Phury felt hands on his skin, small, light- fingered hands, and they were traveling down his belly. They were headed for the juncture of his thighs, and thank God for that. His arousal was swollen and hot and hungry God for that. His arousal was swollen and hot and hungry for release, and the closer the hands got to it, the more his hips pushed up and retreated back, his ass clenching and releasing as it gave in to the thrusting he was dying to do.

His cock wept¡ªhe could feel the wetness on his stomach. Or maybe he'd already come once?

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Oh, those hands, just tickling across his skin. That special feathery touch made his arousal strain even harder, as if it could reach out and get in the way if it tried hard enough.

Small hands, heading for his¡ª

Phury woke up on a body jerk that sent his pillow popping off the bed.

"Shit."

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Underneath the roll of blankets, his cock throbbed, and not with the usual ambient need that was a male's evening wake-up call. No... this was specific. His body wanted something very specific from one particular female.

Cormia.

She's right next door, he pointed out to himself.

And what a prize you are, the wizard shot back. Why don't you go to her, mate. I'm sure she'll be just thrilled to see you after the way you let her leave last night. Not a word to her. Not even an acknowledgment of her gratitude to you.

Not able to argue with that, Phury looked to the chaise.

It was the first time he had ever fed a female.

As he felt for her bite mark on his neck, he noted that it was gone, healed away.

One of life's great milestones had been met... and it saddened him. Not that he regretted it was with her. Not at all. But he wished he had told her that she was his first at the time.

Pushing his hair out of his eyes, he looked at the clock. Midnight. Midnight? Man, he'd been asleep for about eight hours, clearly because of the feeding. He didn't feel refreshed, though. His stomach was rolling and his head was pounding.

As he reached for the wake-up blunt he'd prepared before he'd crashed, he stopped short. His hand was shaking so badly, he doubted he could pick the thing up, and he stared at his palm, willing it to still, making no impression whatsoever.

It took him three tries to get the hand-rolled off the bedside table, and he watched his fumbles from a distance, as if it were someone else's hand, someone else's blunt. Once the twist of leaves and paper was between his lips, he struggled to get his lighter in position and work the flint wheel.

Two tokes in and the shaking stopped. The headache evaporated. His stomach calmed.

Unfortunately, another rattling went off across the room and all three came back: The Primale medallion went into its dance routine on the bureau again.

He left the thing where it was and worked his way through the blunt, thinking about Cormia. He doubted she would have told him she needed to feed. What had happened during the daylight hours in this room had been a spur-of-the -moment combustion generated by her bloodlust, and he couldn't take it as evidence that she wanted him sexually. She hadn't turned away from the sex last night, true, but that was very different from her wanting him, wasn't it. Need was not the same as choice. She'd needed his blood. He'd needed her body.

The Chosen needed both of them to get with the program.

Stabbing out what little was left of the hand-rolled, he stared across his bedroom at the bureau. The medallion had finally stalled out.

It took him less than ten minutes to shower, dress in white silks, and put the Primale medallion's leather thong over his head. As the slab of gold settled between his pecs, its weight was warm, probably because of its workout.

He traveled directly to the Other Side, having special dispensation as Primale to skip being routed through the Scribe Virgin's courtyard. Taking form in front of the Sanctuary 's amphitheater, where the whole thing had started five months ago, he found it hard to believe he really had taken Vishous's place as Primale.

It was kind of like looking at his shaky hand: This just wasn't him.

Yeah, except it totally was.

Up ahead, the white stage with its heavy white curtain glowed in the odd, relentless light of the Other Side. Here there were no shadows, as there was no sun in the pale sky, and yet there was plenty of illumination, as if everything were its own light source. The temperature was seventy degrees, neither too hot nor too cold, and there was no breeze to brush over your skin or ruffle your clothes. Everything was a soft, eye-soothing white.

The place was the landscape equivalent of Muzak.

