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Chapter Eight: Draemir

Posted in Book Three, and Of Astral and Umbral

Chapter Eight: Draemir

 

The door to my room slammed open and startled me out of my deep slumber. My heart leapt into my throat as I tumbled out of bed, falling to the floor in a tangle of blankets. Before I could clear my bleary vision, the force of light slammed through me. Adrenaline flooded my system, sending my pulse into dizzying overdrive and making me tremble.

Djialkan and Alala both dashed in front of me and face the door, snarling.

“Ari, get out of my fucking house!” Darius screamed at me.

I just sat on the floor and stared at him for a moment, my blood running cold. Darius looked hysterical, incensed, and had shimmering light swirling around his body. I heard armored feet rushing up the stairs, alongside orders barked in Draemiran. Whether they were coming to protect Darius or me was uncertain.

“What—” I shivered and pulled a few blankets over my nude form, shrinking away from the light. ‘Hate it. Light… Snuff it out. Snuff it out! G-get rid of it. Kill

“It’s all your fault!” Darius screeched, stalking into the room fully. “Because of you, my friends think that I was lying about Nalithor being mine! They don’t believe that Vivus and I got to fuck him! Because of you, I can’t even fuck Vivus in my room! My room! This is ridiculous!

“You made him kiss you and invite you to Draemir, didn’t you? Fucking bitch!”

‘Nalithor? His? I twitched.

My Guardians both shifted, both growing to the size of a small pony. They blocked half the room, their threatening noises growing more agitated and bassy. Several soldiers and mages from Darius’ escort skidded to a stop in the doorway, with Maric at the front. Most of them were looking from Darius and to my guardians, unsure of what to do.

“How is it my fault you lie your fucking ass off?!” I snapped at Darius. ‘Kill it. That light; I hate it. Why won’t you extinguish it?! M-maybe…if I snuff you out, then…’

I said get out!” Darius roared, forming his light into javelins. “I should have listened to our parents when they said that all an Umbral Mage like you wants is to make the life of an Astral miserable!”

Darius hurled his javelins at me. I jerked up a wall of darkness between us and cringed when the javelins slammed into it, releasing a shrill sound that reverberated through the air. The scent of light, its presence, the look of it—I hated it all. Especially his light. ‘It’s wrong, so wrong. Twisted. Extinguish it. Hate it, hate it, hate it!

‘How is it my fault that he made such a stupid mistake?! Nalithor is mine, not his!

“M-Maric…” I curled my fists into the blanket, shaking with both rage and fear.

“Yes, General?” Maric stiffened in the doorway, though he shot me a concerned frown.

“G-get Darius out of m-my sight,” I stuttered through clenched teeth. “Before I—”

“I said I’m kicking you out of the house!” Darius snapped, attempting to push past both Djialkan and Alala. “Why are you still sitting there? Get out!”

Djialkan’s jaws clamped down on Darius’ arm and, with a sharp motion of his head, the fae-dragon threw my raging twin at the wary soldiers. Maric shot me another concerned look before saluting me and beckoning for his men to restrain my brother. The Astral Mages in Maric’s command blanketed Darius in warm golden light, before flinching and scrambling backwards when I shot them a murderous glare.

“Let Her Highness dress and gather her belongings in privacy!” Djialkan bellowed, his voice making the windows rattle. “If she does not slay you for the intrusion, Alala and I will!”

Alala lowered her head and snarled at the Astral Mages to make her point, lips curling upwards to reveal fangs as long as my hand. The Astrals fled backwards and dragged Darius from the room, having realized that my twin’s kicking and screaming was the least of their worries at that given moment.

I wanted to kill them. Their fucking light wore at my patience.

“Arianna-jiss.” Maric sighed, running a hand through his scruffy hair. “Will you be alright?”

“Just…keep Darius and your Astral Mages away from me,” I replied, rising to my feet with a blanket clutched over my chest. “I need to meet up with Nalithor soon anyway, but—”

“I’m sure I don’t have to tell you of all people to keep this spat from Nalithor until Dauthrmir is far behind you,” Maric interjected, giving me a firm look. “You told us to take Darius out of your sight so you wouldn’t kill him, right? Nalithor won’t be so merciful.”

I nodded in reply and watched as the rugged soldier left. Djialkan shambled over to the door and nosed it shut so that I could get dressed. Alala returned to her normal size with a puff of pale blue magic, but her fur still stood on end. She paced around the room, grumbling and growling, the entire time I was getting ready.

I couldn’t stop trembling while throwing on a pair of low Susthulite sarouel and a patching cropped top. For the time being I pulled a long coat on over the ensemble. It seemed likely to me that Draemir would be much warmer than Dauthrmir due to its proximity to the Suthsul Desert, and the lighter clothing meant I could dress faster—and get away from the damned light that was eating away at my sanity.

While I attempted to make myself look presentable, Djialkan went about the room returning all our belongings to my shrizars. Darius’ light still raged freely around the house while I pinned my curls out of my face and applied some makeup. I dropped my tube of lipstick several times before managing to steady my hands enough to paint my lips.

“Arianna, we should hurry,” Djialkan returned to his cat-like size and perched on my shoulder. “Fraelfnir says that Darius is struggling to come upstairs again.”

“C’mere, ‘lala.” I turned in my seat and beckoned to the irritable fox. “Let’s go meet Nalithor.”

Alala huffed and leapt from the bed to my arms. Her tail draped over my wrists and twitched in irritation. Sighing, I turned to look at the door to my room and hesitated. Wisps of golden light were pushing around the door’s edges and into the room, corrupting what was once my territory with its crisp stink. I shook my head and moved to the balcony instead, choosing to leap into the yard below instead of walk downstairs.

Before walking away from the house I glanced back at it one more time, watching the shimmer of light as it pressed against the first floor windows from inside. I’d never seen my brother’s power act in such a way before, but his escort seemed to be keeping him in check—for now.

‘Really… What’s with him all of a sudden?’ I mumbled curses under my breath and turned to stalk through the Sapphire Quarter. ‘Who in the hells would believe him about Nalithor anyway?’

Finding Nalithor wasn’t difficult by any stretch of the imagination. He shot me a concerned look when he spotted me strolling down the street to meet him, but it looked as if he didn’t plan to inquire about the situation just yet. Both Djialkan and Alala were still making angry noises, and Alala was still channeling her inner porcupine. ‘She’d look a lot more threatening if she wasn’t so soft…’

“Shall we?” Nalithor shifted his attention from the grumbling fox and up to my face. “You have everything you need?”

“The sooner we get going, the sooner these two will stop grumbling—I hope,” I replied with a small smile, looking up at the Adinvyr.

