“Taryen, I implore you to let me do my job and protect you for our queen. How can I face her when she is found if I have failed to protect her most treasured companions?”
“You do your job just fine, Macro.” Taryen’s voice rang with honesty as clearly as his friend’s had rung with deception. “We’re more than strong enough to endure for our people while we wait. Your guilt is unnecessary.”
“I thank the gods that my birth did not deem me a consort. You both bear more than I can imagine. She’s my blood. We all feel her loss, but life has been cruelest to you by taking our queen from you. I make an offering for her return every day just to see you both under her protection.”
“Do not make an offering for us.” Taryen was still frighteningly close to Sari, the bed dipping as he rested his hands on it. He studied her in a way that caused her skin to tingle despite not seeing him to do it. “Make an offering for our people, who suffer greatly with our queen gone. The skies have been dark for nearly twenty cycles. She needs to return home to Calder and I so we can bring sunshine back to our people by protecting her and dedicating ourselves to her happiness.”
“Gods be blessed. I will gladly make an offering for that. I miss seeing the sun.”
“I do not remember the sun.” A smile sounded in Calder’s tone. “But I think he and I would be great friends.”
“You would,” Macro said. “I will leave you with your charge. Shall I send in the attendants to help?”
“Yes.” Taryen ran a hand tenderly over Sari’s forehead. “She needs female company if males frighten her. They will offer her comfort.”
“Of course.” Macro’s voice grew distant as his footsteps echoed on wood flooring. “I will send them straightaway. Care for the new one. Protect her.”
Sari’s breathing fell shallow against her will as the sound of a door opening and closing indicated she was alone with these strangers. She tried to remind herself of what she had heard, that these two males were actually the birth consorts to their people’s long-missing queen. Everyone from the highest-ranking rulers in the Sacred City to the lowest peasants were aware of these two Rayian males’ special service to their people as consorts to the queen. Not only were they feared warriors, ones trained since birth to be deadly in defense of the great mother, they were also tasked with keeping her sated and content at all times. When the queen was happy, her people and her planet felt the joy along with her. One need only look out a window to see that. The skies had been volatile for as long as Sari could remember. Storms thundered on a daily basis. Their world and way of life was in jeopardy unless the queen could be found, because it was obvious wherever she was now made her miserable and unhappy.
The consorts were rumored to be the most beautiful males in all of Auroria. Girls whispered behind hands about them, pondering their good looks and talents with pleasure, which were supposed to surpass even their legendary skills with a sword. They were a great mystery, carefully guarded for the queen, prized, but deadly birds kept in the gilded cage of the Sacred City to await the return of the Rayian female who reigned supreme over their people.
To say Sari was more than a little nervous to be left alone with them was a profound understatement. Though she did not think they would hurt her—they seemed kind enough for such lethal defenders—laying eyes on one of them would still earn a death sentence.
“You can stop feigning sleep,” Taryen said softly. “Macro is gone now.”
Sari squeezed her eyes shut tighter. She wasn’t certain if speaking to a queen’s consort was an instant death sentence like laying eyes on one was, but she was going to have to risk it because of the situation she found herself in.
“Go away,” she whispered, keeping her voice low just in case. “I know what you are. Do not think I am unhappy enough to desire certain death by looking at you.”
“Are you unhappy?” Taryen sounded curious.
“My entire body is black-and-blue. What do you think?” Her eyes were still squeezed shut tightly in fear of seeing males designed for a queen’s pleasure only. “I’m a street kid, but even I know I’m forbidden to look at you.”
“That is a half-truth made up to romanticize something that isn’t nearly so fantastic as you make it seem. A commoner casting eyes on us is forbidden, but I doubt one would actually die for it.” Calder came closer to the bed as a laugh burst out of him. “Besides, you’re Rayian. The rules do not apply to you. Do you not carry the mark of the gods on your body?”
Sari did have a marking on her body, one she had always wondered about. “W-what does the mark of the gods look like?”
“It’s the shape of our two moons when they are cresting,” Taryen offered helpfully. “Would you like to see mine to compare?”
The unbidden image of her training with the Order of the Seven Swords rose up in her mind. Sari shuddered. “No, I do not
want to see yours.”
