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Trigger warning: Threat of sexual violence.
I growled in frustration at the door to the Lady’s great hall. It was sealed tight, and while once I might have been inclined to restraint, in this moment all I could hear were the cries of my mate frantic in my mind.
“Open,” I snarled. And the trolls within the palace heard my cries, and my anger, and the door fell, crushed into pieces upon the floor.
The clatter of ancient wood splintering against the marble floor rang through the halls, echoing into the vaulted ceilings of the massive chamber. Rakibak was laughing. His fingers were at his belt, my mate stripped naked at his feet. I gulped as I saw the pile of clothes, ripped and shredded on the ground next to him. Rakibak had dared, he’d dared to touch. Two of the Elite Guard held my mate, face down.
I shuddered with fury. My Nem. Rakibak was planning to claim the right of blood by taking my mate. Fury gave way to wrath. I had given no word, made no promise. I could crush Garuth forever.
Rakibak glared at me, but his eyes narrowed as the grip of the guards faltered. “Hold the prince down,” he snarled, pulling loose his belt.
“You’ve lost, Rakibak,” I said, stepping into the room. The marble floors cracked at my step. “Move away from my mate.”
He turned at me in fury. “Mate? You’re lying! He’s a prince of the blood. He walked unprotected into the realm! He’s mine. I claim him. He belongs to me!” He yanked his belt free from the last loop and turned back to the guards. “I said hold him down,” he shrieked.
“You have lost your way, Rakibak,” the captain said calmly, stepping out from behind me. “The guards can see that. Above all, they serve Garuth.”
I was beyond caring that the captain had followed. I ran to my mate, leaving a trail of crushed marble in my wake. Rakibak screamed with inarticulate rage as the guards he had ordered to hold Nem down fled at my approach. Howled as I pulled a frightened Nem into my arms. Someone, I guessed it to be the captain, handed me a cloak to wrap my husband’s naked body in.
“Nem, my Nem. I am here,” I whispered. But he could only shake, his breath a panicked sob. I pressed my forehead against his.
The floor at my feet began to smolder, and I turned my gaze on Rakibak.
“You swore an oath,” said Rakibak, stepping back. His eyes widened as he stumbled backward, perhaps for the first time understanding what it might mean to face my unchecked anger. “You sw—”
“The Guardian swore an oath to Garuth, to serve and protect it,” I growled. “To act not against any agent of the Lady of Garuth in faithful fulfillment of their duties.” I glanced at the Lady. “And has he been faithful?”
Guards still held her, unsure, I expect, whether the captain was making his own play for power. Her eyes were filled with a fury that matched my own.
“No,” she said.
“And what of your own vows, Rakibak?” I said.
“Vows to Garuth! Vows to make it great! Vows to protect it! I kept my vows! I acted against those who would make us weak!”
“And were there not also vows to your Lady?” asked the captain.
“He is the Traitor of Garuth! He cannot hold me—”
The captain shook his head. “You’re right. Lord Thommas has no rights to uphold your vow. But the Guardian can still hold you accountable.”
Rakibak laughed. “But he’s the Guardian!”
I shook my head. “That power has passed to another. That power serves Garuth above all else, and it belongs to someone who loves this place—who loves the Realm.” I looked at the captain. “He was my standard bearer on the Plains of Fire, Rakibak. He knows what love of this land is.”
Rakibak shook. “No!”
I stroked Nem’s hair lovingly, trying to coax him into looking at me. I whispered to him, my voice full of sweet nothings, full of love, as behind me the words of an oath were enforced. My voice was only a whisper in a room filled with the echoing of tortured screams, but I tried to make those whispers the most important thing in the world in that moment. Rakibak meant nothing. His destruction, however painful, however complete, was of little concern compared to the fear and trauma of my mate.
Finally, slowly, Nem looked at me through a curtain of silver strands. He trembled. But his gaze, it still burned. Deep in my soul I could feel it. “We are one,” I whispered.
“It is so,” Nem replied, echoing the words of our vows as his tears tinkled like a musical rain against the marble. He embraced me then out of relief more than fright. “You came.”
“I promised you, my Nem. I am here.”
“He tried to take me,” said Nem. “He tried to....”
“I know. I am here. You are my mate.” I made sure to meet his gaze with my own. “That will never change.”
Nem gulped. “Never?”
Nem trembled and pulled the cloak around him, standing tall. “You found him?”
I held Nem gently and let that be my answer, and when he relaxed into my arms, I knew that he understood. I glanced to the floor, to the torn shreds of his clothes, and I whispered words of power, of love, of understanding the pride of a prince of Zaharoth, and I wove the shreds together, and I clothed him, my mate, down to the tiny piece of fabric that I would so enjoy taking from him later. And I set my lips gently against his forehead.