Walking over cropped white grass, he headed around the back of the Greco-Roman theater toward the various temples and living quarters. On the fringes, all around, there was a white forest bracketing the compound that cut off any long vistas. He wondered what was on the far side of it. Probably nothing. The Sanctuary had the feel of an architect's model or a train set, as if, were you to walk to the edge, all you would find was a steep drop-off to some giant's wall-to-wall-carpeted floor.

As he went along, he wasn't sure how to get the Directrix 's attention, but he wasn't in a big hurry to make that happen. To delay, he went to the Primale's temple and used his gold medallion to unlock the double doors. After stepping through the white marble foyer, he went into the temple 's single, lofty room and stared at the bedding platform with its white satin sheets.

He remembered what Cormia had looked like tied down naked, a white sheet falling from above and pooling at her throat to mask her face. He had torn the thing down and been horrified to meet her tear-filled, terrified eyes.

She'd been gagged.

He looked up to the ceiling, where the draping that had covered her face had been hung. There were two tiny gold hooks embedded in the marble. He wanted to take them out with a fucking jackhammer.

As he stared upward, he randomly thought back to a conversation he'd had with Vishous right before all the shit had gone down with this Primale business. The two of them had been in the dining room at the mansion, and V had said something about having had a vision of Phury.

Phury hadn't wanted deets, but they'd come out anyway, and the words the brother had spoken were oddly clear to him now, like a recording replayed: I saw you standing at a crossroads in a field of white. It was a stormy day... yeah, lots of storms. But when you took a cloud from the sky and wrapped it around the well, the rain stopped falling.

Phury narrowed his eyes on those two hooks. He'd torn the sheet down from there and wrapped Cormia in it. And she had stopped crying.

She was the well... the well that he was supposed to fill. She was the future of the race, the source of new Brothers and new Chosen. The fountainhead.

As were all of her sisters.

"Your grace."

He turned around. The Directrix was standing in the doorway of the temple, her long white robe brushing the floor, her dark hair coiled up high on her head. With her calm smile and the peace that radiated from her eyes, she had the beatific expression of the spiritually enlightened.

He envied all that serene conviction.

Amalya bowed to him, her body lean and elegant in its Chosen dress code. "I am pleased to see you."

He bowed back to her. "And I you."

"Thank you for this audience." She straightened and there was a pause.

He didn't fill it.

When she finally did, she seemed to be choosing her words carefully. "I thought perhaps you might wish to meet some of the other Chosen?"

What kind of meeting did she have in mind, he wondered.

Oh, just a bit of high tea, the wizard chimed in. With cunnilingus sandwiches and sixty-nine scones and handfuls of your nuts.

"Cormia's doing well," he said, deflecting the meet-and-greet offer.

"I saw her yesterday." The Directrix's tone was kind but neutral, as if she didn't agree with him.

"You did?"

She bowed low again. "Forgive me, your grace. It was the anniversary of her birthing, and I was required by custom to give her a scroll. When I didn't hear from you, I appeared to her. I tried to reach you again during the day."

Good Lord, Cormia's birthday had come and gone and she'd said nothing about it?

She had told John, though, hadn't she. That was what the bracelet had been for.

Phury wanted to curse. He should have gotten her something.

He cleared his throat. "I'm sorry I didn't respond."

Amalya righted herself. "It is your purview. Please, worry not."

In the long silence that followed, he read the question in the Directrix's kind eyes. "No, it's not done yet."

The female's shoulders sagged. "Has she denied you?"

He thought back to the floor in front of his chaise. He'd been the one who had stopped. "No. It's me."

"No fault could ever be yours."

"Untrue. And trust me on that one."

The Directrix walked around, her hands worrying the medallion around her neck. The thing was an exact copy of what he had on, only hers was suspended from a white satin ribbon, and the chain to his ball was black.

She paused by the bed, her fingers lightly brushing a pillow. "I thought perhaps you would like to meet some of the others."

Oh, hell, no. He wasn't passing over Cormia for a different First Mate. "I can guess where you're going with this, but it's not that I don't want her."

"Perhaps, though, you should like to meet another."

