Chapter Sixty-Five: Conquered Concerns
“Are you awake?” I murmured, stroking Arianna’s back.
“Mostly…” She nuzzled into my chest and pulled her waterlogged tails further over her hip. It had taken a great deal of convincing to get her to accompany me to the village spring and, since arriving, she refused to leave my lap. She was utterly exhausted and could no longer maintain control over her form but we were both in desperate need of a bath.
A rumble of thunder overhead drew my attention upward briefly but my gaze soon returned to my ayraziis. Her eyes were closed and her breathing slow. Outwardly she was the picture of calm, and likely would have fooled most into believing she was asleep. However, I sensed the tremor of desire still lurking within her. It wasn’t long before she shifted in my lap and pressed her lips to one side of my throat, her fingers trailing down the opposite side.
“Now, now, behave.” I chuckled but didn’t move to stop her. “We won’t have the spring to ourselves for long.
“Are you still unsatisfied?”
“Satisfaction isn’t the problem,” Arianna replied dryly, pulling back so she could shoot me a frustrated look. After a moment of contemplation, she wrapped her arms around my neck and pulled herself up so that her face was level with mine. “I can still feel you, you know. Thinking about anything else is impossible.”
Arianna closed what little distance was between us and pressed her lips to mine. Her words sent a shiver of desire through me. I met her passion with my own but captured her hands when they attempted to wander. We had indulged in each other for so long, and I felt so content, yet she could renew my desire with the slightest touch.
The sound of approaching footsteps prompted me to, reluctantly, break our kiss. I caressed Arianna’s cheek and smiled when she pouted at me. The footsteps grew louder and, after a moment, Arianna settled against my chest again with a low grumble. She swung her tails up over her hips again and rubbed her cheek into my skin, but nothing could hide the agitated twitching of her tails.
‘We should finish bathing,’ I informed her as I trailed my fingers down her spine.
‘Let’s stay a little longer.’ Arianna nuzzled my chest and closed her eyes, breathing a small sigh. ‘I’m comfortable and you’re warm.’
‘You’re also not accustomed to public bathing yet.’ I nudged the cluster of fluffy tails that hid her lower body from view. ‘We can stay a little while longer, if you like, but we should likely search for food soon.’
‘Food…’ Arianna’s stomach rumbled.
“Oh, the two of you are finally awake?” Erist exclaimed as she and Arom walked into view. She grinned at us, unfazed by murderous glare Arianna shot her. “I’m impressed. I thought you’d be asleep for another few weeks at least!”
“Another few weeks?” I frowned. “If we have been incapacitated for several weeks then what are the two of you still doing here? You both have many duties—”
“Sihix and Yiltanys have had us at work constantly!” Erist huffed, throwing her hands into the air. “We’ve hardly had a break since you purified the forest, and the same goes for Arianna’s guards. I can’t believe how demanding the Lari’xan are!”
‘Her guards…’ My grip on Arianna tensed briefly. I wasn’t quite ready to share my ayraziis with others again so soon but the sound of several more sets of footsteps made it quite clear I had little choice in the matter. ‘It would be so easy to whisk her away to my domain. I wonder, is that too selfish of me? They gave us weeks to rest, and our time together this morning wasn’t interrupted…’
Arianna’s fingers traced down once of the fading scratches on my chest, sending a shiver through me. I shot her a reprimanding look but she returned my gaze with a soft, teasing smile. We were both healing quickly but the marks covering the both of us were a clear and undeniable evidence of what we had been up to since waking.
‘We should probably pretend we care about what they’ve been up to while we were indisposed,’ Arianna pointed out, resting her head above my heart once more. I suppressed a grimace. She was right.
“How successful was the purification?” I inquired, glancing to the side briefly at Arianna’s guards as they arrived.
Eyrian tensed his jaw when he spotted us but soon heaved a sigh and smoothed his expression over. The others shot us curious glances but my ayraziis paid them no mind, not even when they began to undress. Erist and Arom were the first to join us in the spring but Eyrian, Reulidru, Azhar, Kabos, and Akedos were close behind. Despite what Erist had said, Arianna’s guards looked far more exhausted.
“Yiltanys was able to free most of its children from their corruption,” Eyrian began with a grimace. “Some were too far gone—and some were strange. According to Sihix, the two of you dealt with something similar when cleansing his domain.”
‘Similar?’ I frowned, my mind flicking back to the creatures that had refused death. “I suppose the Lari’xan enlisted the lot of you to hunt, then.”
“That’s right.” Akedos slumped back against a rock, his voice whiny. “Those things are such a pain! The corrupt ones are easy enough to deal with—a blade through the heart or the throat is plenty to end them. It’s those gross ones that are the problem!”