“His markings as a Rayian,” Calder clarified. “You’re one of our queen’s sisters. Looking at us is not a threat to you, my lady.”
Her finely honed survival skills made her cynical. Despite hearing the truth of his words, she asked, “Why should I believe you?”
“We’re Rayian males. Do you not think we know our own kind?” Calder asked in amusement.
Against Sari’s better judgment she let her eyes blink open and got her first look at Taryen leaning over her bed. She caught a glimpse of dark hair and a bare, muscular male body, but she avoided looking at his face. Her gaze darted around the room, taking in the opulent surroundings, which were enough to cause her jaw to go slack.
She had never seen such a beautifully appointed area. Even spending many cycles of her life catering to the rich had not prepared her for this. The enormous bedroom was decorated brightly and surrounded on three sides with large windows. The room was so stunning, even the dark weather and a fresh storm rumbling in the sky could not take away from it. She looked up at the ceiling, seeing a beautiful painting of what she had always imagined a sunny sky would look like, with fluffy white clouds and a bright sun casting warmth over the countryside. She wilted, staring at the painting and admiring the large, healthy trees, green grass, and colorful flowers that all flourished beneath a bright blue sky and warm sun.
“It’s lovely,” she whispered in awe.
“Yes,” Taryen agreed. “When our queen is returned to us, Auroria will be like that again. Calder and I will guard her and make her happy for you, my lady. You will see a real spring day, not a painted one.”
“I would like that.” Sari continued to stare up at the painted ceiling, admiring the birds flying through the clouds and the sheer brightness and joy that radiated from the sun casting life over all of nature. “Do you think she will actually be found?”
“I hope so.” Taryen reached out and touched Sari’s forehead once more, his large hand cool against her skin. “You have a fever, my lady. Will you let my lifemate and I care for you?”
“I don’t know,” Sari mumbled, letting her eyes drift closed as she enjoyed the feeling of his hand against her injured forehead. She took a calming breath and felt herself reel from the scent in the room. It was spicy and compelling, filling her with a strange warmth that rolled over her skin with a shiver. “Perhaps I do have a fever. I feel unnaturally warm.”
“Mmm,” Taryen hummed, the sound of his voice suddenly hypnotic. “You need not fear looking at us, my lady. You’re Rayian, blessed and protected like we are. You belong here in the Sacred City. We’re your brothers.”
“You can call me Sari,” she corrected, hating that they kept addressing her as someone to serve.
She let her eyes flutter open because the scent in the air had her feeling light-headed. His voice was so lulling, the comfort of it was impossible to resist. She frowned, wondering if her fever was playing tricks on her. The face hovering in her line of vision was too beautiful to be real. Dark, seductive eyes stared at her in concern. His hair was black as midnight, curling into silky waves at the base of his neck. Like Sari’s hair, which was unique for an Aurorian, Taryen’s hair was streaked, but the thick patches of white blond that ran from his temples on both sides just made the blue-black hue more startling.
Beyond his magnificent hair, it was his skin that had Sari gaping at him. It was deeply tan in a way she had never seen before. “How do you get so dark? You look like the sun has kissed your skin.”
“Artificial light.” A smile tugged at his full lips, which were inviting in a way Sari had never noticed on a male. “It gives skin color as the sun would. When you are healed, we’ll show you. Lying in it is very soothing. It warms you from the inside out. You’ll enjoy it.”
“All right,” she agreed, still admiring his skin, so healthy it seemed to glow. Sari had never seen an Aurorian with color to their skin like that. Most were all painfully pale due to the sun being constantly hidden by storm clouds. She studied Taryen’s face, realizing the rumors hadn’t been exaggerations. The queen’s consort really was surreally gorgeous, a perfect male specimen, with a strong jaw, long eyelashes, and a compelling gaze. “You’re radiant.”
“Thank you, my lady.” He gave her a bright smile, showing off even, white teeth. “As are you.”
“Liar.” She let out a pained laugh as she tried to sit up. She had to bite her lip to hold back a scream as agony shot through her body from the effort. “I feel awful, and I probably look worse.”