Nalithor opened his mouth as if to say something, then shook his head slightly and closed his mouth. He beckoned for me to follow him, and I hurried to oblige, releasing a relieved sigh. His presence and scent were already helping to calm me, though the uneasy glance he shot in the direction of “Darius’” house didn’t go unnoticed. That he was uneasy didn’t surprise me. Particles of gold and prismatic light had begun drifting around the entire property during our brief exchange, and only seemed to be expanding.

‘Disgusting…’ I shivered, squeezing Alala for comfort. A hint of bloodlust rose again, so I tore my gaze away from the house and settled my gaze on Nalithor’s back instead. ‘If anyone else had tried that with me, they would be…’

“Here, we’ll be taking this airship to Draemir,” Nalithor called to me a few minutes later, breaking me out of my self-pity. “The flight will take several hours, so—”

“There had better be food!” Djialkan huffed, leaping from my shoulders to fly past Nalithor.

Alala yipped her agreement and scrambled of my grip to dart after Djialkan. The crew exchanged amused looks when the white fluffball and the fae-dragon sped past them, then resumed their pre-flight preparations. Returning my attention to Nalithor, I found that he looked expectant—but was waiting patiently by the ramp for me. I still wasn’t exactly fond of the flying deathtraps by any stretch but, for now, getting away from Darius seemed more important than the unease the airships made me feel.

☽ ✷ ☾

I leaned against the railing on one of the ship’s outer decks and washed as the lush Draemiran forests rushed by beneath me. The Dauthrmir Crater was several hours behind us now, leaving me free of the disgusting light my brother wielded. The air here was comfortably warm and filled with the scents of the forests far below. I could make out massive ancient trees which bloomed with pale, glowing flowers in many colors. We were now close enough to the city itself that I could spot rolling farmland, lit by moonslight, on the horizon.

Nalithor had left Alala, Djialkan, and I to our own devices for the most part. Both of my Guardians were still in a foul mood, but my mood had been lifting since entering Draemiran territory. It was difficult for me to stay cranky when there was such beautiful, sweet-smelling scenery sprawled before me. The combination of ancient mrifon trees, others I didn’t have a name for, and the starry sky above was just…breathtaking. Sparkling rivers and streams carved their way through the forests and past the farmland, heading far into the distance. Most of the country, thus far, seemed undisturbed by both people and beasts alike.

“I hope you aren’t tense because going to Draemir worries you,” Nalithor spoke from somewhere behind me, causing me to turn and watch him as he approached. He shot me a concerned frown, but I just smiled back.

“Djialkan and Alala haven’t spouted off and vented to you already?” I questioned, tracking the concerned Adinvyr’s movements as he walked over to me.

“Aren’t you cold?” Nalithor frowned, his pale eyes wandering down my form for a moment, while I just blinked up at him in surprise. “I certainly don’t mind the view but—”

“This is about as warm as a X’shmiran summer!” I laughed, shaking my head at him before turning to look out over the ship’s railing again. “I’m not acclimated to the warmer temperatures Below, yet, and I assume it’s only going to get warmer.”

“Susthulite attire suits you…” Nalithor murmured, wrapping an arm around my waist. “I’m beginning to think there isn’t anything you wouldn’t look good in.”

“Really though, neither of them told you?” I probed again as his hand came to rest over my stomach.

“They are both angrier than you are and refuse to speak with me.” Nalithor shook his head, resting his free hand on the railing. He looked down at the forest below and sighed, continuing, “I get the feeling that I’m going to be very displeased by whatever has all three of you so angry on such a beautiful morning.”

“Well, aside from almost every Adinvyr in the damn city pelting me with their fantasies all night, every night,” I began dryly, smiling when Nalithor’s grip twitched and growled. “Darius kicked us out of the house this morning. Permanently. We almost didn’t have time to stow things in my shrizar.”

“He…what?” Nalithor demanded furiously, turning away from the railing to bring a hand to my face. “Would you like me to put him in his place for you? That brat needs to learn some—”

“Not necessary. His reasoning for kicking me out is pathetic.” I grinned, shaking my head. “Not only is he angry about being unable to bring Vivus to the house… He’s angry because somehow it’s my fault that his ‘friends’ discovered he was lying about bedding you.”

“He claimed to have done what to me, exactly?” Nalithor bristled, lowering his face toward mine. “And how is it your fault that they discovered his lies?”

“Supposedly I made you kiss me,” I grumbled, glancing away from him as I flushed. “From what I understand, he’s been claiming that he and Vivus both topped you.”

“I’m of half a mind to kill your brother.” Nalithor growled, pulling my face towards his until I had to stand on my tiptoes. “That he would go as far as to blame you and kick you out of the house… He really is quite obsessed with me, isn’t he?”

“He is. And he doesn’t seem to realize it’s pointless to…” I trailed off and blinked at the sight beyond the railing, staring at the sprawling city nestled on the shore of a large lake. “Wow.”

Nalithor chuckled and pulled me released my face, instead opting to pull me back against his chest. I stared at the expansive maze of tiered, lacquer-coated wooden buildings in awe. While Dauthrmir was built upon vertical tiers of floating stones, Draemir had instead chosen to build outward. The city curved around and out from a large lake, its most decorated buildings sitting along the lake’s shore itself. The city appeared to be built around nature instead of attempting to overtake it.

What truly stunned me was the shimmer of magic that ran through everything in the city. Veins and orbs of many-colored lights twinkled or pulsated through everything I could see in the city, the forests, and the surrounding farmland. Magic truly seemed to be part of everything in their lives and their surroundings.

“You’re a little more fascinated than I expected.” Nalithor squeezed me.

“Would you… Would you like to see what your home’s magic looks like?” I offered after a moment, tilting my head back to look at the surprised Adinvyr.

“Isn’t it quite a strain to share such vision with others?” Nalithor hesitated, glancing from me to the city and back.

“It’s not that bad.” I shook my head and then shot him a small, teasing smile. “Consider it a gift?”

I offered him my right hand and then bit back a grin when I saw a faint flush rise to his cheeks. Finally, he took my hand and I refocused on the scenery before me. Nalithor’s grip tensed briefly when I switched from my normal vision and back to seeing magic. I heard his breath catch in his throat as he gazed down at his city and the surrounding countryside below. After several long moments, he leaned down to nuzzle my shoulder, his arm tightening around me even as he withdrew from the connection that let him see.

“Thank you, Arianna.” Nalithor purred into the side of my neck, squeezing me again as if for emphasis. “Ahhh… Now I find myself even more inclined to shirk my princely duties in favor of pampering you.”

