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Carry Me to Morning

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Mako found him shadow-sparring in the courtyard where the warriors practiced. He was alone with his bo staff, sweaty, flushed, and tousled. Sasha would have said something approving, but Mako just waited, silent and nervous, until he finished the kata and turned to face her. She smiled thinly while he caught his breath, then spoke.

“Lord Hansen …”

Herc cocked an eyebrow, mouth turning up in a smile. “So formal, Lady Mori?”

And so reticent, was the subtext. Mako was not known for her reluctance to speak her mind.

So, her reputation was at stake: she straightened, rigid as a new recruit. Unlike a recruit, she looked Herc Hansen in the the eye. “Lord Hansen, will you see me through my Virgin Night?”

The staff fell from Herc’s hand, cracking sharp against the paving stones.

Mako set her jaw and told herself firmly not to blush. She had the horrible suspicion her body wasn’t obeying, and if she used a bit of Craft to check it would just call more attention to the problem.

Herc himself was definitely blushing, bright flaming red creeping up his fair cheeks as if he were still exercising. Odd how that made his freckles stand out even darker, rather than blending them in. He looked a bit cross-eyed – perhaps he was not blushing, but had instead forgotten to breathe.

Just as she was beginning to truly worry he would drop, he recovered, coughing. “Ah. Mako, uh –“ He looked away from her and she couldn’t fault him for it. She wished she could glance away herself, but she would likely run straight out of the courtyard if she let herself even glimpse the gate.

He was going to say no. What if he said no? She had made contingency plans. She would enact those, as soon as she finished dying from embarassment.

Herc took her hand, and when he met her eyes again his own were bright blue and honest. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t expecting –“ On the verge of babbling, he closed his eyes, just briefly. He smiled at her, because it was that or throw himself down apologizing for having worried her.

“Yes, Mako. Of course I will.” He knelt, on one knee there on the old, uneven stones, and pressed his lips to her hand. “My honor to serve you, Lady.”

He stood and bent to pick up his staff.

Mako nodded, fast. She was business-like, the better not to linger overlong on the feeling of his mouth’s quick caress across her skin. “Good,” she said. “Tonight, after dinner.”

The staff bounced off the stones again.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Herc flung himself down in a chair in Stacker’s office.

Stacker watched him warily. Herc had a bottle of liquor in hand, obviously plundered from medical stores. That was a bad sign. The Healers’ liquor cabinet was unlocked because no one not actively bleeding out or on fire would be desperate enough to drink that swill.

Herc was the steadiest Warlord Stacker had ever known, with the poise to lead males and witches who wore Jewels much darker than Herc’s own Opal. Now he was pale, wide-eyed, and he ripped the cork out with his teeth and took a long gulp. Then he thunked the bottle down on Stacker’s desk and pushed it across to him.

“I’m going to have sex with your daughter,” Herc wheezed. “Tonight.

Stacker nearly fumbled the bottle. It tasted just as horrible as he’d expected.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

As it happened, neither of them ate dinner.

Mako chose the better part of valor and a tray of cookies eaten nervously in her room. They were rich enough to supply the energy her Green Jewels demanded but comforting in their simplicity. Herc chose a hard run along the beach, both for time alone and to sweat out the Healer’s bottle of bad ideas. He hadn’t had much, but it was strong.

And at the appointed time, when the sun had set below the horizon but the stars were not yet all revealed, he went to her.

She should have better than this. It was the inevitable thought, looking around the austere, small room. The Temple of the Shattered Dome was as good a place as any to die, but it was nowhere for a young woman to grow up. Much less a Queen, who should have satin sheets and wide gardens, not a camp bed in an ascetic’s cell, deep in the heart of a last desperate redoubt.

She’d dressed up for him, slender and shapely in a sleek black gown that covered her from throat to wrists to ankles in a silken sheath. It was styled after Widow’s weeds, though she was no Sister of the Hourglass, made of precious spidersilk that cost five years of a workman’s wage. There was no male among the Blood who could see a woman dressed like that and not be riveted with desire, respect, or fear -- or all three.