This was clearly as close as the Directrix was going to get to putting her foot down and making a demand that he either have sex with Cormia or get another First Mate. He couldn't say he was surprised. It had been five long months.

God, maybe it would solve some problems. Trouble was, taking another First Mate would be tantamount to laying a curse on Cormia. The Chosen would see her as having failed, and she would feel the same way, even though that wouldn't be the case at all.

"Like I said, I'm good with Cormia."

"Indeed... except might you perhaps be more likely to engage if it were a different one among us? Layla, for instance, is quite fair of visage and limb, and she is trained as an ehros."

"Not going to do that to Cormia. It would kill her."

"Your grace... she suffers now. I saw it within her eyes." The Directrix drifted over to him. "And moreover, the rest of us are trapped within our tradition. We had such great hopes that our functions would return to where they have always been. If you take another as First Mate and complete the ritual, you release all of us from this burden of futility, and that includes Cormia. She is not happy, your grace. Any more than you are."

He thought of her again on that bed, tied down... She hadn't wanted this from the very beginning, had she?

He thought of her so quiet in the mansion. He thought of her not feeling comfortable enough to tell him that she had to feed. He thought of her saying nothing about her birthday. Nothing about her wanting to go outside. Nothing about those constructions in her bedroom.

One stroll down a hallway didn't make up for all he'd abandoned her to.

"We are trapped, your grace," the Directrix said. "As it stands now, we are all trapped."

What if he was holding on to Cormia because, if she was his First Mate, he didn't have to worry about the whole sex thing? Sure, he wanted to protect her and do right by her, and those were honorable truths, but the ramifications protected him as well.

There were Chosen who wanted it, wanted him. He'd felt their stares when he'd been sworn in.

He had given his word. And he was getting damn tired of breaking oaths that he'd made.

"Your grace, may I ask you to come with me? I wish to show you a place here in the Sanctuary."

He followed Amalya out of the Primale Temple, and the two of them were silent as they walked down the hill toward a thicket of four-story white structures with columns.

"These are the Chosen's living quarters," she murmured, "but you and I are not bound for them."

Good thing, he thought, glancing over.

As he passed by, he noted that none of the windows was glassed in, and he imagined there was no reason for the bother. There were no bugs or animals...no rain, either, he guessed. And what the lack of panes meant, of course, was that there were no barriers between him and the Chosen who stared back at him from their quarters.

There was one female in every window of every room in each of the buildings.

Oh, Jesus.

"Here we are." The Directrix stopped in front of a one-story structure and unlocked a pair of double doors. As she opened them wide, his heart fell.

Cribs. Rows and rows of empty white cribs.

As he tried to keep breathing, the Directrix's voice grew wistful. "This used to be such a place of joy, filled with life, teeming with the future. If you would only take another¡ª Are you unwell, your grace?"

Phury backed away. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't... breathe.

"Your grace?" She reached out.

He jerked away from her. "I'm fine."

Breathe, damn it. Breathe.

This was what you agreed to. Man up.

In his mind, the wizard served up example after example of him letting people down, starting in the present with Z and Wrath and that shit about the lessers, then going all the way back into the past to his failures with his parents.

He was deficient everywhere in his life, trapped everywhere, too.

At least Cormia could be free of this. Free of him.

The Directrix's voice grew tight with alarm. "Your grace, perhaps you might have a lie-down¡ª"

"I'll take another."

"You'll¡ª"

"I'll take another First Mate."

The Directrix seemed stunned, but then bowed deeply. "Your grace, thank you... thank you...Verily you are the strength of the race and leader to us all..."

He let her go on and on singing empty praises while his head spun and he felt like a load of dry ice had been dumped in his gut.

The Directrix clasped her medallion, joy suffusing her serene face. "Your grace, what do you favor in a mate? I have a couple in mind."

He pegged the Amalya with hard eyes. "They have to want this. No coercion. No binds. They have to want it. Cormia didn't, and that wasn't fair to her. I volunteered for this, she didn't have a choice."