“Princely duties? Sounds like politics,” I commented, suppressing a shudder when Nalithor’s lips brushed against my throat. “Politics does tend to ruin everything.”

“Yes, well, my parents did decide to be troublesome.” Nalithor laughed. He planted a brief kiss on the side of my neck before straightening to his full height. “They likely mean to test me by throwing every noblewoman they can find my way. Or, perhaps they intend to test you. I am uncertain.

“Either way, they’re not just going to let me get away with choosing to conquer for someone.”

“Test me?” I inquired. Pursing my lips, I shook my head and glanced up at him again. “Are there more cultural nuances that you should be informing me of before we arrive? Hmmm?”

“As I mentioned yesterday, you have the right to claim my company for yourself because you’re my guest. At the same time, it is not appropriate for you to ‘intervene’ in such a way if you are not…interested,” Nalithor replied, causing me to arch an eyebrow at his hesitation.

“So I can only ‘rescue’ you if I’m sincerely interested, then?” I questioned, tilting my head a little when his grip twitched tense enough for his claws to bite into my stomach. “What else do I need to know? Are there any particular customs for clothing or speaking that I should abide by? Should I be concerned about challengers? What about more people prodding my barriers? Will—”

“While I would like to see you in more Draemiran attire,” Nalithor began, smoothing his hands down my sides and to the low-rise waistband of my sarouel. “I can’t deny that this has its own charms as well. However, you’re free to wear what you like in Draemir—we celebrate the male and female physiques in Draemir, unlike X’shmir. You could opt to walk around the city in lingerie and it would still be considered appropriate. If anyone decides to shower you with unwanted attention, I would be happy to take care of them for you.

“Aside from that, I would recommend speaking in our native tongue while in Draemir.”

“Rely’ric, we will be landing soon. You and Arianna-jiss should return to your seats,” a voice called from behind us.

I bit back an amused smile when Nalithor growled at the soldier for interrupting our conversation. After a heavy sigh, Nalithor gave me a small tug and led me back inside the airship and to our waiting seats. For several minutes we simply sat in silence, but Nalithor watched me with an unreadable expression the entire time. So, I chose to prod him for more information.

‘How should I handle honorifics?’ I glanced to the side at him. ‘In X’shmir I’m not treated like a princess, but you said that here I should still be treated as one.

‘Even if you weren’t the daughter of royalty, your Brands would elevate you to high status in Vorpmasia. Honorifics are not required for people of lower rank than you.’ Nalithor’s expression shifted from unreadable to one of contemplation as he spoke. ‘Might I convince you to don one of your emblazoned coats for the walk through the city? Call me selfish if you wish, but I would rather not share the sight of your skin with the residents of the Scarlet District. We will be passing through there on our way to the palace.’

Selfish? I shot him a crooked grin, watching as he flushed. ‘Were if for any other reason, I might be concerned you wished to hide me from view. Seeing as it’s the Scarlet District, however, I can—

‘I would much rather show you off,’ Nalithor interjected firmly, reaching over to grasp my hand. He lifted my hand to his lips and kissed it, a playful twinkle dancing in his eyes. Those people and I have never seen eye-to-eye. They do not follow the same customs that the nobility and royalty do.

‘As far as I’m concerned, they are not worthy enough to see any part of you.

‘You never answered me about challengers.’ I nudged him once before summoning one of my high-collared armored overrobes.

‘If any of them desire you they should challenge you, Nalithor replied, tensing his jaw. ‘However, the same could be said for the Adinvyr in Dauthrmir. If they believed you to be close in power to them, they should have challenged you—otherwise it is only polite to leave you alone.

‘As such…my offer still stands to put them in their places for you.’

Once the airship was fully settled into its dock on the outskirt of the city, Nalithor rose to his feet and offered me his hand. After pulling me to my feet he shot me a brief smile and then moved away to speak with one of the nearby shoulders. I took the opportunity to shrug on my overrobe and fasten the buttons of the double-breasted bodice into place. Alala and Djialkan soon rounded a corner, seeming in better moods than before. The fae-dragon himself perched one on of my shoulders. Alala ran circles around my feet for a short while before allowing me to pick her up.

“Well then, I suppose we should be going,” Nalithor remarked, turning away from the soldier to look between me and the warbling fox. “Hmmm…”

“Hmmm?” I questioned, tilting my head as the Adinvyr strode toward me.

“I’ll be taking these.” Nalithor smirked, plucking my hair sticks from the place. “Alala, are you really going to keep both of Arianna’s arms to yourself?”

Alala warbled at him, swishing her tail in reply. Nalithor released a dejected sigh.

“Very well. Stay close, Arianna.” Nalithor beckoned for me to follow him through the corridors of the airship.

“Concerned that some scoundrel will come whisk me away?” I teased, falling into step with the sulking Adinvyr. He glanced down at me, so I shot him a smile in return.

“Didn’t you call me a scoundrel?” Nalithor pointed out dryly, causing me to grin.

“I’ve decided you’re not a scoundrel. You’re just extremely mischievous and playful,” I replied, laughing as I followed Nalithor out of the airship and into the temperate, sweet-smelling air of Draemir. ‘Ah… I see you’re even more popular here, Your Highness.

I glanced around at the dockyard for airships, examining the throngs of waiting Adinvyr. They were all exuberant and attempting to get a better look at their prince. However, their reaction to me was almost instantaneous. Hushed murmurs swept through the crowd like a wave, followed by dozens of nudging and prodding at my barriers. Their thoughts remained tame while they expressed their curiosity and confusion, and I could only hope it would stay that way.

Almost all of the women had mrifon in their hair to signal their availability, and wore clothes that revealed their seductive figures. Some of them looked disappointed that Nalithor had brought a woman home with him, but a surprising number of them seemed more interested in me than in Nalithor. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. It took most of my self-control to keep from hiding behind him.

“Shall we, Arianna-z’tar?” Nalithor smiled at me, expertly ignoring the clamoring crowd. “If we hurry, we should be able to spar before lunch.”

“Only if you promise to show me around later.” I grinned at him. “If you’ll indulge me, of course.”

‘-z’tar now, is it?’ I wondered privately as we escaped the crowd and made our way through the Scarlet District at a brisk pace. ‘My distaste for such people aside, this district sure is lavish.

‘Still. Calling me “Arianna-z’tar”? And in front of so many people? Is he trying to hint that he’s that interested in me…or is he trying to rile up the crowd of strumpets? How am I supposed to—’

My thoughts paused as the probing of my barriers worsened, causing my eye to twitch. Perhaps most of them had focused on Nalithor at first, but now I seemed to have their undivided attention. They appeared intent on figuring me out. While their collective presence was still tame, the sheer number of them alone threatened to give me a headache.