It was also, he knew, her only dress.

Mako flushed. It was not from – well, what they were here to do. She was not thinking about That right now. Very soon That would be all she had to think about, so it could wait. She would regain her ability to think sex like an adult without wanting to sink into the floor, or she wouldn’t, and either way she would find her way through.

No, it wasn’t sex. It was the dress.

Stacker Pentecost was a Warlord Prince to the core, broken or not, and one of his quiet joys was to see his daughter grown. And to fuss over her. So for his sake, she owned a dress, a ridiculous, frighteningly expensive dress, and from time to time she wore it and let him fix her hair and let him and the other males dance attendance on her as if they were in a Court instead of a military camp.

Usually she at least had Sasha there. And other women, to be sure, but it was Sasha who could take Stacker two falls out of three in the practice ring without resorting to her Jewels, and who was a cold, flawless beauty when she swept through a room in a gown of gold, her lips red as blood. They had a deal, and that deal involved Sasha being stunning and drawing men to dance while Mako tried to look as if she knew what she was doing.

Honestly, if a penis were not absolutely required for the magic of a Virgin Night, she would have just asked Sasha. Women didn’t usually interest her that way, but there was such a thing as being too picky. Alexis wouldn’t have minded. Probably.

Herc was smiling at her, but it didn’t seem to be the kind of smile one wore when looking at something silly. That was a relief.

Herc was thinking, though not in a dark way, about his regrets. He would die in this war, that seemed certain, and was not worth regretting but that he would have to leave his son alone. And he would never get to see her rule. She would be magnificent.

“You look lovely, Mako,” he said, understating.

It was a simple, kind statement, the sort that opened up a few well-marked paths in Protocol. She knew how to respond. She could. They would chat a bit and regain their ease, and right words would lead to right actions and nothing would be awkward.

She said, “The Night of Fire is ready. I’m ready. Let’s have some!” And then she hurried over to the small table where the steaming brew was sat, so that she could turn her back to him and hide her mortification. That was not what she had meant to say.

Heart fluttering, she nearly fumbled the cups twice before big hands encircled her arms just above the wrists and a broad, solid body warmed her back. Somehow he managed it without crowding her. Even with his support, her hands tried to shake. Thank the Darkness she hadn’t grabbed the potion itself. It would be all over the floor, and even if the paving stone survived her nerves might not.

“Breathe, girl.”

As ordered, she breathed. She released the handles of the cups and pressed her palms flat against the table. The wood felt cool, for some reason, and all the rest of her skin too hot.

She had to remind herself not to lean onto her hands. The table wasn’t that sturdy. But if she leaned back --

Carefully, Herc let go of her wrists. He ran his hands up her arms, barely skimming the spidersilk, mindful of the callouses that might snag. Of course, she had those callouses, too. The fabric was probably spelled against it.

He gave her shoulders a squeeze and stepped back, pulling her away from the table. “I’ll pour. Hey – my privilege to serve, remember?” He said it with a smile and a nudge toward the bed, to keep her from taking it as criticism. “Go sit down.”

The Night of Fire was red as heart’s blood, gleaming like a Jewel itself in the heavy glass decanter that was warmed from beneath a tongue of witch-fire. Something tickled at the back of his head, something odd about it he couldn’t quite place, but he had no sense of danger. Just in case, he whispered a spell to check for poisons, but there were none.

He’d tasted the potion three times in his life. First on his wedding night; twice after, when with his wife’s blessing he’d been called to the same duty he faced tonight. Not once since Angie died. There’d been other women, not many, close friends and comfort. Not someone who needed him the way Mako did now.

He took off his Jewels and placed them on the table where they glinted against the witch-fire, the heavy pendant and angular ring bright with Opal. Vanishing them, he could call them back with a thought; taking them off, leaving them out of reach, he was more naked .

It was not unlike how a man might go to his wedding night, wearing only the ring his new wife had given him.

Poured into plain earthenware mugs from the mess hall, the Night of Fire looked less impressive, but it smelled floral and rich still. He carried both mugs over to the bed, commanding them through Craft to stay warm.