“The men who did this to you will surely suffer an excruciating death. I would enjoy watching their agony before they pass over.” Calder leaned over the bed next to Taryen and tilted his head as he studied Sari. “Strange as it is, I feel true rage over your injuries, my lady.”
She stared back at him just as curiously and was surprised to find he was every bit as handsome as Taryen, though in a completely different way. His hair was a light, sandy blond with streaks of black running through the sides of it. His skin was also tanned, though it was a warmer, tawny color, as opposed to the dark olive of Taryen’s skin. He had broad shoulders, and a cut, muscular body that was rare in its perfection. But it was his eyes that were awe inspiring—the lightest shade of blue she had ever seen. It made them stand out starkly against his tanned skin. Just like Taryen, he was an example of divine male beauty, and Sari could only gape at the two of them, with their opposing coloring making them a complete complement to each other in a way she had never suspected. These two men could have made a fortune for the Order of Seven Swords. They were easily the most attractive males she’d ever seen, and she’d seen many.
Calder smiled, raising his eyebrows at her appraisal of him. His teeth were straight and white, standing out against tanned skin. “She is very beautiful, even under dirt and bruises. Dare I say she is the most radiant of the queen’s sisters?”
“I thought the same.” Taryen turned to Calder, his dark eyes studying his fellow consort silently before his voice became lower, taking on a more hypnotic sound as he switched languages and whispered, “I’m drawn to her, Cal.”
Calder met Taryen’s concerned look with one of his own as he said in the same strange language, “As am I.”
Sari forced her features to stare at them blankly rather than reveal she had a gift for understanding all languages. She never knew why she could understand all voices regardless of what tongue they spoke in, but she had learned at a young age to hide the talent or risk putting herself in danger for being vastly different from others. She just stared at both men, wondering if perhaps it was a gift all Rayians had. If she was truly one of them, perhaps they had the same talents as her, but she couldn’t risk exposing her gift just yet.
Calder whispered to his lifemate, “It has been two nights since I’ve taken the herb.”
“Longer for me.” Taryen’s eyes darted back to Sari. “We should feel nothing toward her, yet I’m drawn to her—as powerfully as I’m drawn to you.”
“What language are you two speaking?” Sari cut in, deciding to find out once and for all if they knew she could understand them or if she was eavesdropping on a private conversation.
For some reason the hitch in Taryen’s voice when he admitted to being drawn to Sari as powerfully as he was drawn to Calder left her uncomfortable. She hadn’t known the consorts were attracted to each other. That was a secret kept from the Aurorian people. They were led to believe the consorts exclusively served the queen and desired only her pleasures, but Calder and Taryen were real lifemates to each other just like any other Aurorian male couple. It may have not been true of all consorts in the past, but it certainly was of these two. They stared at each other like men in love. She swallowed hard against the pulse of something strangely pleasurable as she admired the two of them looking at each other lustfully.
She almost felt guilty for ruining the moment but knew they probably didn’t mean to be so obvious as she clarified, “It’s very unique. I’ve never heard it before.”
“It’s the queen’s language.” Taryen turned away from Calder to give her an embarrassed smile. “Only Calder and I speak it. We apologize. Sometimes we forget ourselves. We know it’s rude to use a language not understood by others.”
“Only you two speak and understand it?” Sari asked cautiously, her gaze darting back and forth between them. “No one else in the Sacred City does?”
“Darin does. He is the surviving consort to the old queen. He’s the one who taught us.” Calder looked back to Sari. His beautiful, crystal eyes studied her in a way that left her uncomfortable simply because his gaze was so intense. “It’s a holy language reserved for the queen and her consorts so their conversations can always remain intimate and private. No others understand or speak it.”
“No other Rayians understand it?” Sari repeated, silently thankful she had not revealed her gift for languages, all languages apparently, even secret ones reserved for the queen. “I heard a rumor Rayians knew all languages, that they are so powerful nothing could escape them.”
“Another rumor, my lady.” Taryen gave her an indulgent smile. “We’re not as powerful as our queen. We need to work at learning new languages the same as any other Aurorian. We speak the queen’s language because Darin was in charge of our care until we reached puberty. We spoke it exclusively at home for many cycles as he taught us the fine arts of being a consort.”