“There shouldn’t be any left,” Kabos added, giving me a brief nod. “The Lari’xan are being most accommodating, if a little demanding.”
“We should return to Dauthrmir soon,” Eyrian spoke up, shooting me a firm look.
“Aye, there is much to prepare for.” Azhar nodded. “Lucifer and the Royal Families are likely growing impatient for our return. Appeasing the Lari’xan may come first, but none of us can linger for too long without causing problems.”
“Especially if the Beshulthien Empire catches wind of our involvement,” Arom remarked, drawing looks of surprise from Arianna’s guards. “Rabere will likely grow frustrated when he learns that Vorpmasia sent you all on such an important mission, and without asking for assistance from their allies.
“Personal feelings aside, the Beshulthien Empire is your ally and the matters of both Falrrsald and the Aledacian Forests are not something that would normally be dealt with by such a small contingent.”
“And the Royal Families will be pissed that their precious First Princess doesn’t have an army protecting her,” Erist added dryly, motioning at Arianna.
Arianna cracked an eye open to shoot the Goddess of Love an annoyed look before shutting her eyes again and nuzzling into my chest. Her stomach rumbled again but she said nothing, appearing content to cuddle with me regardless of her obvious hunger.
‘Shall we go find some food?’ I stroked Arianna’s tails and watched her, waiting for her to either move or to answer. All I got in response was a low purr and another nuzzle, her arms shifting to wrap around my torso. I couldn’t help but chuckle at her. ‘Have I discovered the secret to making you docile?’
‘Not quite,’ Arianna replied, pricking my skin with the tips of her claws.
After a moment, my ayraziis pulled herself off my lap and waded over to the eroded stairs leading out of the spring. The hypnotic swaying of her hips and fluffy tails drew the attention of her guards. I shot them a warning look before rising to my feet and following Arianna. My gaze drifted down her back and to the scratches I had left on her waist and hips.
‘Is Her Highness alright? I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so…placid.’ Eyrian my aggravated glance with one of determination. ‘I’d be a piss poor guard and friend if I wasn’t concerned, Nalithor. We heard from Sihix about her reaction to the power in this forest.
‘People don’t react like that to something without reason.’
‘She is quite fine,’ I answered, turning my back fully to the springs so that I could follow Arianna to our waiting clothes. ‘She is physically exhausted and hungry. It’s nothing for her guards to worry about.’
‘And the reason for her reaction to the corrupted light?’ Eyrian growled.
‘I will work on it.’ I glanced back at him. ‘Keeping a close eye on her seems prudent. Not only because she is my ayraziis, but because we are still within Yiltanys’ territory. If we come across further sources of corruption…’
‘She could react poorly?’ Eyrian muttered. ‘That’s why Sihix and Yiltanys have been driving us all like slaves. We’ve been scouring the forests for corruption the past fortnight.’
I shifted my attention to Arianna, watching as she wiggled into a pair of low, tight satin panties in crimson. She caught me staring and shot me a smirk over her shoulder, then whacked at me lightly with her tails.
‘You don’t want to hear more of their reports?’ I nudged Arianna’s tails with mine as I passed her to fetch my own clothes.
‘Hungry,’ Arianna grumbled as she failed to stifle a yawn. ‘Also sleepy. I don’t know about you, but I get the feeling we didn’t spend the past however-many weeks sleeping.’
‘Oversleeping can make one feel tired as well,’ I offered, contemplating the idea for a moment. The sight of Arianna straddling me several hours prior flicked through my mind, and I frowned. ‘Then again, we were both rather torn up already when you woke me this morning and those wounds weren’t from battle.’
‘We must’ve given in to our carnal desires at some point.’ Arianna tilted her head in thought. ‘You probably had to fully unleash in order to deal with this domain, right? I would wager that means one or both of us ended up in a state similar to when you attempted to stop me from rushing to Yiltanys.’
‘That would certainly explain a few things, yes.’ I glanced to the side at her as she rummaged through a haphazard pile of crimson clothing. ‘Our desire didn’t appear to be born of hunger. I think we can safely say that we must have sated that matter at some other time.’
‘Yet you seemed so surprised when I said I wanted you.’ Arianna gave me a knowing look before proceeding to pull her layers of loose robes on. I felt a pang of disappointment when her clothing hid her pale skin from view.
“Where are the two of you off two?” Erist called in a suggestive tone.
“Breakfast,” Arianna replied, but then she paused with a small frown and looked up at me. “Or would that be lunch by now? Maybe dinner?”