Mako took the mug he offered and cradled it in both hands, wrapping her fingers around it to soak in the heat. It was never cold in Dakkeoi, not here by the harbor where balmy southern waters were warm enough to swim – if you had a bit of practice – even in the winter. Still a chill could creep into the Temple and linger for days in the stone.

She’d toed off her shoes and drawn her legs up onto the bed, demure with the long skirt wrapping them. Hopefully she wouldn’t need to leap from the bed quickly, for she’d surely trip. Herc settled beside her, not touching, but near enough that she could feel the heat coming off of him, too. That was something she’d noticed about males, that they could be like furnaces at times. She could imagine how that would be … nice, to sleep against.

“Y’know,” he said, balancing his own mug on one knee, “I always thought it was funny, how we get about sex. First thing we tell kids is, it’s important, it’s good, everyone should do a lot of it with people they like – and now you have to wait, because it’s not for children. And then when it comes time to actually do it?” He gestured between them. “Awkward as anything.”

She laughed softly, grateful. “You’re saying it’s not just me, then?”

“It’s not just you,” he agreed, and raised the potion to his lips.

She went to take a hasty sip herself, but saw him pause, his brow furrowed. “Something wrong?

“This potion takes three days to brew. Doesn’t it?” He tried to remember what he knew about cauldron-Craft – not much.

“Yes. I brewed it.”

Herc looked at her over the rim. Mako was as good an apothecary as any, but her potions tended toward the inventive. And Night of Fire was a powerful enough brew on its own without being improved.

Mako sniffed. “Nuit checked my work.”

That solved precisely no problems. The twitchy little Black Widow who made her lair in the heart of the Temple was a genius at her Craft; her webs had saved his life more than once. If she was more loud than impressive, it was at least a change of pace from the cryptic air most Black Widows favored. But she was hardly going to be a restraining influence on Mako in the stillroom. Nuit might know more about their enemy than anyone else, but Herc suspected she had spent a bit too much time drinking poisons and seeking visions.

And nothing changed the fact that the potion had been brewing for three days.

Looking down, Mako found a terribly interesting bit of stitching on the bedspread.

“Mako?”

“I need to do this now. I don’t know why. It’s just – just a feeling. That there isn’t much time. I need to be as strong as I can.” She’d made the Offering to the Darkness as a girl in Summer-Sky. When her night-long vigil had ended, a perfect Green Jewel had sat in her hand. But until she passed through this last rite, that power was vulnerable. The invaders from the Kaiju Realm had many terrible weapons, but to break a virgin witch they only needed one. Rape would shatter her inner web and cut her off from the Abyss which was the well of the Blood’s power. And in the chaos of a world on the edge of ruin, the Kaiju were not the only ones who might break a woman they thought of as a threat.

With her virginity dealt with, that was one weapon, at least, that could never be used against her. Assuming always that she survived her Virgin Night intact.

She squeezed the mug too hard, chilled.

That same chill crept up Herc’s spine. He’d thought her urgency charming – awkward and terrifying, in the way of a woman on a mission, but charming. But there was nothing trivial about a Queen’s premonition of danger.

“A feeling?” he asked.

She shrugged, though the gesture was too casual to express her frustration. “Nuit spun a web over me while I slept. She can’t use her Jewels, of course, since she would lose the baby, but power doesn’t make as much difference in the Widows’ Craft. I saw only dreams, not visions, and she saw too many possibilities. She said we were screwed so many different ways already, there was no way to tell which might be the true danger. And then she and Hermann started arguing about theory versus practice and that was the end of that.”

Hermann, the Warlord who shared Nuit’s workshop and scried the movements of the enemy, was the only man Herc had ever met who thought screaming at a Black Widow was a good way to kill time. Most men would call it a bad way to commit suicide. Of course, they would say the same about fathering a child on her, and Hermann had also done that.