‘I didn’t accidentally hide my power behind my shields again, did I?’ I fell into step with Nalithor while taking in my surprisingly ornate surroundings. Lavender and scarlet Magefire lanterns hung from the buildings or were otherwise affixed to posts, arches, and fences.

‘Bothering you already, are they?’ Nalithor inquired, a small frown tugging at his lips. ‘Your power isn’t hidden. However, your coat does obscure your Brands—aside from those on your hands. Perhaps they are confused.

‘I’ll kick their asses later if needed.’ I shook my head, then moved a little closer to Nalithor. I didn’t like some of the stares I was attracting. ‘I’m still not used to being noticed in a way that doesn’t involve things being thrown at me…’

‘I must think of a sufficient punishment for the X’shmirans,’ Nalithor muttered, bristling even as he continued to ignore everyone we passed. ‘How would you like to spar with me today? Armed, unarmed, magic… Or perhaps you would like to work on those grappling skills of yours?’

‘You mean my lack of grappling skills? I laughed. ‘I should probably say that working on my grappling skills would be best. Though, I prefer not to script sparring matches.’

‘You prefer them to be more chaotic and similar to actual battle?’ Nalithor shot me a knowing smile before slipping an arm behind my back, pulling me closer.

‘Yes, exactly.’ I confirmed, glancing to the side when several women released indignant shrieks; they didn’t seem to approve of Nalithor’s hand on my hip. ‘You seem quite practiced at ignoring the people of this district, but they still appear quite enamored with you, Nalithor.’

‘I disagree with most of our people about whether or not districts such as this are needed.’ Nalithor grimaced. ‘Although the male and female prostitutes are all willing participants, treated well, and live their own lives outside of “work”…I strongly disapprove of such practices.

‘They dislike me both because I won’t bed them, and because I’m so dedicated to the proper methods that the nobles and the rest of the Royal Family adhere to. We prefer to hunt for our “food”, and we prefer to earn the attentions of others.

‘So they’re like jealous, disgruntled children?’ I offered, attempting to tune out a few whistles from above us. ‘I’ll be honest; I half-expected to be met with animosity for being Human and accompanying their precious prince.

“Yo, Nali! You’re back?” A vaguely familiar voice called from somewhere ahead of us.

I turned my attention forward to find a red-headed Adinvyr in armor. He was examining me curiously, but the look in his bright green eyes and the snapping of his bronze tail gave him away. In a blur, he dashed toward me with one of his fists pulled back. Before either of them could fully react I palm-struck his wrist out of my way and then spun into a roundhouse kick.

My shin connected with the Adinvyr’s armor with enough force to make him stumble. Alala let out a discontented huff and scrambled out of my arms to perch on Nalithor’s shoulder. Djialkan remained with me and puffed darkness while peering at the Adinvyr that had rushed me.

“While I’m not a fan of bronze, I think I might take your horns and mount them on my wall,” I remarked conversationally, shifting into an offensive stance. Nalithor just laughed while I examined the startled Adinvyr. “Aren’t you the same one that tried to pick a fight with me back in X’shmir?”

“Still biting off more than you can chew I see, Sorr,” Nalithor spoke with a broad grin. “Arianna, you didn’t even bother to shield your leg did you?”

“Beast hide is harder than his armor,” I replied with a dismissive huff, pivoting to look at my smirking companion. “You two know each other well, then? I shouldn’t make a trophy out of him?”

“She’s serious, isn’t she?” Sorr blinked at me, then looked to Nalithor whom had begun laughing again. “If she kicks like that I can see why you said you didn’t need an escort!”

“Arianna, Sorr is one of the Draemiran Generals. I trained him.” Nalithor chuckled, motioning to the red-headed Adinvyr. “His manners may be lacking, at times, but he’s a good warrior.”

“So I shouldn’t kill him? I suppose I’ll have to find something else to hunt.” I sighed, running a hand through my curls before pulling my hair over my shoulder. “Still…you declined an escort, Nalithor?”

“Seeing as we can both take on a Dux on our lonesome, I don’t believe it necessary,” Nalithor replied dryly, causing Sorr to look toward me with disbelief. “Let’s go. The sooner we get through your introduction to my doting mother, the better.”

“Erist’il and Arom’il already arrived too,” Sorr spoke flatly. I watched with interest as Nalithor’s tail smacked into the cobblestone streets with enough force to crack several of the stones. “Keeping Erist and Ellena away from this fine young woman will be difficult.”

“Arianna, do try not to kill my mother or that woman, won’t you?” Nalithor sighed, motioning for me to follow him. “Or at least leave me one of them…”

‘Now, now, cheer up.’ I hurried after him, grinning. ‘A festival is supposed to be a happy occasion, isn’t it?’

‘Together, my mother and Erist are scoundrels.’ Nalithor huffed, bristling. ‘I was hoping to be free of Erist’s and Arom’s pestering for this week at least. They are usually late to arrive… Ah. Mother must be plotting something. Wonderful.’

Nalithor’s face flushed when I giggled at him, but I couldn’t help it. A god complaining about his mother’s antics struck me as hilarious.

‘Draemir is quite beautiful,’ I informed him with a bright smile, attempting to change the subject. To my surprise he flushed darker and didn’t say anything, so I continued, ‘I’m surprised you didn’t choose to wear one of your kimonos home. Your clothing is distinctly Dauthrmiran.’

‘I had hoped that my people would cease looking at me like meat if I wore something more…covering,’ Nalithor grumbled, running a hand through his hair. ‘You seem fascinated.’

‘Of course I am!’ I grinned. ‘Though, I get the feeling you don’t want me to wander off and explore on my own.’

‘I don’t trust anyone to keep their claws or fangs off you when you smell so damn good…’ Nalithor muttered, blushing darker. ‘Once you’ve settled into your suite and we’ve had our sparring match, I’ll take you into the city for lunch. How’s that sound?’

‘I’d like that,’ I answered, watching with curiosity as Nalithor’s face remained rather pink. After a moment, I reached out to Djialkan. ‘It isn’t my imagination is it?’

‘He’s smitten.’ Djialkan snorted.

It was difficult for me to accept, but I couldn’t think of any other reason for Nalithor’s behavior. What else could possibly cause a warrior to blush? I didn’t know how to feel about the matter, and dwelling on it made me feel…anxious.