“What happened after you reached puberty?” Sari asked in concern, remembering Macro’s worry over both these men. “Do you not still see him?”
“We do.” Taryen smiled. “He’s like a father to us. The only one we’ve ever known. We see him nearly every day.”
“But he didn’t care for you as teenagers?”
“No. Once we hit puberty and started releasing pheromones, our education fell to our queen’s sisters. He is a guide, someone who makes sure we keep our other skills as consorts honed, but most of our education is in our sisters’ care now.”
“What do they teach you?”
“How to care for the queen when she returns.” Calder’s voice became low and hypnotic once more. “How to pleasure her and make sure all her needs as a female are taken care of. They are kind enough to let us practice on them.”
“I see,” Sari mumbled, hearing a catch in his speech, something that betrayed abuse she knew all too well. “I thought you were supposed to remain pure for the queen.”
“We are pure.” Taryen pulled back as if she had insulted him. “We just pleasure them. We would never bond with the sisters by entering them.”
“You can do many things without penetration.” Sari closed her eyes as dark, horrible images assailed her mind. “Many unpleasant things.”
“Pleasing our queen’s sisters is never unpleasant. It is always an honor that gives us nothing but happiness.”
“I hear your lie.” Sari tried to sit up more fully, biting back another groan of pain. “Don’t worry. I won’t betray you. We’re similar souls. I too know what it’s like to be a slave to others’ passion for you.”
“You were raped?” Calder questioned. “Macro needs to know that. The perpetrators need to be punished appropriately. Raping a Rayian female requires punishment much more agonizing than death.”
“I wasn’t raped,” Sari put in defensively, her voice low and bitter. “I’m pure
too. They never entered me. I never allowed that. I did anything to prevent it—anything.”
“You were violated and abused,” Calder whispered, his breathing hitching in a way that was surprising. Sari got the impression he cared very little for Rayian females, yet he was concerned for her as he reached out and brushed her hair off her forehead. “That’s as bad as rape. You should have never had to grovel to keep yourself pure. You’re one of the queen’s sisters. You’re blessed by the gods.”
“So you say,” Sari hissed through the pain. “The point is that I won’t tell. You can admit that you hate groveling to the other sisters.”
“She is a similar soul,” Taryen contemplated in the secret language of the queen, raising his eyebrows as he stared down at Sari wistfully. “I never thought to find one in a sister.”
“You look like a lovesick fool.” Calder also spoke the secret language, both of them unaware that Sari was following their conversation easily. “Stop making yourself so vulnerable.”
“Sorry.” Taryen continued to stare at Sari longingly before he switched back to traditional Aurorian that rang with the refined accent of one very well-bred. “Will you let us care for you, my lady? We have healing waters here in the palace. They will cure your injuries.”
Sari nodded hesitantly. “I will, but I need clothing.”
“To bathe?” Calder asked in amusement.
“Usually, yes. I spent too much time being bare. Now that I’m free, being naked is something I avoid at all costs.” Sari pulled the sheets higher around her, feeling her nudity keenly beneath them. “It leaves you exposed to predators. Have you not learned that?”
“Being vulnerable while bare is a state of mind, not a state of being,” Calder countered with his eyebrows raised and his light eyes shining in both understanding and pain. “Besides, we are not predators. Your will is ours. Harming a sister is impossible for us.”
Sari considered that, her life making her skeptical of any male claiming to be anything other than a predator. It was curiosity that had her pushing back the sheets in front of them, exposing her bare body from the waist up.
Predictably both their gazes fell to her chest, but instead of lust she saw sadness mirrored in their gazes. “You need the healing waters,” Taryen whispered in horror. “We didn’t know your injuries were so severe. Macro should have taken you immediately to the baths.”
“She is quite strong,” Calder mumbled, his eyes growing wider as he stared at her. “Any other sister would be screaming and crying.”
“What purpose do either serve?”
“You are wise, my lady.” Taryen reached to help her up. “Will you let us aid you?”
“I suppose.” Sari gritted her teeth again. “Where are these attendants Macro was supposed to send?”