“Oh, Thom. I love you,” he whispered.
I curled the edge of my lips. “I know. I love you, too, my Nem.”
When we finally parted, a nervous Nastasia was talking to the captain. Jordan sat, looking relieved rather than upset that the discussions of the powerful were ignoring him. I leaned against my mate. “I was scared,” I said softly.
He gulped. “I know. Once I would have thought you were weak for feeling that. Now I know how strong that makes you.”
I glanced at Jordan. “That’s him.”
“That is not the shell of a mind.”
“No. It is a prince of the blood made flesh.”
“Yarath will fight to keep him,” said Nem, his voice meant for my ears alone.
“Bargains might still be struck. I promised Brian. I swore an oath.”
Nem smiled at me as he held and fondled my hand in his. I’d sworn an oath to him, too. I leaned my forehead against his temple and allowed myself to enjoy for a moment this feeling of being us. It was Nem who shook me from the reverie as he stood straight again, his face shifting automatically into the mask that those of the blood hid behind.
I closed my eyes and let my breath settle against Nem’s neck, speaking in that breath promises that his skin understood. Promises to touch and kiss. I ignored the fact that there were others watching us. Others who made him self-conscious, who made him the prince of Zaharoth, and not my Nem. Because he was still here, my Nem, underneath this mask, and I wanted him to know that even if they did not see, that I would always see him for what he was. My mate.
I could sense her. The Lady of Garuth stood before Nem, impassive glare meeting impassive glare. She’d known how to feel once. Now that was gone behind shields so like Nem’s that the similarities tore at me. I’d helped her to feel once. And she’d hated me for the fact that I could not give her this, what I’d given to Nem, what Nem had chosen me to give.
I set my hand on Nem’s heart. “Feel, my love,” I said softly.
And Nem’s mask fell. He held his chin high, still, for hurt child of Zaharoth he may be, but my Nem still had pride. “I do not hold the Duchy of Garuth responsible for the actions of a servant who allowed himself to be poisoned by ambition.” There was a flash at his throat as it bobbed. He took a breath, and I could feel it, the soft expansion of his chest, the subtle beating beneath, quickening, though I knew his face would not show it, even with the masks he wore removed. “But I would have the name of my mate untarnished. He is no traitor, not to Garuth, nor to any other corner of the Realm.”
The Lady inclined her head once.
I tilted my head to look at her, and at the captain. “You hold a slave,” I said, “a child of Om. He is of the blood. I ask now, before Yarath of Om arrives at these gates, that you free him of this unjust obligation.”
The lady glanced at the boy. “I release him to yo—”
“Not to me, Lady. He must hold his own fate in his hands.”
She turned to Jordan. “Child of Om.”
Jordan looked up. Reddened trails marked the pale, ice-like flesh below his eyes and along his cheeks. “I am not a child of Om. I am Jordan Blackmun. I live in the real world. I belong in the real world.” He bit his lip. “I just want to go home.”
Nastasia turned and looked at me. “I cannot grant this boon. Travel between the worlds is not within my power.”
“Release him,” I said. “One grows close who can grant this wish, if he is freed of obligation to the Realm.”
The Lady looked troubled, but turned back to Jordan. “Jordan Blackmun, child of the Real, you are released. Garuth has no longer any hold upon you. You are of the blood, child. What you choose—”
“I’m not a child. I’m a man. And I have a m-mate,” he stuttered, his glance darting to me. “I was promised that I could go home, if that was what I wanted.”
I nodded. “I will help you.”
“Garuth owes Lord Thommas of Ashe a great debt,” Nastasia said. “If the Duchy of Garuth can be useful, ch... if we can be useful, Jordan of the Real, we will help you.”
Jordan looked at me hopefully.
I leaned against my mate, kissing his shoulder gently. “I have to go, love.”
“It’s okay,” Nem said. “You swore an oath. Free yourself of it, and we will be together.”
“Always,” I said softly, leaning in to kiss him on the lips. He moaned into the kiss, leaning forward, his hand clasping the one I still kept against his heart. He didn’t allow the kiss to linger, though he dragged my lip into his, forcing me to pull it from the soft grasp of his lips with a slight pop. It was sensuous and suggestive and I knew the gesture was a promise of sorts for later. I smiled at him, touched our foreheads briefly together, and turned to the Lady, whose impassive mask had cracked, slightly at the sight of us together that way.
“Lady, I would suggest we prepare the hall for guests and send to Yarath of Om greetings. He marches with armies. We must meet him with words.”
“Garuth cannot bear the brunt of this fury,” said the captain.
Jordan’s voice was quiet, but it still carried. “The fury to be faced is mine. This man stands between me and Brian. If he knows what’s good for him, he’ll stand aside.”