I found myself drawn in by Draemir’s unusual landscaping, architecture, and people once more as we wandered through their mercantile districts. Everything was immaculate and artistic, even the buildings themselves were like works of art. Many of the younger Adinvyr roaming the city had enormous wolf-like creatures known as Vrandool accompanying them, with the youngest children being guarded by both their parents and what Nalithor referred to as Vrandool puppies.

How one of the creatures could be a puppy and come up to my chest in height was beyond me.

‘They’re really cute though… I want one.’ I pursed my lips, tracking a few of the creatures as they padded alongside their masters.

Off to one side of the central merchant district was a large building that, according to Nalithor, was Erist’il and Arom’il’s temple. On the direct opposite side of the district was a similar temple which belonged to the God and Goddess of War. These temples were where they stayed during their visits to Draemir, and was where the faithful left gifts.

It appeared as though both pairs of deities had a great deal of influence on the Draemirans. Most of the decorations and artwork I spotted during our stroll reflected battle, war, hunting, romantic love, or physical love. Many young Adinvyr were sparring in the streets, while the children and their Vrandool played games to hunt their tracking skills.

Hints of foreign cultures were limited in Draemir, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that very few people here weren’t Adinvyr. The majority of people that belonged to other species appeared to be tourists, and Nalithor informed me that they were likely here for Draemir’s famous spring festivities.

When we arrived in the residential portion of the city, I immediately understood why Nalithor had mentioned that Draemir might come as culture shock to my brother.

There were several pairs of Adinvyr having sex out in the open, and it was rather obvious that this was normal behavior in Draemir. Passing soldiers and citizens were unfazed by the public displays. Uninterested, even.

For an outsider like me, it was difficult to ignore the passionate moaning and name-calling going on. Hells, it was hard enough not to stare at the men’s rather startling…assets. Their sheer size was difficult for me to grasp despite my anatomy studies. Drawings versus the real thing was quite different.

Almost as shocking was the way the Adinvyr couples used their tails. While some simply intertwined their tails, others were using them for penetration purposes.

It was fascinating, in a way, but I felt as though it wasn’t appropriate to stare or watch. Other Adinvyr were clearly ignoring the exchanges, not sparing them even a glance. Their indifference gave me the impression that, even though the displays were public, you weren’t supposed to spectate or speak up.

‘I was expecting at least a quip, perhaps even disgust,’ Nalithor commented after a few minutes. ‘Yet you seem mostly unfazed. Did Djialkan warn you?’

‘No, he didn’t warn me.’ I shook my head. ‘I would say I’m startled, not “unfazed”. However, it’s obviously part of the norm here. Otherwise the patrolling guards would be reprimanding or arresting them.

‘You culture is heavily influenced by both sex and war, isn’t it? I can’t be too surprised.’

‘If I wasn’t with you, they would be pleading for you to join them.’ Nalithor’s blunt statement made my face flush hot, causing him to chuckle at me. ‘It’s mostly the commoners who partake of the more public displays of desire. Some of the nobles do as well, when they’re younger. However, the nobles and royals are often more exacting and jealous both… We usually don’t want to let anyone see the object of our interest nude.

‘I can’t fathom why any of them would want to share—let alone just invite some random person off the street!’ I released an exasperated sigh, forcing myself to keep my eyes focused forward.

‘Aye, if you had a lover and he suggested a threesome you would have both his head and the head of the invitee.’ Djialkan snorted. I shot him a glare as my face grew hotter. He wasn’t wrong, but he didn’t need to share as much either! ‘Your brother would certainly be happy to indulge the commoners himself, however.’

‘Darius wouldn’t know whether to accept their summons or if he should convert them to X’shmiran ways!’ I huffed, crossing my arms. Nalithor shot me a questioning look so I added, ‘Humans are sexual creatures and don’t like to admit it. X’shmirans in particular are quite bad about it.

‘Many of our laws revolve around punishing sexual behavior; from the most “innocent” to the most “perverse”. Seeing as such things are subject to opinion, I’m sure you can imagine how such a stance can go awry.’

‘Ah yes, we never did finish regaling each other about the details of our respective cultures,’ Nalithor mused while scratching Alala’s chin. After a moment he pulled her off his shoulder and offered her back to me with a smile. ‘I am relieved by your acceptance…and by your distaste for sharing, admittedly.’

‘I’m not exactly sure what would be the polite way to decline potential invitations.’ I sighed, taking Alala and holding her against my stomach with both arms. ‘All of my knee-jerk reactions sound terribly rude. I don’t want to be offensive.

‘What are you laughing at?’

‘It’s terribly amusing to see such an imposing woman holding such an adorable animal like a stuffed toy.’ Nalithor grinned, ruffling my curls. ‘Let’s make haste; Alala desires a nap, and Djialkan sounds like he needs one as well.’

Beyond the commoners’ residential section were the estates belonging to the nobles. The sprawling estates, and the buildings on them, were massive. Each one was like a palace as far as I was concerned, and each estate was surrounded by several acres of lush land, streams, and gardens.

There weren’t many people walking the streets there, but the few unspoken for Adinvyr we did pass seemed displeased when they spotted us but, strangely enough, I couldn’t figure out if they were more jealous of Nalithor or of me.

‘Ah! The military district here is even larger than the one in Dauthrmir! I perked up as Nalithor led my past an incredible number of barracks, training grounds, and many groups of training soldiers. ‘Does this have to do with Suthsul being directly to the south?’

‘That and the proximity of an Aledacian Forest.’ Nalithor shot me an approving smile and reached over to ruffle my curls. ‘We have dealt with more beasts than most parts of Vorpmasia, and are one of the few territories that have been loyal to Lucifer since the beginning,

‘Most of the other territories had to be conquered in order to be brought under the Vorpmasian banner, and two of them are to our east and west. We had to establish ourselves as a people not to be trifled with, and that mindset has remained.’

“Nalithor!” A female exclaimed, her voice chastising as we approached the outer rim of gardens that surrounded the palace grounds. “You should have accepted an escort, or at least transportation! You know I don’t like to be kept waiting. We—”

“Now, now, Ellena!” A second woman grinned while I sized the pair up and listened to Nalithor’s poorly contained growl. “Even if the girl doesn’t bite, we know Djialkan sure does.”

Both of you were so impatient that you deigned it necessary to greet us at the gates?” Nalithor inquired dryly, crossing his arms over his chest. He eyed the women with an uneasy expression.