“Oh, gods, you distracted us.” Calder jumped up, turning to walk out of the room.
“I trust you, Taryen,” Sari whispered when he leaned down, wrapping one strong arm around her waist. She gripped his broad shoulders, steeling herself for what she would have to endure to stand up. “How far are the waters?”
“The consort baths are private. Just down the hall. You can cry out. We will not judge you.”
“Good to know.”
Sari would have liked to say she endured the pain stoically, but it would have been a lie. She couldn’t help the cry of pain that escaped her. Despite Taryen’s soothing presence and his spicy, enticing scent, which was temptingly distracting, Sari was nearly flat on her face after a few steps. Her lip bled from how deeply her teeth cut into it to keep her agony silent. She knew instinctively that her pain was hurting Taryen as if it were his own, perhaps more so, and she wanted to protect him from it.
Calder walked back into the room, three female attendants following him. “Come here.”
Sari gasped when he pulled her gently away from Taryen and swept her into his arms as if she weighed nothing to him.
“What’re you doing?” she choked out, the pain still making her vision foggy. “I’m naked.”
Calder rolled his eyes, careless of her being uncomfortable as he walked out of the room he shared with Taryen and down a long, richly decorated hallway. Sari should be more concerned with her nudity in such a public domain, but the pain was making her forget everything. As was Calder’s scent. Like Taryen, he smelled divine.
“You smell good,” she mumbled, not knowing what it was about these two males that left her feeling safe to the point that she trusted them even while naked. She turned her face toward his chest, inhaling deeply. “Different from your lifemate. His scent is more exotic. Yours is a clean, crisp scent—both are nice.”
“We wear different scents,” Calder explained, taking long, fast strides toward his destination, not even sounding winded from her weight. “The attendants try to use oils they feel suit us.”
“They do a good job,” Sari whispered as she focused on the way he smelled, his strong arms holding her, his smooth, tanned skin that felt so good against hers. Calder was an effective distraction from the pain. “I think I’m attracted to you.”
“Very likely,” Calder agreed matter-of-factly. “Most Rayian females are.”
“You sound unhappy about that.” Sari found him unique as well as handsome. “Females are rare. Most males would consider themselves lucky to have such attention.”
“If you say so.” Calder turned around, looking to the attendants and Taryen behind them. “She’ll need something to dull the pain.”
“We brought it, my lord.”
Sari frowned. “I thought the waters—”
“Trust me on this.” Calder winced. “You want something to dull the pain.”
Sari opened her mouth to argue but was hushed by Calder as the attendants opened the doors. He carried her into a room that looked like a large, communal bath. Beautiful pillars and decorative lounge chairs surrounded a massive pool with sloping sides that would be nice to rest against in the water.
One of the attendants leaned over Sari as she rested comfortably in Calder’s arms. “For you, my lady.”
Sari blinked up at the young woman, fighting to keep her face in focus. The scent in the bathing area was aromatic and full of burning leaves like Taryen and Calder’s room. It was a strangely lulling scent, and her eyes felt heavy. Despite the fog to her thinking, Sari refused to open her mouth to the small cup of unknown liquid the pretty attendant was offering.
“It’ll help your pain. You’re gravely injured,” the attendant coaxed when Sari shook her head, refusing the offering.
“I don’t drink strange substances. It could cloud the mind.”
cloud the mind,” Taryen assured her as he brushed her hair tenderly off her forehead. “The waters’ healing is painful when the injuries are grave. Be thankful you can take it.”
Sari stared at Taryen with his dark, soulful eyes that shone with empathy. “Will you protect me while my mind is clouded?” she asked, feeling seduced by his beauty and kind nature. “Will you keep the predators at bay until I can do it myself?”
“There are no predators here, my lady.” Taryen’s voice was entrancing. “But if there were, Calder and I would protect you. We’re well trained to protect the females we serve.”
Sari surprised herself by believing him. She leaned up in Calder’s arms, stifling a scream and choking down the horrid-tasting liquid the attendant held to her lips. “It’s awful.”
“Is it?” Taryen asked curiously, his large hand stroking her hair in a way that was calming.
She squinted at Taryen, who became fuzzy around the edges almost instantly. “You’ve never tasted it?”