Mako was speaking, faster. “If you had said no, I would have found someone else tonight. Hu, or Cheung. I don’t think Jin is – maybe Alexis. I’d prefer one of the warriors. Though if not --”

Mother Night, she was listing the other men she might sleep with. Herc had to tell the girl not to do that to the next man.

Though, he noticed a name missing from her list. He let curiosity get the better of him. “Raleigh?”

No.

Her voice was cold and sharp as a blade. The chill he’d felt became, for a moment, very real, and his breath steamed in her temper.

He raised his head to bare his throat, submitting. She backed down. Frost retreated from the walls.

A Queen would not rise to the killing edge over a male’s misplaced words. His life was hers to take, and so she had no need to. Thank the Darkness for Protocol.

“Not him,” Mako said. Her expression was set and distant, her arms close in and tense. She’d drawn in on herself, withdrawn from him, which wasn’t good but could be dealt with. “He would serve. Don’t doubt that he would serve.” She spoke with absolute conviction, not just of a Queen defending her male, but of a warrior who had joined her mind to his in battle.

“I won’t risk him for this.”

Herc knew she was right. There was a danger to the Virgin Night, if the male’s Jewels were lighter than the female’s. When her hymen was pierced and her inner web laid bare, she could panic, and in her panic she would run or fight. If she fled too deep, too fast, he couldn’t get below her in the Abyss to catch her before she broke. If instead she turned to savage him, he couldn’t save himself.

In theory, Raleigh Beckett would have been ideal to see her through the night. He was a Prince, his caste higher than Herc’s though still far below a Queen, and his Sapphire Jewels were darker than Mako’s Green. And Mako loved him fiercely, loved him like the better part of herself and knew that love was returned.

But he had spent nearly five years lost in the Twisted Kingdom, his body stumbling through the bare necessities of survival while his mind wandered across a mad dreamscape. He had been linked to his brother Yancy when Yancy died in battle against the Kaiju soldiers. Raleigh knew more about death than any living person should – and that knowledge had its price.

Raleigh was stronger than Herc but fragile, and what Herc lacked in raw power he made up in experience and will.

Mako hadn’t told him about her fears, Herc realized, because she had wanted him able to say no.

Protocol gave a man the right to refuse. Being ordered to a woman’s bed was rape, whether or not it was done by violence; not even a Queen had that right. But Protocol also asked why a man would refuse to serve his Queen in her need.

That was what she was: his Queen, though she had no Court for him to serve. While this war carried on she would claim no right of governance. She was a soldier and looked to Stacker as her general, even though Stacker was a Warlord Prince, born to stand beside a Queen, not command her. And to make things worse, he was her father, who would do anything to keep her from harm.

Stacker would not survive to see her rule, either.

And if Herc had known her reasons when she’d asked him, why him, why now –

His answer would have been the same. Yes, Lady.

She was his Queen, and she would take care of her own. This time, when he raised his glass he drained it without hesitation, letting the Night of Fire tumble down his throat like embers and wake a hunger in his belly. Casting the mug aside on a thread of Craft, he smirked at her in challenge.

In that moment he looked very like his son. Mako snarled and gulped down the brew. She threw the mug over her shoulder, glaring hotly at him; her Craft caught the mug just a hairsbreadth above the floor and set it down gently. Nothing useful could be wasted, not even to prove a point.

At that he kissed her. Her hands flew to his neck and her nails pricked needle-sharp just above the artery, where he’d cut a man’s throat to end a fight. The sound she made was primal and not at all safe, but it was pleased, and within him something answered.

She would have rushed ahead but he held her there. For reasons she couldn’t quite articulate -- because they all ran together into yesyesyesyesyes -- she let him, just as she let his hands brush her hair back gently from her face and urge her closer to him. Without conscious effort she moved with him, found a better angle, and wound up half in his lap before they both surfaced again.

He looked at her with newfound appreciation and a bit of self-satisfaction. Couldn’t be just the potion driving her; not even Night of Fire hit that fast. “That was one hell of a kiss, Mako.”

She smiled, the way she always did when someone complimented her skills. False modesty had never been among her failings. “Thank you. I practiced with Sasha.” She frowned. “Are you all right, Herc?”

