Up in her bedroom in the Brotherhood's mansion, Cormia sat on the floor in front of the construction she'd started the night before, a box of toothpicks in her hand, a bowl of peas next to her. She wasn't putting either to use. All she'd been doing for the good Virgin knew how long was flicking the box's lid flap open and closed... open and closed... open and closed.
Stalled out and all but immobile, she'd been at the flicking for quite some time now, and her thumbnail was wearing a patch in the lip.
If she was no longer First Mate, she had no reason to stay on this side. She was serving no official function, and by all that was manifest, she should be back in the Sanctuary meditating and praying and serving the Scribe Virgin with her sisters.
She didn't belong in this house or this world. She never had.
Shifting her focus from the box to the structure she'd put together, she measured the units and thought of the Chosen and their network of functions, from the keeping of the spiritual calendar to the worshiping of the Scribe Virgin to the recording of Her words and Her history... to the birthing of Brothers and future Chosen.
As she pictured herself living in the Sanctuary, she felt as if she were going backward, not returning home. And strangely, what should have bothered her the most¡ªthat she had failed as First Mate¡ªwasn't what upset her.
Cormia tossed the box of toothpicks to the ground. When it landed, the lid flipped open and a bunch of the blond sticks popped out and scattered in a tangle.
Discord. Disorder. Chaos.
She picked up what had spilled, making right out of the mess and deciding she needed to do the same with her life. She would speak to the Primale, pack up her three robes, and go.
As she put the last toothpick into the box, there was a knock at the door.
"Come in," she said without bothering to get up.
Fritz put his head around the jamb. "Good evening, Chosen, I carry a message from Mistress Bella. She is inquiring whether or not you would wish to join her for First Meal in her bedroom?"
Cormia cleared her throat. "I'm not sure¡ª"
"If I may," the butler murmured. "Physician Jane just left her once again. I gather that the examination raised questions. Perhaps the Chosen's presence would calm our mahmen-to-be?"
Cormia looked up. "Another exam? You mean after last evening?"
"Tell her I will be there right away."
Fritz's head dipped reverently. "Thank you, madam. Now, I must needs perform a pickup, but I shall be back and shall cook for you. I shan't be gone long."
Cormia took a quick shower, dried and coiled her hair, and changed into a freshly pressed robe. As she came out of her room, she heard the sounds of boots on the foyer and looked over the balcony. The Primale was down below, striding across the mosaic apple tree on the floor. He was dressed in black leathers and a black shirt, and his hair, that wonderful, soft profusion of color, was bright in the lights and against the dark width of his shoulders.
As if he sensed her, he stopped and glanced up. His eyes flashed like citrines, sparkling, captivating her.
And she watched the glow in them dim.
Cormia was the one who pivoted away, because she'd quite had it with being the one who was left. Just as she turned, she saw Zsadist coming around the corner of the hall of statues. His eyes were black as they shifted to her, and she didn't have to ask how Bella was. Words weren't necessary, given his dark expression.
"I was going to stay with her," she said to the Brother. "She asked for me."
"I know. I'm glad. And thank you."
In the beat of silence, she measured the daggers crisscrossing over the warrior's chest. And there were other weapons on him, she thought, though she couldn't see them.
The Primale had had none. No daggers, no bulges under his clothes.
She wondered where he was going. Not the Other Side, as he was dressed for this world. Where then? And for what?
"Is he down there waiting for me?" Zsadist asked.
"The Primale?" When the Brother nodded, she said, "Er... yes, yes, he is."
Odd to be the one who knew where he was... and the one to be asked.
She thought of his lack of weapons.
"Take care of him," she demanded without apology.
Something tightened Zsadist's face, then he inclined his head once. "Yeah, I'll do that."
As Cormia bowed and turned to the hall of statues, Zsadist 's low voice stopped her dead: "The baby's not moving very much. Not since whatever happened last night."
Cormia looked over her shoulder and wished there were more she could do. "I'll purify the room. That is what we do on the Other Side when... I'll purify the room."
"Don't tell her you know."
"I won't." Cormia wanted to reach out to the male. Instead, she said, "I'll take care of her. Go and do your business with him."
The Brother bowed his head and took off down the stairs.
Below in the foyer, Phury rubbed his chest and then stretched, trying to get rid of the ache between his pecs. He was surprised at how difficult it was to see Cormia turn away from him.
Curiously brutal, as a matter of fact.
He thought of the Chosen he'd met at dawn. The difference between her and Cormia was obvious. Selena was eager to be First Mate, her eyes shining as she looked him over as if he were a prize bull. It had taken all the manners he had just to stay in the same room with her.
She wasn't a bad female and was more than beautiful enough, but her affect... man, it was like she wanted to crawl into his lap right then and there and get down to it. Especially as she'd assured him that she was more than ready to serve him and her tradition... and that "every bone in her body wanted this."
This clearly meaning his sex.
And there was another coming at the end of tonight.
Zsadist appeared at the head of the stairwell and came down quickly, his windbreaker in his hand. "Let's go."
As he measured his twin's tight brow, Phury thought, Bella wasn't doing well.
"Not going there with you." Z marched across the foyer, passing by without so much as a glance. "We're just about business, you and me."
As Phury frowned and then followed behind, their footsteps echoed up as if one person, not two, were walking along. Even with Phury having the prosthesis, he and Z had always had the same long stride, the same way of going heel to toe, the same swing in their arms.
But the similarities ended with biology, didn't they. In life, they'd gone in two separate directions.
Both of which had sucked.