The first woman, Ellena, stood at least six-foot-two and had long straight hair that shone a very pale shade of blue. She must have been where Rabere inherited his eyes from—they were an incredible molten orange. Except, as an Adinvyr, Ellena still had her black sclerae and slit pupils. She was shapely, and wore a simple lightweight gown in white. The intricate silver jewelry, forged by Aurelian, was more than enough decoration for the goddess. The adornments matched her twisting horns and her scaled tail almost perfectly, while the pumpkin-colored crystals matched the palest part of her eyes.

The second woman was around my height and had no Devillian traits to speak of. Her ears were pointed like an Elf, but she didn’t carry herself like one. Her hair was a deep shade of auburn, and her eyes were golden. Like Ellena, she had a voluptuous figure and wore jewelry forged by Aurelian. Hers, however, was gold with pink crystals. The overall design was decidedly floral.

“Clearly they’re just overjoyed to see you again,” I teased, shooting Nalithor a look. Alala chirped and warbled her own amused sounds, her tail wagging back and forth.

“I’m Ellena Vraelimir. Nalithor’s mother,” Ellena offered as the fox fled my arms to return to Nalithor’s shoulder once more. “I do hope my son has been at least attempting to behave himself?”

“I’m Erist’il—most call me Erist,” the second woman added with a broad grin while she examined me. She turned to look at Nalithor with a crooked grin after a moment. “Nalithor! Did you have her don a coat in an attempt to have her intimidate possible pursuers? Hmmm?”

“I’m Arianna Jade Black…but I suppose you both already know that,” I commended dryly. Djialkan bristled on my shoulder and hissed at the women as they approached and snatched up both my hands. “I could remove my coat if you like, but I can’t exactly do that if you’re going to hold my hands like that.”

“You have my permission to throw them if you like.” Nalithor chuckled, placing a hand on top of my head. He shot both of the women a firm look. “At the very least, you two should ask Arianna if you may examine her Brands in such a fashion.”

The pair of women exchanged strange looks before releasing my hands. Ellena instantly rounded on Nalithor.

You have work to attend to immediately,” Ellena informed Nalithor, her expression firm as she reached up to grip one of his shoulders. Her words earned an aggravated sigh from her son but she continued, “Erist and I can see to it that Arianna settles into her rooms fine.”

“I want to see what, under that coat, has drawn Nalithor’s fancy,” Erist added slyly, causing warmth to rise to my face. “You’ve obviously got a nice figure and full assets under there, but—”

“You are both incorrigible,” Nalithor stated with disdain, shrugging his mother’s hand from his shoulder. He took a step forward and lifted me off the ground by my waist so that he could nuzzle me without bending down. By the women’s expressions, it was unusual behavior for him. “I expect you to kindly refrain from pestering Arianna with your usual sort of questions, Erist. Your inquiries are already inappropriate to begin with, but even more so since Arianna hails from X’shmir.”

“She’s tiny,” Ellena remarked thoughtfully, motioning down at my feet. “You let him pick you up like that, Arianna? You’ll just inflate my son’s ego even more.”

“If I fought him over it we would never have time for civilized conversation,” I answered with a crooked grin. “My height seems to be a point of interest with many people in Dauthrmir…this one included.”

“Nalithor, there’s a rather large gathering of nobles who require your attention,” Ellena stated flatly. I felt Nalithor twitch in response as he set me down. “I won’t have you shirking your duty as a prince just because you’re also the God of Balance! You’re still the First Prince of Draemir!”

“Fine. Fine.” Nalithor released a heavy sigh and let go of my waste. He began walking toward the palace with Alala still curled up on his shoulder. “Do at least try to remain appropriate?”

I watched Nalithor walk away for a few seconds, examining his downtrodden demeanor and the dejected swishing of his tail. He was clearly displeased and didn’t want to see to his duties in the slightest, regardless of his mother’s demands. Under other circumstances his disobedience would have amused me. However, in this case I found myself rather dissatisfied with the thought of him tending to the needs of anyone else. Jealous would have been more accurate.

“I won’t allow it,” I muttered, brushing past the women. I quickly caught up to Nalithor and caught his hand in mine before he could turn to question me.

“You won’t ‘allow’ it?” Ellena demanded indignantly. “As a prince he has duties he must fulfill! You may be his guest, but—”

If you want him to fulfill his duties so badly—then you can fight me for him!” I snarled, pivoting to glare at Ellena. Darkness exploded outward from my feet when I released a wave of power and bloodlust to shove her back. “I don’t intend to share his company with anyone while I’m here. If you don’t like it, I’ll be more than happy to crush you right now!”

“You heard the princess.” Nalithor purred, lacing his fingers with mine. He pulled me into his chest, his free hand snaking around to the small of my back. “Arianna-z’tar and I have plans for sparring, and then lunch. If you intend to challenge her, then I suggest you do so now.”

“You found a feisty one!” Erist cackled in delight. “In the presence of three gods and she makes a display like that? No wonder you decided to conquer for her!”

“Arianna, you aren’t Human in the slightest are you?” Ellena questioned with an amused smile, her expression unfaltering even when I shot her another glare. “Nalithor’s father does need to speak with him briefly. Let’s compromise.

“Erist and I will show you to your suite while Nalithor speaks with his father. Afterwards…he’s all yours.”

“Is it important?” I questioned begrudgingly, earning a rumbling chuckle from Nalithor.

“Yes, it’s important,” Ellena replied with a serious nod. She crossed her arms and shifted her attention over my head and to her son. “Nalithor, you’ve sparred with her before, I assume? Could she make good on her threat to ‘crush’ me?”

“I might be biased.” Nalithor laughed, squeezing me. “But, I’m certain she could wipe the floor with you and wouldn’t need to draw her weapon to do so. She has bested me before…and you have never managed such a feat.”

‘How can he just say that so casually?’ I wondered with a small sigh. ‘Ellena is a Lesser God and Erist’il is an Upper God. He’s above both… I shouldn’t be able to best either of them, let alone him.’

“You’re certain?” Erist inquired, arching her eyebrow. “When you’re holding her there like that it’s even more apparent how tiny she is.”

“She kicks harder than Eyrian, and is faster. In a purely physical match she was able to elude capture and proceeded to win against me,” Nalithor confirmed, almost sounding as if he was bragging. He released me and looked down at me with a soft smile. “What will it be, Arianna? Will you compromise, or…?”

“I’ll compromise. This time.” I pouted, feeling my face flushing brighter.

“Lysander is in his study, Nalithor.” Ellena giggled while she and Erist each claimed one of my arms. “Take all the time you need. We have plenty of questions we want to pelt this one with!”

“If you leave us with these women for too long, Nalithor, I will roast you!” Djialkan snapped from my shoulder. I couldn’t help but laugh even as the two goddesses dragged us deeper into the palace grounds.