He looked a bit cross-eyed. Was he about to faint? Nuit had warned there might be side effects from the potion … though Nuit had been snickering at the time …

Before she could take his pulse, he pulled her fully into his lap, and her squeak of surprise turned quickly to a demanding growl.

From there, it was easy. Fire in her blood rose up like the tide in the harbor and her fear crumbled to sand. She had touched herself before and come to orgasm; even virgins had imaginations. But now, with the fire and the need and the man, and his wonderful, knowing mouth --

By the time her dress fell to the floor, neither of them thought to worry about the fabric.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Mako woke with her face mashed inelegantly into Herc’s side, her breath stale and her body over-warm, sore in some nebulous way that might localize later. The room smelled – not bad, but strange, and she realized to her chagrin she knew that smell from the barracks. There was blood on the sheets.

She felt amazing.

Smiling to herself, she stretched carefully, trying not to wake Herc. No use. As soon as she untangled her legs, she heard a soft, “Good morning.”

Very,” she agreed, blinking up at him.

Her bedroom was in the sheltered core of the Temple, removed even from most of the other officers’ quarters. She didn’t like it, but Stacker insisted, and she had managed to have Raleigh quartered just across the hall, at least. No sunlight made it down this deep, but her inner sense said it was morning, and anyway, Herc could see the clock behind her.

He’d lit a witchlight on the far wall, just enough light to let her see the outlines of his face. As her eyes adjusted, another light flickered on and she could make out a few details. Like his smile. It looked as soft and foolish as hers felt.

“It’s just past dawn,” he said quietly, while she wormed her way up to the pillow and stretched out on her side, resting her elbow on the pillow and her head on her cocked hand. “You could get some more sleep.”

But even as he said it, he shifted so that he faced her, and his arm curled low over her side, his hand stroking just above her buttocks.

She raised an eyebrow at him and moved a little, trying, for some reason, to be subtle. If his fingers would just drift down a little, and – oh. What a nice thing to find. Lord Hansen was most definitely as interested as she.

Herc swallowed hard and pulled her close. Her slim hand was caught between them, and that was very good. She giggled and nearly set him off laughing, too, like two children pulling a prank, but his lips found the hollow at the base of her throat and she threw her head back, gasping, and his mouth was busy.

“We can do this again?” she asked, breathless, her eyes half shut and her hips fairly grinding into him while he found every single nerve in her neck and set it dancing. So much for subtle. Thinking hard enough to make clear sentences was a struggle but some questions were important and there was a rush of energy behind her words.

“Again, I mean, later? Not just now, because of course we oh right there!”

“Uh-huh. Though, if you’re talking I’m not doing it right –“

He rolled them so that he was on top of her, weighing her down. Pinned like this in the training ring, she would touch her hand to her belt knife and then slap his side hard with her palm, scoring a hit that represented her knife between his ribs. In the training ring, she most certainly wouldn’t wrap her legs around his waist and pull him closer so that she could kiss him, but in her bed that was what she did, and she relished his heavy weight on her.

This was not they had done the night before. That had been thorough and very pleasant, but Herc had kept things strictly traditional. They’d done nothing that she hadn’t learned the bare outlines of in sexual education class years ago, the ones she’d endured with the other girls who’d reached menarche at the same time she had. Those lessons had been horribly dry, delivered by the most stiflingly respectable matron around, and everyone had giggled behind the teacher’s back and called them riding lessons.

Jokes about bucking studs had seemed extremely clever back then, while the actual topic had been frustratingly abstract. Mako had found out last night what all the fuss was about.

This, with her beneath him and open to him, his rough hands in her hair – this was entirely new. Last night he had guided her, she realized now, but he had done so so skillfully that every motion had seemed like her idea. His position had been submission to her will, clean and proper. There was none of that now. She liked the other way. She liked this way. She was not up to ranking them in order of preference right now, but this made her face hot with more than just desire. It felt kinky, a little bit naughty, not the kind of thing she would like to explain to someone who walked in.