“Neither of us have.” Calder pushed past Taryen and walked with Sari toward the pool. “As Taryen said, be thankful you can take it. This is going to be painful. I apologize in advance.”
“Not your fault.” Sari’s tongue felt thick. The drugs were obviously doing their job as her eyes grew heavy. “As long as it doesn’t kill me, I can endure.”
“All right.” Calder waded into the waters with her.
Her feet touched the water first, and she jerked from the searing burn. Her first instinct was to tell him to stop, but she fought the urge to flee, wanting her strength back, even if the healing was agonizing.
“Fast,” she choked, her body stiff not just from the pain but in anticipation of more. “Do it fast. End it now.”
A scream burst out of her when Calder obeyed, dropping down in the water, plunging her into the steaming pool. Her entire body convulsed from the level of pain that seared through her.
“He has to obey you. Your will is his.” Taryen jumped into the waters with them, helping Calder hold on to her as she fought against the torment that was blinding in its intensity. “Breathe, my lady. Long, slow breaths. Listen to my voice and the pain will fade.”
“It’s not fading.” Her attempt at long, slow breaths sounded more like hyperventilating. “I’m dying.”
“No, no, you’re not.” Taryen cupped her face with both hands. He turned her head toward him as she fought to break free of Calder’s strong grip. “You said you trusted me. Hear me when I say you aren’t dying. Just look at me and see the truth of my words.”
Sari panted through the pain, her eyes wide and stunned as it continued to rip through her. She stared at Taryen as instructed, finding that on some level it did help. His eyes were strangely dark, with the irises hard to find even in the brightly lit room. She became entranced, feeling suddenly as if he were some sort of mirage. She stared for several minutes, following his instructions to take concentrated breaths in a long, slow manner.
It worked. The pain started to fade faster than anticipated, though she knew instinctively it was Taryen’s beauty more than his instructions on how to breathe that was distracting her. He was so alluring. Taryen almost radiated with something stronger than good looks. In the distant part of her mind not dazed by drugs and pain, she recognized an oddly healing vitality that seemed to pulse off him. His hands on her cheeks felt warm, as if exuding some sort of restorative life energy.
“The queen is very lucky,” Sari whispered in a heavy voice she didn’t recognize as her own while she studied Taryen. “I’m attracted to you.”
“Thank you.” Taryen’s voice was still soft and hypnotic. “Appealing to you pleases me.”
“It should,” she told him, lifting her eyebrows to emphasize her point. “I’ve never been attracted to a male before. I don’t crave sex—ever.”
“All Rayian females crave sex.” Calder sounded harsh and cynical. “Give yourself time and you’ll catch on.”
“I never crave it. I never even think of it except to avoid it,” Sari explained, feeling too hazy and dazed to argue more than that. “I think it’s you. There’s something strange about both of you.”
“Our life force is bound to the queen,” Taryen explained, his voice making Sari’s eyelids heavier with its lulling pitch. “We naturally release a pheromone designed to entice her. It’s very strong. It appeals to all Rayian females.”
“I don’t understand,” Sari mumbled.
“You don’t have to.” Calder held her tighter, making her feel secure and protected. “It is
us. We apologize if it upsets you. If we could turn it off, we would.”
“It doesn’t upset me.” Sari fell lax in Calder’s arms, and gave up the battle to keep her eyes open. “It makes me feel sort of nice.”
The water’s healing was no longer painful. It was warm and calming, much like Calder’s arms around her as he waded over to the shallower side of the pool. Then he lay back against one of the sloping sides with her. Taryen’s fingers were still in her hair, stroking it softly away from her face. She hardly noticed the attendants bathing her while she lay in a dazed realm of half sleep, with strong, hard arms shielding her and the smell of burning herbs mixing with the enticing combination of Calder and Taryen.
Feeling comfortable and safe for the first time in her memory, Sari fell into an exhausted, drug-induced sleep nothing could disrupt. Unusual that these two strangers were able to give her that gift when Sari rarely trusted, but Taryen and Calder didn’t feel like strangers. The sleep brought a bizarre clarity that told her on some level her soul knew these males even if they should be completely alien to her.