomach faltered and I stumbled back a step. “Nem?” I asked, my voice cracked.
He turned and looked at me, silver glinting in the corner of eyes that flashed with life. “It is not a choice for me, Thommas,” he said quietly. “I have to hope you know what it means to offer myself to you this way. To offer that to you this way.”
“I live in the real,” I croaked. “You know that.”
Nem shook his head. “I know that I feel you,” he whispered. “I hope… I…” he stepped forward and pressed himself against me. “I’m not wrong am I?”
I closed my eyes and shuddered. His chest was warm against mine through the silk. His breath hot against my neck, his lips almost touching the skin. A hand slipped under the cloak to grip my waist. “Am I?” he whispered, his breath fire on my skin.
My skin burned, my chest tight as my heart thumped wildly. With his skin pressed against me through the silk, I knew he must feel it to. I tried to speak, but my throat was suddenly dry and I couldn’t find my voice. “No,” I managed to choke out finally. “N-not wrong.”
He laid his head against my shoulder. “I feel you,” he whispered. “It… you were right, Thommas, it makes me strong.”
“I’m afraid, Nem. I’m afraid you’ll need that strength. I’m afraid.”
Nem nuzzled his head against my neck and we stood there in the chill for a while. I don’t think either of us was cold. I know that all I could feel was the heat of his breath, the soft beat in his chest meeting the harsh thump of mine, the hand burning into the skin of my waist. I ached to pull him tighter against me, but his revelations frightened me.
It took a little while before he let me go, with just a soft kiss against my neck. It wasn’t a mark that any in the Real would see, not like the love bites so freely left by Brian when we’d been together. But it lingered, that kiss, even after his lips left my skin, and I knew that he had marked me as surely as any blue-black bruising might.
I stroked his face as he pulled away and whispered, “I still have to—”
“I know,” he said. “My price was to travel with you and help you. You can trust me, Thommas. I think maybe I understand.” His lips pulled tightly together. “We will find him. I promise. We will find him and”—the binding magic of the place swirled around Nem—“send him to his mate. Thommas, you know right? That Jordan is the anchor’s mate.”
I felt it in my gut first, as I stumbled and fell to my knees. It was sudden and powerful and even Nem’s reflexes as one of the Realm did not help keep me from crashing down hard. My face was hard and neutral as I let out my plea. I wanted to scream that it was false. He could be wrong. Instead the words came out small. “His mate?”
Nem’s face fell as he sank to his knees next to me. I must have looked a mess, my jaw open and moving with no words forthcoming. All I could think of was the moments when I’d seen them together. The moments I was sure nothing could keep Brian tied to Jordan, but that they’d made it through anyway. That I’d cursed the world for making their relationship work when ours fell apart.
“His mate?” The words spilled half-whispered from my mouth.
Nem pulled my head into his chest. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry,” he said, rocking me gently in his arms.
“I didn’t know,” I said very softly. “I always thought. I kept fixing it hoping he’d realize that we were meant to be. But mated? God!”
“He loves you very much,” said Nem. “I couldn’t have witnessed what I saw in that room and not known it. He never lied to you about that.”
“But he’s mated?”
Nem held my head closer to his chest, still rocking. “He belongs to someone else, no matter how much he loves you.”
I choked out a sob and held Nem close. “I should have…”
“Would you have wanted to know?”
“It might have made it easier,” I said, fighting through my tears, “to know that it wasn’t that he didn’t want me. That he was tied to another that way. To know he couldn’t, you know?”
“I’m sorry.” Nem’s fingers were as firm as his voice was not, his head leaned against mine. “You would have figured it out. I should have let you figure it out.”
I shook my head, and I knew that Nem didn’t need to see to feel it as I shifted under the touch of his cheek against my head. “No. It’s fine. Thank you. I just… I still have to—”
“We’ll find him. I promised.”
“We should get moving. They’re still behind us. We should go.” I hesitated. I wanted his arms around me but I needed to stand, to move.
Nem stood, his arms around me lifting me with him. He did not let go, not yet. Instead he held me close for a few more moments, once again resting his head against my shoulder, his face tilted up to my neck. It was an awkward position for someone with the great antlers of royalty, but he managed it perfectly. I might have thought it strange that my ear so entranced him, but Brian had enjoyed the same view, and found it just as fascinating.
“You understand,” I said hesitantly, “that I have to do it? Find Jordan, I mean.”
Nem shook his head. “What I understand, Thommas, is that if you hadn’t made a promise to your anchor, I would never have found you.”
I gulped as he pulled away and looked at me, and I saw for the first time the whole of what he felt swirling within the silver in his eyes.
“I needed time. That’s still true.”
His hand brushed my cheek. “Later does not have to be today. I do not have a choice, but I have still chosen.”
I embraced him, and he folded me into his arms, slipping beneath the cloak to scorch my back with the flesh of his hands. They felt so warm against my skin, and I wondered if he felt the same about mine, gliding against the soiled silk of his shirt. He let me go and kissed me, shyly and chastely upon the lips and then took my hand and led me from the campsite.
It should have shocked me—Nem, leading me. But it did not. It felt right and good in a way that baffled me. He did not keep hold of my hand for long, but the time he did felt good, and I found myself brushing the space where his fingers had held my hand as though—as though it were somehow special. I closed my eyes for a moment, rolling my lips into my mouth in thought, and then opened them, stepping quickly to match Nem’s speedy pace.
The forest was lighter now, the spots of sunlight still evident in places, but the canopy no longer so dark as to make them searing, blinding pillars of light in the wood. Nem’s eyes were darting here and there, determined, but if he was unsure of his direction, he did not show it. His stride was confident and surprisingly sexy, especially now that, without the cloak concealing him, I could see the curve of his bottom.
The forest continued getting lighter and I was hesitant, and I matched my stride to his to catch up. “We’re leaving the wood.”
He nodded. “There.” He pointed. “We approach the great river. I can hear its voice hitting the rocks at the banks.”
I grabbed a light hold of his wrist. “You don’t have to leave Zaharoth. I would never ask it.”
“I claimed accompanying you as my price,” said Nem, meeting my gaze with one that was all fire. “I will follow you.”
“Garuth lies upon the far bank, and the Duchess is not kind to strangers.”
He brushed the backs of his fingers against my cheek. “I will follow you,” he said. “Jordan has no time for us to argue.”
I gulped and gazed out of sight to where he’d heard the sound of the river. I’d hoped never again to set foot in Garuth.
“Come,” he said. “We’ll reach the river by nightfall.”