“You two should wait, otherwise you’re going to lose your appetite.” Arom made a dismissive motion with one hand. “The villagers have been planning the throw a feast in your honor. Now that you’re both awake they’ve already begun their preparations.”
‘But I’m hungry now…’ Arianna sighed, her tails drooping.
‘Let’s go find a snack to hold you over.’ I chuckled and put my arm around her waist, pulling her up to my side. She nuzzled into me and failed to stifle a yawn. Her skin was cool to the touch, causing me to frown. ‘I’ll start a fire for you when we get back to our lodgings, how does that sound?’
‘What about food?’ Arianna glanced up at me with a small pout.
‘I’m sure I can find you something.’ I squeezed her and pulled her away from the spring, into the forest. ‘How are you feeling—other than hungry and sleepy?’
‘Hmmm…Frustrated.’ Arianna shook her head. ‘Sihix sealed off my senses again. Even if there is any lingering corruption here, I can’t feel it. Hells, I can’t even feel Yiltanys’ light. It’s rather disorienting.’
Arianna grumbled a few curses under her breath and snuggled up against my side with a pout on her face. I glanced down at her briefly, concerned, before picking up my pace and leading her back to the cottage we had woken up in. When we arrived, Arianna curled up on the couch near the fireplace. She didn’t seem at all bothered by the rumbling thunder outside or the heavy rains that had begun to permeate Yiltanys’ canopy.
Smiling, I draped a thick blanket over Arianna and then made my way to the kitchen. I couldn’t determine if she was worn out from spending her morning with me, or if something more sinister was at fault. However, I couldn’t find it within myself to let it bother me.
I no longer harbored doubts about Arianna’s intentions or about whether to keep her by my side as my goddess. Surrendering her to someone else was out of the question. She had made it impossible to doubt or deny her feelings for me or her loyalty. I refused to insult her by doubting her any longer.
When I returned to the living room I placed a tray of tea and snacks on the table in front of the couch and then reclined next to Arianna. She lifted her head off the armrest and glanced over her shoulder at me briefly before promptly shifting to rest against me instead.
“Do you sense any lingering ‘work’ in either forest?” Arianna asked me after a moment, her fingers tracing random patterns against my stomach. She appeared more relaxed than before but I could hear a hint of frustration in her voice.
“Nothing,” I answered, placing my arm behind her back and resting my hand on her hip. “The light from the forest may have dimmed, but everything feels as it should. Yiltanys’ magic feels much like that of that Angel boy.
“I still have no idea what your mother was thinking, sending a child that young into Falrrsald on his own.”
“Humph, she clearly sees him as expendable,” Arianna muttered, shifting slightly so that she could reach the tea tray. “If pure light feels like that, then I have a concern I can no longer ignore.”
“Which is?” I frowned, watching her pour two cups of tea.
“Darius’ light has never felt like that,” Arianna began, the tips of her tails twitching. “It’s always—and I mean always—felt like what we sensed before you cleansed the forest. Fraelfnir and Djialkan never said anything to indicate that something was wrong with Darius’ power but even when we were young his magic felt like that.
“Fraelfnir had to draw on my brother’s power a few times when healing me. Djialkan always had to take matters into his own hands to subdue me and keep me from lashing out against them.”
“What about Fraelfnir’s power on its own?” I questioned, my frown deepening. After a moment of hesitation, I summoned my pipe in my free hand and looked down at my ayraziis. “Do you mind?”
“Mmm?” Arianna glanced up at me, her eyes flicking to the pipe and then back to my face. “As long as it won’t make you sick I don’t mind.”
“Sick?” I gave her puzzled look.
“In X’shmir some of the laborers smoke a native plant to relax, but it makes them ill,” Arianna replied, turning her attention back to our tea and snacks. “The plant is toxic and used to create poisons. Supposedly it has sedative qualities when smoked, but most of the men who use it end up coughing up blood.”
“We use only edible, aromatic herbs with our pipes,” I answered dryly, shaking my head. She shot me a curious look, so I procured an extra orb of the dried, dark blue herb and offered it to her. “Qustrr is most commonly used for its medicinal properties but it can also be used for its flavor.”
“Well if it won’t hurt you then I won’t complain.” Arianna rolled the ball of herbs between her fingers, her expression one of curiosity. “It smells nice enough, it doesn’t make you taste gross, and the smoke doesn’t bother me.
“To answer your other question, Fraelfnir’s power has never bothered me.”
I settled back with my pipe and remained silent for a short while, thinking. Nothing in Darius’ tests had indicated that his power was corrupt, yet Fraelfnir and Arianna had indicated that it was. At the very least, it warranted looking in to.
“There you two are!” Sihix exclaimed, appearing from a shadow near the fireplace.