Of course, anyone who walked in to this room uninvited would probably be an assassin, so she could just kill them. That was reassuring.

After, he stayed where she kept him, his head pillowed on her breasts and her thighs bracketing his hips, her psychic scent surrounding him. It was the closest thing to safety he’d felt in years. It let him close his eyes and think. He hadn’t meant to do that. Any of that. ‘Good morning’ sex was beyond the call of duty. And even if, when a lady woke up aroused, it was only polite –

But he hadn’t been polite at all, now had he. She was not his lover. He hadn’t asked her if she’d mind trying something different. Hadn’t discussed her tastes. Hell’s fire, she barely knew her own tastes. He’d simply done it, and it had felt right. ‘Right’ was an understatement. It hadn’t been extreme, just the kind of thing Angie had taught him to like, those times when she’d been in the mood to relax and let him do all the hard work. But a nearly-virgin Queen? Men had died for less presumption.

Not that Mako was likely to do worse than rabbit-punch him if he overstepped himself. Nor had she enjoyed it any less than he had. That was abundantly clear.

And to be fair, she had started it.

No sense regretting things you’d already done. That hadn’t been the first lesson he’d learned as a soldier but it might’ve been the biggest. Regret kept you thinking about the past, not about the next thing that was going to try to kill you or the really damned excellent thing that was happening right now. Like lying in the arms of a beautiful woman who figured you for the best sex going, letting her skritch her fingers through your hair.

And he had another duty.

Cautiously, with as little Craft as he could manage, he sent out a thought spear to spear. It sought the man who, Herc was sure, had kept worried vigil through the night. She’s all right.

Broken, they said, you couldn’t hear a psychic thread. Your mind was nearly silent. But Stacker had always heard him. Stacker had never been like other men. And the rush of sheer relief and thanks that came back to Herc, wordless, was enough to bring tears to his eyes.

Herc should have thought to do that before he’d taken Mako for a morning tumble, just for fun. Ass.

Mako was speaking, her voice a beautiful spell, and he was sotted with her scent and lost in thought such that it took him a moment or two to focus on what she was saying.

“You know, you – I know you’re Sensei’s friend, and I know you’ve known me since I was very young, so you might think it would be a little awkward. But we’re compatible, and I’ve always thought of you as someone I could … Herc?”

So he had a problem.

He pushed himself up to his knees, but the wide-eyed look she gave him tugged at his heart. Of course she wondered what she’d done wrong. She sat up and he took her hand, settling down close beside her again. She wasn’t ready for distance. Neither was he. And thankfully, he’d known this was coming.

“Mako, listen.”

She started to speak anyway, but he squeezed her hand and she stopped, watching warily. At least she didn’t pull away.

Listen. Don’t go falling in love with me. It happens all the time with girls and their first man. That isn’t what this is.” He looked at the two of them, naked and sticky, and smiled with real humor. Nothing dignified about the morning after, no matter how you tried to dress it up. “You know what this is. I serve, and I am honored that you chose me. Not because you’re a Queen or because you’re beautiful, though you’re both. You’re my friend and my comrade. I care about you, and I’m honored to know you trust me enough to ask me for this.”

Nevermind that list of other men she’d had in mind. There was such a thing as being too picky. He’d been her second choice when Raleigh couldn’t be her first, and that was as good as he could ask for.

She looked crestfallen still. Worse, she was trying not to show it. “I’m sorry,” she said. “You’re right. I’m just being silly.”

“No, you’re not,” he said. He squeezed her hand again. She wasn’t his lover and right now she wasn’t his Queen. She was a young woman who needed advice and relied on him to give it. “You’re being completely ordinary. I know that’s not something you’re used to, but –“

He smirked at the sharp look she shot him, and after a moment of looking at him she smiled a little in answer. He’d take it.

“It happens. It’s natural, and if the man is worth a damn no hearts get broken over it. “

He weighed his options for a moment and decided. Wasn’t a good enough liar to tell himself it was self-sacrifice, but, Hell, no one expected him to be pure of heart. “Not to say we can’t have sex again. If, ah, that’s what you’re asking. As long as we’re honest with each other and we can stay friends at the same time, I’m --”

He paused and she stared at him, daring him to say it. He grinned. “I’m up for it.”

