Nola faced off with her sisters. They formed a menacing half-circle around her, each glaring at her.
"You freed my slave," Amelia growled, and several warrioresses booed and hissed at Nola.
She had always been something of a tribe outsider, so she wasn't surprised at the cold welcome. "He isn't yours, but yes," she said proudly. "I freed him."
A frowning Kreja stepped forward, separating herself from the masses and placing herself nose-to-nose with Nola. "I want five of my elite armed and hunting the vampire within the next five minutes."
Footsteps echoed as the warrioresses complied.
"And you," the queen continued, "you know the punishment for stealing your sister's slave?"
"Yes," Nola repeated. The punishment - a savage, wish-you-were-dead whipping. Not that they could administer it. But even if she'd been tangible, she would have risked it. Zane's freedom was worth losing the skin on her back. At the very least.
"Delilah returned and told us you lived still, but that did not stop our worry for you. And now I find you here, working against us. Why would you do such a thing?" the queen asked, sounding genuinely curious rather than enraged.
"The vampire had endured enough at the hands of the Amazons. Like us, he is a living being with feelings. He is courageous, wild as the animals in this forest and fierce beyond imagining."
And he would return for her. She trusted him.
Never before had she trusted a man, but she trusted Zane. Having watched him these past few months, she knew he was not the kind of man who made vows lightly. She knew he did not say things simply to placate his audience. Oh, yes. He would return.
What they would do when he reached her, she didn't know. She only knew that she needed to be with him. To see his face and hear his voice. She could live with any curse, as long as he was alive and well and with her.
Kreja sighed. "Wise words, but that does not change what you have done. Not only did you free a slave, you freed your sister's slave. For that, you will deal with Amelia in the battle arena. She will be armed. You will not. Afterward, if you survive, you will be whipped, as is our custom."
The queen reached out - and wrapped her fingers around Nola's suddenly solid forearm, dragging her toward the arena, Amelia close on her heels. Nola gasped in shock. What...why...how was it possible?
"I will not go easy on you," Amelia snarled at her.
They can touch me. Which means they can hurt me, Nola realized, dread sweeping through her.
Would she be alive when Zane returned?
Zane reached the vampire stronghold and collapsed at its gates. His strength - gone. His wounds - unhealed. Followed as he'd been, he wouldn't have been able to hunt for food. Broken as he was, he'd been unable to capture a single animal and feed himself.
Thankfully the guards recognized him. He was hefted over a shoulder and carted inside the palace. The touch disturbed him, but he didn't fight it. He was in too much of a hurry and knew this was the best way. By the time they reached his personal chamber, there was a buzz of activity, his name being whispered from everyone's lips.
"Blood," he rasped as the guard lay him down on the bed.
That guard tilted his head, offering his own neck.
Zane shook his head and closed his eyes. "Glass." He would not take from a living source. Still couldn't stomach the thought - unless that living source was Nola. Once, when he'd ensured she would welcome him by invading her dreams, he had tasted her. The sweetness of her blood...the decadence of her moans...and he'd reveled in every nuance of her. He would not overshadow that precious memory by taking from someone else, even in his desperation.
How did she affect him this way?
Perhaps he did not mind her hands on him because he saw himself in her eyes. Saw vulnerability and pain, fear and yearning. Perhaps they shared a similar past; she'd alluded to such a thing once before, when they'd been pitted against each other on the island. That meant someone had hurt her at some point in her life. Hurt her deeply and unequivocally. Zane wanted to destroy that someone, bit by bit.
Warm hands settled on his shoulders and shook him.
His eyelids fluttered open, a growl in his throat. When he saw that Layel loomed above him, glass in hand, he forced himself to relax against the feathered mattress. "My king, I - "
"No talking just yet. Drink," Layel said, placing the glass to his lips. Tall and leanly muscled, with white hair and blue eyes, he was an eerily beautiful sight that reminded Zane of both his rescue from the demon queen and the horrors he'd endured at the hands of the gods. "Drink."
Zane opened his mouth, and the sweet nectar of life poured down his throat. He swallowed greedily. Once again, warmth spread through him. Warmth and strength and determination.
He had not lied to Nola. He was going back for her. He would conquer that damn camp and everyone inside it. Nola will not like that. Those women are her sisters.
Well, they damn well should not have tried to enslave him, he thought darkly. But he knew deep down that he wouldn't hurt them. Not really. For Nola, he would simply send them on their way, claiming the camp as his own and remaining there until she could leave.
"Good now?" Layel asked.
"More," he said when the supply ran out. He'd need every ounce of his strength to conquer the Amazons.
Layel cut his wrist, filled the glass with his own life force, and offered it up. This time, Zane was able to hold the glass on his own. He drained every drop. When he finished, he licked his lips and faced the king.
"I am ready to talk," he said. "You escaped the gods and their island." He grunted as his wrists and ankles popped back into place. "Did you win their game?"
The king's lips slowly lifted in a grin. "Delilah did. She saved us both. We have been searching for you since the moment of our return, but the Amazons hid you well."
"Have you news of my sister?" a female voice asked.
Zane looked past his king and saw Delilah standing in the doorway. She was petite in appearance, but as fierce as Nola on a battlefield. Her blue hair was falling around her shoulders, and worry was etched in the violet depths of her eyes.
"She is alive," he told her, and she expelled a relieved breath. "And she is mine."
"And does she agree with that statement?" Delilah's head tilted to the side as she rubbed at her slightly rounded belly.
Slightly rounded. A baby? Layel was to become a father? An ache bloomed in Zane's chest. He'd wanted children with Cassandra. Had dreamed of them. Yet that, too, had been denied him. Until...now?
With Nola...You cannot truly touch her, you fool. That dream is still dead. He couldn't make himself care, however. As long as he had Nola, nothing else mattered.
"Well?" Delilah insisted.
Did Nola wish to belong to him? she'd asked. He thought so, yes. She had helped him. She had even wanted to go with him. But she was also a warrior to her core, an Amazon warrior at that, and they only tolerated men during mating season. He wanted far more than that. No matter the circumstances. He wanted what Layel and Delilah clearly had.
"We will see," Zane said, kicking his legs over the bed.
"You only just returned," Layel said. "Where are you going?"
"To get my woman." This one, he wouldn't let get away.