“Now I understand why he insisted that your rooms should be in his section of the palace!” Ellena exclaimed while tugging me along. “You must be driving the poor boys and girls in Dauthrmir mad. He hasn’t killed any of them yet, has he?”

“Humph, with how much they’ve been nosing around my barriers… I wouldn’t be cross if he had,” I replied, disgruntled, as they pulled me past many lush gardens and toward a set of lacquered buildings on the southwestern shore of the lake.

“You gave me quite a fright, you know!” Ellena chastised. “Nalithor has never even once contemplated conquering for someone before—and he’s meant to consult us first! When Lucifer contacted Lysander and I to let us know about the situation I nearly flew out to Dauthrmir myself to find out just what sort of woman had stirred my son’s inner conquerer in such a way!”

“They’re all like this, you know.” Erist jabbed her thumb in Ellena’s direction.

“It’s been too long since Lysander last conquered for me,” Ellena contemplated aloud. “I should find another country to fix and have him take it for me.”

“You would deal with that sort of political mess willingly?” I shook my head in disbelief. “If Lucifer contacted you to inform you of the situation, then surely you realize there are many reasons to conquer X’shmir.”

The women pulled me into a wing of the palace that smelled strongly of Nalithor, and led me down the hall.

“Oh, certainly.” Ellena nodded, her voice filled with distaste. She switched to a more cheerful tone and continued, “I’m relieved to find that Nalithor’s gift is for a powerful woman, however.”

“I don’t think either of has seen Nalithor blush since— Oooh…” Erist trailed off, her eyes growing wide as she looked from me and then to Ellena. “He did say Arianna-‘z’tar’, and her eyes… Ellena?”

“I think you’re right.” Ellena nodded. “Arianna, do you have anything to wear to formal parties? From what I understand, the X’shmirans do not treat anyone well, but especially you.”

“It depends on how formal we’re talking.” I frowned, then nudged Djialkan. ‘They realized who I am? So fast?’

‘I believe Nalithor has as well,’ Djialkan answered with a yawn. ‘Not until recently. Fear not.’

“Let’s get a look at your wardrobe then!” Erist beamed as Ellena slid a door to a suite open. “You use a shrizar, like most mages, right? Here—this room has a large walk-in. Is this enough space?”

The lavish suite was decorated with satins, silks, velvets, brocades, and leathers in scarlet and cream. All of the furniture, pillars, and beams in the room were intricately carved dark reddish-brown wood. The floor was the same type of wood, but smooth and glossy underfoot. I couldn’t decide whether the furniture seemed too pretty to sit on, or too comfortable-looking not to sit on. It seemed as if all the carvings and brocades depicted imagery like a story, but I had no idea of where to begin with trying to “read” whatever story the images told.

The adjacent wardrobe that the women seemed impatient for me to fill was ridiculous as far as I was concerned. It was easily the size of my room back in Dauthrmir. In the center of the wardrobe was a large counter with drawer upon drawer for smaller items like jewelry, and makeup. One wall appeared to be dedicated to weapon racks and even had a mannequin meant for armor.

“I can’t even fill half of this!” I laughed in disbelief, shaking my head at the two women while I pulled my overrobe off. I hung it up, opened my collection of shrizar, and summoned all of my clothing onto hangers in the room, then summoned the trunks from Sihix in one corner of the wardrobe.

“Oh? Secretly saucy are we?” Erist giggled, pulling down one of my lace-paneled dresses. “Has he seen you in this yet?”

“I wore that to the celebration dinner when we returned from hunting in Abrantia.” I flushed, shifting in discomfort. “He was my date…and my twin brother was incredibly pissed off. Was sure worth it, though…”

“Twin brother? And he isn’t with the two of you?” Ellena probed while looking through my clothing.

“The invitation was for me only.” I shrugged. “Darius is attending the academy. He’s rather smitten with Nalithor.”

“Darius kicked Arianna out of this morning because she is ‘stealing Nalithor away’!” Djialkan snapped in irritation. A moment later, he leapt from my shoulder and flew out of the wardrobe. “I am going to sleep.”

“The scaly one hasn’t changed much.” Erist shook her head, then motioned at my torso. “This…is a surprise, however. I can sense Nalithor hasn’t made you his Chosen or his goddess, so that means your Brands of Divinity are naturally this way.”

“Chosen?” I asked with a small frown. “I’ve heard the term before but I’m still unsure what it means.”

“Deities who are Middle or Upper Gods often take like-minded mortals under their wing, blessing them with power and the like,” Erist replied while circling me. “Middle and Upper Gods have many responsibilities, as you can imagine, and we need the help of our ‘Chosen’ in order to properly do our jobs. The world is quite large, after all.

“Racial Gods—that is, Lesser Gods—such as Ellena here or her estranged son aren’t capable of sensing such pacts, or even the lack thereof.”

“Honestly, this selection is so limited!” Ellena finally exclaimed, turning away from my clothes to look at me. “Erist, I think we should have her attend the party tonight. I have the perfect kimono in mind for her too.”

“I thought you were going to suggest that we take her shopping!” Erist laughed.

“That’s a good idea too. However, I think it’d be much more amusing to have Nalithor take her shopping,” Ellena replied, her expression one of contemplation. “If his blushing earlier was any indication, he’s really got quite the soft spot for you      , Arianna.”

“A shopping excursion would require that I’m capable of not killing the multitudes of your people who seem intent on knocking on my barriers!” I huffed, placing a hand on one hip. “Since you’re their goddess, Ellena-z’tar, any bright ideas on how to make them stop?”

“You mentioned people nosing around your barriers before,” Ellena murmured. “The clueless children have already started here as well?”

“They can’t seem to understand that they’re of no interest to me.” I pouted, pivoting to watch as the women strode past me and into the sitting room.

“Your best option would be to release a particularly strong shockwave of your power when you arrive at tonight’s party,” Ellena replied, tapping her fist against her cheek as she thought. “The party is for gods and demigods, but since you’ve decided to claim my son’s attentions—and because I’m inviting you—you can come as Nalithor’s date. I’ll make sure he’s aware.

“Erist and I will come by tonight to dress and fetch you. We can discuss the particulars of our customs then.”

“Oh right, one more thing!” Erist clapped her hands together and grinned. “The bath is at the end of the hallway. The door on the right is Nalithor’s suite. By the color you just turned, I guess you already know of Draemiran bathing traditions! Ha-ha!”

“Let’s take care not to tease her too much.” Ellena giggled as they made their way over to the sliding door and out of the room.