Her eyes widened but otherwise she didn’t move a muscle. She was silent, almost somber, for long enough he started to worry. Until, “Friends,” she agreed seriously. And then she broke into a wicked grin. “With some extras.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

They didn’t make it out of bed until lunchtime. Raleigh had left a note on her door. Brought you breakfast. Ate it. Good time?

She wore her duty fatigues with her jacket open to display the Green Jewel at her throat, dark with power. Its mate was on her finger. Everyone she passed in the corridors glanced first at the Jewels and then at her, their relief palpable. A few winked at Herc when they thought she wasn’t looking.

Just as she’d expected, the rumor mill had informed the entire Temple just what she’d done last night, and who she’d done it with. Pray it would carry the news of her success as swift. Whatever good a Queen could do them, she was unbroken and ready.

Chuck Hansen stepped into her path. She stopped. So did Herc, to her left and one step behind.

The sound of other footsteps moving in the hallway stopped, and in the edges of her vision she saw other people freezing still, or edging quietly toward a door, any way out of the hall. An unhappy Warlord Prince could reach the killing edge between one heartbeat and the next. Chuck’s jacket left his Sapphire Jewels bare, too.

The Sapphire was Chuck’s Birthright. One day soon, he would be even stronger. From Sapphire he might reach the Ebon-Grey, and that power came but once a generation – to women. It had been a very long time since a male had wielded Jewels so dark.

Most people tended to walk softly around Chuck.

Mako stood straight, her arms by her sides. Chuck’s eyes were on her chest. Not her breasts: her Jewels. “Good morning, Prince Hansen,” she said coolly.

Once, Chuck had been a friend. Perhaps her only friend. These days, he was a problem. She ignored the sick twist her gut made at that thought. Later, maybe, they could fix things between them, whatever was broken. Later, when they had time.

Slowly, he raised his gaze to her face. “You’re all right,” he said softly. He glanced over to her left and his mouth curled in a sneer. “I see the old man didn’t let you down.”

Behind her, Herc just sighed. “Chuck, we’ll talk. You and me, once the lady’s settled.”

“Not you I’m concerned about, Old Man,” he snapped. That same venom in his voice -- he’d spat it at Raleigh, too, the day she and Raleigh had failed. Had stopped just short of treating her the same. So now he turned it on his father.

His eyes were back on her, burning with an intensity that wasn’t foreign. She’d seen something very much like it in Herc’s face the night before. But this had nothing to do with desire, and in Chuck, every feeling held a knife. He reached out like he would touch her. She didn’t move, and he dropped his hand.

She would not speak for him. She waited until he made himself clear. Because this was Chuck, that didn’t take long.

“My Jewels are darker,” he said. His voice was rough and rising with every phrase. “I’m stronger. My Caste is dominant. What if you fell? You could have been –“

It was probably wishful thinking that heard a quaver in his voice, a note of the boy she once knew.

Herc started forward, his temper burning now that he was not the target. For his son, his, to question a Queen’s choice in this of all things --

Mako held up a hand, silent, and it was as good as a leash. Herc stopped short, braced for a fight.

Chuck hadn’t taken his eyes off Mako.

She looked unmoved. She felt tired. After a moment, she spoke just loudly enough for Chuck and Herc to hear. “Because I don’t trust you, Chuck.”

He turned white, then he turned on his heel and left.

She had seen men gutted before. They looked very much like Chuck had, just then.

Blindly, she reached behind her and didn’t breathe until Herc took her hand, twining his fingers in with hers. Across the little space between them she sent a thought, distaff to spear. I want to go back to bed.

He squeezed her hand. But we can’t, he said.

But we can’t, she agreed.

Undeterred, her stomach roiled with hunger. She still had to eat. She still had to report to Stacker. They had battles yet to plan.

Good things didn’t last when the world was ending. Fix that first. Then they could try for something more.