With a sudden shift in logic, Phury saw things in a different light.
Shit, all along he'd tortured himself about Z's fate... all along he'd lived in the cold, pervasive shadow of their family's tragedy. He had suffered, goddamn it... he had suffered, too, and suffered still. And while he respected the sanctity of his twin's mating with Bella, something popped in his head at getting closed out as if he were an absolute stranger. And a hostile one at that.
When he stepped out into the pebbled courtyard, he stopped dead. "Zsadist."
Z kept on walking toward the Escalade.
His twin paused, put his hands on his hips, and didn't turn around. "If this is about you and the lesser shit, don't try to apologize again."
Phury reached up and loosened the collar on his shirt. "It's not."
"I don't want to hear about the red smoke, either. Or your getting kicked the fuck out of the Brotherhood."
"Turn around, Z."
There was a long pause. Then he gritted out in a hard voice, "You never said thank-you."
Z's head shot over his shoulder. "Excuse me?"
"You. Never. Thanked. Me."
"For saving you. Goddamn it, I saved you from that whore Mistress of yours and what she did to you. And you never thanked me." Phury walked up to his twin, his voice getting louder and louder. "I searched for you for a fucking century, and then I got your ass out of there and saved your fucking life¡ª"
Zsadist leaned forward on his shitkickers, pointing his finger out like a gun. "You want credit for rescuing me? Don't hold your breath. I never asked you for the fucking favor. That was all about your Good Samaritan complex."
"If I hadn't gotten you out, you wouldn't have Bella!"
"And if you hadn't, she wouldn't be in danger of dying right now! You want gratitude? Better pat yourself on the back, because I'm not feeling it at the moment."
The words drifted off into the night as if looking for other ears to fill.
Phury blinked, then found words coming out of his mouth, words he'd wanted to say for a long time. "I buried our parents by myself. I was the only one who took care of their bodies, who smelled the smoke of the burning¡ª"
"And I never knew them. They were strangers to me, and so were you when you showed up¡ª"
"They loved you!"
"Enough to stop looking for me! Fuck them! You think I didn't know he stopped? I went back and traced the trail from that house you burned down. I know how far our father went before he gave up. You think I give a shit about him? He let me go!"
"You were more real to them than I was! You were everywhere in that house, you were everything to them!"
"Boo-fucking-hoo, Phury," Z snapped. "Don't you dare poor-me it with me. Do you have any idea what my life was like?"
"I lost my fucking leg for you!"
"You chose to come after me! If you don't like the way things worked out, don't bitch to me about it!"
Phury exhaled hard, absolutely stunned. "You ungrateful bastard. You ungrateful motherfucker... You mean to tell me you would rather have stayed with the Mistress?" When there was nothing but silence, he shook his head. "I'd always thought the sacrifices I'd made were worth it. The celibacy. The panic. The physical costs." Anger resurged. "Not to mention the royal head fuck I got from the number of the times you asked me to beat the living shit out of you. And now you tell me you would rather have stayed a blood slave?"
"Is that what all this is about? You want me to justify this self-destructive savior streak you got going on by being grateful?" Z laughed low and hard. "Whatever. You think I'm having a party watching you smoke and drink yourself into an early grave? You think I like what I saw the other night in that alley?" Z cursed. "Fuck it, I'm so not playing this. Wake up, Phury. You're killing yourself. Quit searching for crutches and spouting lies, and take a good long look at yourself."
On some dim inner level Phury realized that this collision between the two of them had been overdue. And that his twin had a point.
But so did he.
He shook his head again. "I don't think I'm wrong to ask for some acknowledgment. I've been invisible in this family all my life."
There was a stretch of silence.
Then Z spat, "For fuck's sake, get off the cross. Someone else needs the wood."
The dismissive tone sparked the anger again, and Phury's arm swung of its own volition, his fist catching Z on the thick of the jaw, the crack like a homer hit off a wooden bat.
Z went on a flying spin and landed on Rhage's GTO like a tarp.
As the brother righted himself, Phury fell into a fighting stance and shook out his knuckles. In another second and a half, they were going to be locked in a vicious bodily argument, fists instead of nasty words being traded back and forth until one or both of them collapsed.
And exactly where the hell was that going to get them?
Phury slowly lowered his arms.
At that moment, Fritz's Mercedes came through the courtyard's gates.
In its headlights, Zsadist rearranged his jacket and calmly walked over to the driver's-side door of the Escalade. "If it weren't for what I just promised Cormia, I'd bust your mouth open."
"Get in the fucking car."
"What did you say to her?"
As Z got behind the wheel, his black eyes cut through the night like knives. "Your girlfriend is worried about you, so she made me promise I'd take care of you. And unlike some people, I keep my word."
"Now get in." Z slammed the SUV's door shut.
Phury cursed and went over to the passenger side while the Merc came to a halt and Qhuinn got out of the backseat. The kid's eyes went saucer as he looked up at the mansion.
Clearly he was here for his trial, Phury thought as he slid into shotgun next to his deathly silent twin.
"You know where Lash's parents' house is, right?" Phury said.
"Of course I do."
The shut up went unsaid.
As the Escalade headed for the gates, the wizard's voice was dead serious as it banged around in Phury's head: You have to be a hero to earn gratitude, and you are not one of the knight-in-shining-armor types. You just want to be.
Phury looked out the window, the angry words he and Z had just exchanged echoing like gunshots in an alley.
Do them all a favor and walk away, the wizard said. Just walk away, mate.
You want to be a hero? Make it so they don't have to deal with you ever again.