The Directrix put her hand on his arm. "I understand, and moreover, I agree. Cormia was never suited for her role, had in fact been anointed as First Mate specifically for that cause by the previous Directrix. I shall never be so cruel."

"And Cormia will be okay. I mean, she's not kicked out of here, correct?"

"She shall be welcomed back herein. She is a fine female. Just not... as well suited to this life as some of us are."

In the quiet heartbeats that followed, he had an image of her undressing him for the shower, her guileless, innocent green eyes looking up at him as she fumbled with his belt and his leathers.

She only wanted to do what was right. Back when this whole mess had gotten started, even though she'd been terri fied, she would have done the right thing by her tradition and taken him in her. Which made her stronger than him, didn't it. She wasn't running. He was the one with the track shoes on.

"You tell the others I was not worthy of her." As the Directrix's mouth fell open, he pointed his finger at her. "That's a goddamned order. You tell them... she is too good for me. I want her elevated to a special rank... I want her fucking enshrined, do you understand me? You do right by her or I'll bust this place into ruins."

While the Directrix's mind clearly scrambled, he helped her sort shit out by reminding her, "This is my world here. I call the shots, do I not. I'm the strength of the goddamn race, so you do what I tell you. Now nod."

When she did, his chest eased up. "Good. Glad we agree. Now, do we need to do another ceremony?"

"Ah... ah, when you said the words t-to Cormia, you bound yourself to all of us." She put her hand on her medallion again but this time he had a feeling it wasn't with joy. More like she needed a little reassurance. "When will you... be coming here to stay?"

He thought of Bella's pregnancy. He couldn't miss the birth, and with the way things stood between him and Z, he might not even be told. "Not for a while. Could be up to a year."

"Then I shall send the first of them to you on the far side, shall I?"

"Yeah." He turned away from the nursery, feeling like he still needed more air. "Listen, I'm going to walk around a bit."

"I'll tell the others to leave you to your privacy."

"Thanks, and I'm sorry for being such a hard-ass." He paused. "One last thing... I want to talk to Cormia. I'm going to tell her."

"As you wish." The Directrix bowed low. "I shall need a couple of days to ritually prepare¡ª"

"Just let me know when you're sending one of them over."

"Yes, your grace."

When she left, he stared out over the white landscape, and after a moment, the expanse changed before his eyes, shifting into another view entirely. Gone were the well-ordered, colorless trees and the grass that looked as if it were covered in fine snow. Instead, he saw the choked gardens of his family's home back in the Old Country.

Out behind the vast stone house he'd grown up in, there had been a walled-off garden about two acres in size. Split into quadrants by pebbled walkways, it had been intended to showcase specimen plantings and offer a place of natural beauty to calm the mind. The masonry wall that corralled the landscape had been marked by four statues at its corners, the figures reflecting the stages of life, from an infant in his father's arms, to a strapping young male standing on his own, to that male holding a young in his own arms, to him seated in his aged wisdom with his grown son standing behind him.

When the garden had first been constructed, it must have been truly elegant, a real showplace, and Phury could imagine the joy of his parents as they had looked over its splendor as newly mateds.

He had known none of the perfections promised in the fine bones of the layout. What he had seen of the garden had been only the chaos of neglect. By the time he was old enough to be aware of his surroundings, the beds were overgrown with weeds, the reflection benches were wading in algae water, and grass had overtaken the walkways. Saddest to him were the statues. Ivy tangled around them, consuming them more thickly each year, the leaves obscuring more and more of what the sculptor's hand had wanted to show.

The garden was the visual representation of his family's ruination.

And he had wanted to fix it. All of it.

After his transition, which had nearly killed him, he had walked away from the shambles of the family home, and he could remember the leaving as clearly as he saw in his mind that wretched garden. The night of his departure had been marked by an October full moon, and he had packed some of his father's old, fine clothes by its brilliant light.