“Pardon the intrusion,” spoke a man who could only be Yiltanys. The being of light shot Sihix a mildly aggravated look before turning to look at Arianna and me. “I wished to express my gratitude in person. Alas…Sihix tells me the two of you are being difficult.”
“Difficult?” Arianna tilted her head.
“How do you intend to deal with the Jivyador when you return?” Yiltanys crossed his arms and sat down across from us. “Furthermore, the empires? Surely you don’t truly believe that you can continue to fool both as to your identity, Arianna.
“The Vorpmasians will seek to keep you hidden and sheltered, the Beshulthiens will seek to make you theirs. This one’s brother never lost his unhealthy obsession with you.
“Then there are the beings you’ve taken to calling the ‘Jivyador.’ You will anger them if you become a mated pair, but refraining from doing so will put you both in danger in more ways than one. We will lose you both if one betrays the other.”
“Betrays?” I growled at Yiltanys, pulling Arianna closer. “Just what—”
“Driving one of you to feed from the nearest person would be easy,” Sihix interrupted flatly. “One mortal injury while you’re separated is an instant recipe for mindless hunger. Were you to wed, the Jivyador would be less inclined to take such action. Stupid as they are, they are still smart enough that they wish to refrain from annoying the other deities if possible.”
“And us,” Yiltanys added. “There are still some of us who have been bound by that wretched power. However, with the majority of us free, we have more room to act.
“I will not press the two of you to make an immediate decision. However, Nalithor, if you are still conflicted…”
“I am not,” I stated, earning a relieved sigh from Yiltanys. “I will spare you the details. Suffice to say that I’ve come to terms with myself—and conquered my concerns. There will be no further hesitation from me unless Arianna’s safety comes into question.”
“So we can expect little Ari’s and Nali’s running around soon?” Sihix asked slyly. Moments later, he was howling in pain with a sword’s hilt protruding from his eye socket. “You’re so cruel, Ari-mrii!”
“And you have a big mouth!” Arianna snapped, her face crimson. “Not only is it too soon for any discussion about that, but who in their right mind would bring children into this fucked up world of yours anyway?! There’s far too—”
“Arianna is right. There is far too much work for us to do,” I interrupted the flustered princess, giving her a brief squeeze. “We can’t afford to have half the Balance out of commission for months—let alone years. Neither of us can consider such things until Avrirsa has been fixed.
‘I didn’t mean…’ Arianna grumbled, her expression awkward.
‘I know what you meant.’ I kissed the top of her head briefly. ‘And I am inclined to agree with you. Call me selfish if you like, but I would prefer to have you to myself for a few centuries first either way.’
“I can see why he favors you,” Yiltanys remarked dryly, his pale golden eyes flicking to Sihix briefly before settling on Arianna. “We have much we would like to discuss with you both before tonight’s festivities. Not only is there the matter of the Aledacian Forests, but we would like to discuss the state of Avrirsa as a whole—and your role in fixing it.
“There is also the matter of your brother.”
“Very well.” Arianna sighed, retrieving her sword from Sihix’s skull with a single sharp motion of her hand. ‘At this rate you’re going to have to share your pipe with me.’
‘Share…’ My heart skipped a beat, drawing Arianna’s attention briefly. ‘There is a certain amount of…significance…with sharing a pipe with someone. Doing so with someone who isn’t a spouse—’
Arianna didn’t even let me finish before snatching my pipe from me and bringing it to her scarlet lips. She took a small, delicate draw and then exhaled the brilliant blue smoke, a smirk settling on her lips. A smudge of her colorful lipstick remained on the silver mouthpiece when she handed it back to me.
‘You are impossible.’ I sighed at her despite my smile.
‘Now they can’t chastise you for something I took the initiative for,’ Arianna stated as she danced her fingers along my thigh. ‘Hmmm… It really does taste like candy. Though, you taste better.’
“How long do we have before the festivities begin?” I inquired, settling my gaze on the two Lari’xan.
“A few hours,” Sihix rubbed at his wounded eye briefly before removing his hand to show it had fully healed. “It should be enough time for us to cover what we would like to discuss. Well, if the little one doesn’t have more violence in store, anyway.”
“You deserved it,” Yiltanys commented, glancing to the side.
“Finally, something I can agree with.” Arianna snorted.
“I’ll make us more tea and fetch some more snacks.” I gently nudged Arianna to the side and then rose to my feet. “Arianna will be more inclined to behave herself if she’s not pining after food.”
“Sit next to me and I’ll gut you,” Arianna stated when Sihix took a step toward my vacated seat. ‘Hurry back. I wasn’t done cuddling.’