“Nalithor teases me plenty without the two of you pitching in!” I huffed after them. I stalked over to the door and slid it closed behind them. ‘Tch, I really can’t stand women!’

After a few moments of consideration, I flopped down on a chaise and decided to read a book on the Aledacian Forests while waiting for Nalithor to come find me for a sparring match. Alas, his father must have had a lot to say. It was almost a full hour before Nalithor knocked lightly on my door and I heard Alala warble.

“They didn’t trouble you, did they?” Nalithor inquired when I slid the door open and looked up at him.

“I was expecting your mother to be cross with me,” I grumbled, watching as Alala leapt off Nalithor’s shoulder and scampered into the rooms behind me. “They seemed more distressed by my wardrobe than anything else. Typical women.”

“The power you released during your sudden proclamation has the entire city in a frenzy, you know.” Nalithor chuckled, pulling me into the hallway with him. He smiled and lifted my face by the chin. “You can be quite fearsome when you want to be, it seems.”

“Frenzy?” I blinked up at him, resting my palms against his abs as he pulled me closer.

“I don’t know what you laced your power with…but they seem rather desperate to inspect my barriers,” Nalithor replied, sliding his tail around my hips. “Are they still bothering you as well?”

“They are,” I confirmed as he shifted his hand to cup my face. “I take it you haven’t run into those women yet?”

“I sensed they were looking for me, and so I avoided them.” Nalithor grimaced. “Did they have something important to say, for once?”

“Erist not so much,” I commented thoughtfully, earning a laugh from the seemingly distracted man before me. “Ellena, however, wants me to join you for dinner tonight as your date. Apparently they plan to come by tonight to dress me in something—I suppose they think I don’t have anything suitable.

“They don’t seem like they plan on giving us much choice in the matter, either.”

“I certainly wouldn’t mind the chance to show you off early…” Nalithor murmured, his eyes trailing down my throat and to my chest briefly as he paused. “She must be plotting something if she’s willing to invite someone who isn’t blatantly a god or demigod.”

“She said it’s alright since I’ve claimed exclusive rights to you during my stay,” I pointed out, watching with amusement as Nalithor’s face flushed a little. “Come now, did you really think I was going to let anyone else have you?”

“I’m never certain what to think when you’re involved.” Nalithor laughed, lifting me up so that I was level with his face. “Now then… We have a sparring match and lunch to get out of the way, don’t we?”

“Are you going to let me walk, or are you planning to carry me?” I arched an eyebrow at him as he coiled his tail tighter around my hips. “This doesn’t seem conducive to either option.”

“I think I’ll carry you,” Nalithor replied with a smile, sliding one arm beneath my knees and bracing my shoulders with the other. “Your daintiness, combined with your power and bloodlust, never ceases to entertain me.

“However, it seems as though we may need to put my countrymen in their place.”

“Your mother seems to think a ‘strong’ release of my power upon arrival tonight should fix the issue,” I offered as his tail uncoiled from my hips, and he began walking through the palace. “I’d like to know why they’re pestering you as well now.”

“Some of them must have pieced together what your ‘outburst’ was about.” Nalithor chuckled, stroking the side of my thigh with his thumb. “Let’s have an unarmed match with no use of magic, shall we? I would like to see how you fare without the presence of a beast egging you on.”

“Outburst?” I pouted.

“You really surprised me, you know.” Nalithor smiled as he carried me out of the palace and toward a nearby stretch of beach, which led to a nearby forest. “At the very least, you didn’t leave any room for doubt regarding your sincerity.”

“I meant what I said.” I earning a self-satisfied smirk from the Adinvyr.

“We should be able to spar in peace here,” Nalithor informed me, setting me down on the sand. “If I win… Mmm, I think you’ll owe me another kiss.”

“And if I win?” I asked, my face growing hotter.

“If you win… Hmmm, what would you like?” Nalithor laughed, kicking off his shoes.

“If I win…. I get to choose what you wear tonight,” I replied after a moment, causing Nalithor to arch an eyebrow at me.

“Are you that concerned I’ll find something to tease you with?” Nalithor smirked, tracking me as I removed my sandals and then adopted an offensive stance.

“I get the feeling that those two plan to put me in something teasing, or something that’s meant to make the other guests jealous,” I pointed out, examining Nalithor’s exposed chest for a moment before smirking back at him. “It wouldn’t be fair to let you be the only one flaunting their date now would it?”

“Ahhh, such a mischievous vixen you are.” Nalithor grinned as he, too, adopted an offensive stance. “Perhaps if you perform well enough I’ll grant your request despite your defeat.”

☽ ✷ ☾

At least two hours had passed since we had started sparring. However, I couldn’t determine if a few seconds or several minutes had passed since Nalithor pinned me beneath him, and I was no longer sure if I cared. He had laced his fingers with mine and trapped my hands above my head with ease. However, it was his torso nestled between my legs that I found most distracting while he kissed me deeply. It was near-impossible for me to control my rising desire as both his passionate kiss and his power threatened to overwhelm me.

“Mmm… You’re making it even more difficult for me to let you out of my sight, you know.” Nalithor purred. He withdrew slightly to kiss down the side of my throat and, this time, I couldn’t suppress a small shudder or bite back a small whimper. “Tsk, tsk…. Are you sensitive, Arianna? You’re so excited from a kiss, despite your resistance to my power?

“As tempting as it is to make you my lunch, after that delicious whimper of yours… Well, that wouldn’t be quite fair now, would it?”

Before I could even attempt to formulate a retort, Nalithor pulled me to my feet with a devious chuckle and then went to reclaim his discarded shoes. After a moment, I turned to do the same and brushed sand off both my sarouel and skin as I went. Regaining some semblance of self-control proved difficult with both his scent and taste still clinging to me. His presence so close made it even harder.

“You certainly made it difficult to defeat you this time,” Nalithor commented, catching me around the waist. He smiled, pulling me to his side. “To think that you would make me work so hard for something you so very clearly enjoyed.”

“Well, I never claimed I didn’t want you to kiss me…” I grumbled, glancing away.

“And yet you made it more difficult than it had to be.” Nalithor chuckled, his hand coming to rest low on my hip. One of his fingers slipped under the hem of my sarouel to stroke the skin just below my hipbone, making me twitch slightly.

“Bah! I wasn’t going to just let you win!” I pointed out with a huff, attempting to ignore his distracting petting. “What are you thinking of for lunch…aside from me?”

“Still mostly you.” Nalithor smirked, drawing a claw across my tender skin. “But… I don’t have the proper time to savor you before we’re expected at dinner in a few hours.

“I’ll take you into the city for lunch so that you can see more of Draemir before tonight.”

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