Phury had had only a loose plan: to pick up on the trail his father had let grow cold. On the night of Zsadist's abduction, it had been clear which nursery maid had taken the young, and Ahgony, as any father would, had gone after her with a vengeance. She had been smart, however, and he had found nothing concrete until about two years thereafter. Following tips and leads and the ramblings of gossips, the Brother had scoured the Old Country and eventually located Zsadist's baby blanket in the things of the female¡ª who had died only a week prior.

The near miss was just another page in the tragedy.

It was at that point that Ahgony had been informed that his young had been picked up by a neighbor and sold into the slavery market. The neighbor had taken the money and run, and though Ahgony had gone to the nearest slave dealer, there were too many parentless infants being bought and traded to track Zsadist down.

Ahgony had given up and gone home and started to drink.

As Phury prepared to take up his father's search, it seemed appropriate to wear the suits and silks of his elder. Important, too. Appearing the penniless gentleman would make it easier to infiltrate the great houses, which were where slaves were held. In his father's old wardrobe, Phury could be just another well-mannered vagrant, looking to pay for his keep with his wit and his charm.

Dressed in twenty-five-year-old fashion, and with a battered leather clothing case in his hand, he'd gone to both of his parents to tell them what he was doing.

He knew his mother was in her bed in the basement of the house, because that was where she lived. He also knew she wouldn't look at him as he entered. She never did, and he hadn't blamed her for that. He was the exact replica of the one that had been stolen, the walking, talking, breathing reminder of the tragedy. That he was an individual and separate from Zsadist, that he mourned the loss as she did because he'd been missing half of himself ever since his twin had been taken, that he needed nurturing and caring, was beyond her because of her own pain.

His mother had never touched him. Not once, even to bathe him when he had been young.

After knocking on her door, Phury had been careful to tell her who it was before he entered so she could brace herself accordingly. When she didn't answer, he opened the door and stood in her doorway, filling the jamb with his newly transitioned body. As he'd told her about what he was going to do, he wasn't sure what exactly he expected from her, but he got nothing. Not a single word. She didn't even lift her head from her tattered pillow.

He'd closed the door and gone across the way to his father 's quarters.

The male had been out cold, dead drunk among the bottles of cheap ale that kept him, if not sane, then at least non compos mentis enough not to think too much. After trying to rouse him, Phury had scribbled a note, left it on his father's chest, then gone upstairs and out of the house.

Standing on the pitted, leaf-strewn terrace of the family's once-grand house, he had listened to the night. He knew there was a good possibility he would never see his parents again, and he was worried that the one doggen who remained would either die or get injured. And then what would they do?

Staring out over the majesty that had once been, he sensed his twin was somewhere in the night, waiting to be found.

As a streak of milky clouds drifted free of the moon's face, Phury had searched deep in himself for some kind of strength.

Verily, a low voice had said inside of his skull, you could search until a thousand morns arrive, and even find the breathing body of your twin, yet it is certain you shall not save what cannot be rescued. You are not up to this task, and moreover, your destiny decrees that you shall fail no matter the goal, as you bring with you the curse of the exhile dhoble.

It was the wizard speaking for the first time.

And as the words sunk into him, with him feeling far too weak for the journey ahead, he took his vow of celibacy. Looking up to the great shining disk in the blue-black sky, he'd sworn to the Scribe Virgin that he would keep himself apart from all distractions. He would be the clean and focused savior. He would be the hero who brought his twin back. He would be the healer who resurrected the sad, tangled mess of his family and returned them to their former state of health and beauty.

He would be the gardener.

Phury came back to the present as the wizard spoke up. But I was right, was I not? Your parents both died early and in misery, your twin was used like a whore, and you're a head case.

I was right, wasn't I, mate.

Phury refocused on the eerie white expanse of the Other Side. It was so perfect, everything in order, nothing out of bounds. The white tulips with their white stems stayed within their beds around the buildings. The trees didn't breach the forest's edge. There wasn't a weed to be seen.

He wondered who mowed their lawn, and had a feeling the grass, like all the rest of it, just grew that way.

Must be nice.

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