Crucible of Fate
By: Mary Calmes | Other books by Mary Calmes
Published By: Dreamspinner Press
Published: Nov 21, 2012
ISBN # 9781623801823
Available in: Adobe Acrobat, Epub, Mobipocket (.mobi)
Click here for the print version
Crucible of Fate (Change of Heart) by Mary Calmes - Romance>Paranormal/HorrorA Change of Heart Novel
In the secret city of Sobek, Domin Thorne is making his way as the newly chosen semel-aten, the leader of the werepanther world. He aspires to make sweeping changes—he’s set goals for himself and the people he chose to bring with him, modeling his reign after that of his friend, Logan Church. But Domin may have set too lofty a goal: his normal leadership style isn’t working.
While juggling a homesick Crane, a moody Mikhail, a bullwhip-wielding Taj, servants with murderous intentions, a visiting ex, and a mate on a dangerous goodwill mission, Domin has to figure out his new role alone. He also must determine how to deal with a conspiracy, all the while falling hard for a man who, for the first time in Domin’s life, reciprocates that love. Whether Domin is ready or not, Fate has stepped in to teach him a lesson: internal threats are just as dangerous as external ones.
IT MADE no sense, and they were all tired of hearing me ask the same questions. But until I had an answer I understood, how was I supposed to simply accept it?
“What did your father tell you when you became a semel?” I inquired of every single tribe leader who visited Sobek.
They all regarded me oddly, the last one being Maroz Amadu of the tribe of Serabit from Giza. He was confused.
Yuri translated. “Specifically, he wants to know what would happen to you if you failed as a semel. Where would the people in your territory go for help, if, let’s say, you decided that two panthers of different races couldn’t be married in your territory.”
“But that’s absurd,” he said to Yuri. “It doesn’t matter who you—”
“The sekhem of the semel-aten is hypothesizing,” his yareah, Hesi Amadu, remarked.
Apparently we needed our mates to do the talking for us.
“Oh, I see.” He plastered on a smile. “Well, I was told that if I was not a good ruler, that the panthers in my tribe could contact the semel-aten, and he would hear the case against me and pass judgment.”
“Exactly.” I pointed at him, then whirled around to face Yuri. “You see?”
He crossed his thickly muscled arms across his wide, bulky chest and fixed me with a stare that made me question my sanity. “What do I see?”
“I was a bad semel.”
“‘Was’. Past tense. What does—”
“So does that mean no one ever reported me to Ammon El Masry when he was semel-aten? That seems odd, doesn’t it?”
“I don’t know. How would I know?”
“And therein lies my question.”
There was a soft clearing of a throat behind me.
Pivoting, I found Maroz and his mate still there. “May we go to the grand salon now, my lord? We’re both famished.”
“Oh yeah, go ahead,” I said, waving them away. “Sorry.”
Maroz grabbed his mate by the hand and tugged her away from me quickly. They all ended up doing that, concerned about my state of mind, I was certain.
“Okay, so what now?” Yuri asked, stepping in front of me.
“It’s what I was told as a new semel, what Logan was, what we all were.”
“That the semel-aten would come get you if you were bad,” Yuri paraphrased. “Right? Like the bogeyman?”
“Yeah. And if that’s true, if millions of panthers are supposed to be calling me or e-mailing me and complaining—where is it?”
“What? You’re asking if there’s, like, a command center or something for all this correspondence?”
“That’s exactly what I’m asking. I mean, who checks to make sure no panther is ever seen? Who spins an attack? Who basically has kept werepanthers off human radar for centuries?”
His eyes narrowed as he regarded me.
“So maybe whoever it is started small and now covers the entire world.”
“You’re nuts. You know that, right?”
“Yuri, there has to be a bigger body, a level up from semel-aten, like a werepanther CIA or something. There has to be. Someone is handling situations, and we know it’s not me. I’m a figurehead with no power except for any other semel over my tribe right here.”
“You make law for everyone.”
I dismissed that with a wave.
“And it just so happens that the tribe of Rahotep is the largest single tribe in the world.”
“Yes, but if you put it into perspective and say every panther in the world….” The number was just staggering. “Who does that? Who is responsible for everyone?”
“I think, in all seriousness, everyone is responsible for their own and maybe the tribe closest to them. I mean, it was on Logan to make you stop when you were out of control; maybe that’s how it is everywhere.”
I shook my head. “That’s too simple. Think about it. What if Logan and Christophe were just as fucked up as me? If that was true, then the entire corner of Nevada would have crazed werepanthers running around.”
“Yes, but Logan ended your tribe,” he reminded me. “He ended your reign as semel. Who’s to say that something similar doesn’t occur every day?”
“But if single semels are just policing themselves, why doesn’t the whole thing just collapse and we’re on the six o’clock news everywhere?”
He shook his head. “You’re overthinking this.”
I wasn’t, though; he was just missing it. There had to be a big brother—there simply had to be—but who or what that was, that was the question. I didn’t want to be a figurehead. I wanted to make a difference, and on a larger stage than my own tribe. But I had no idea how to do it.
I did have the power to change the law, though, and that was where I was planning to focus all my energy, if I could just figure out what to start with and how. Everything had to be revamped, but I was buried under the weight of what I should have been doing versus what I was doing. I was on my second rant of the night. If the first was the conspiracy of silence, my next familiar tangent was change.
Yuri said the time for me to simply be had passed. I had to embody the revolution I wanted to see, not simply hope for it. I alone could become a catalyst for action.
“There’s no way,” I railed, pacing in our room, back and forth at the foot of the bed as he lay stretched out on the mattress watching me. It was how it always went, from firebrand to quitter; I swung back and forth daily. “How do I, the infidel, expect to simply upend thousands of years of this-is-how-we-do-things?”
He was waggling his eyebrows.
“What?” I yelled.
“You simply say ‘this is the way we’re going to do it from now on.’ You do what we’ve discussed—proclaim yourself akhen-aten and begin a new reign with your players on the board.”
I found myself staring at him. “It’s not that easy.”
“I think it is.”
“That’s because you’re not the semel-aten!”
“And you’re not either.” He tipped his head to one side. “Well, at least you don’t want to be.”
“You hate it here,” he said, cutting me off. “Not because you’re here in Egypt, but because you don’t like how the upper class treats the lower, how the priest keeps his temple, or how you are supposed to treat the servants in your own villa. You hate the classes of people instead of one tribe that stands together, and you hate that a hundred semel-atens before you and a hundred priests have kept this city in the Dark Ages instead of letting it join the modern world.”
“Then fucking fix it, my lord,” he placated me.
“It’s not that easy.”
“Change is never easy.” He shrugged. “Who lied and said it would be?”
I flopped down on the end of the bed.
After a moment, I felt the mattress lift and dip and realized he was moving behind me. When his strong arms wrapped around my neck, I grunted and leaned back against him.
“You’ll do the right thing.” He sounded so sure.
“How do you know?”
“Because you always do.”
“That’s not true.” I closed my eyes, savoring the feel of his skin, the heat of his chest against my back, and the stubble-covered jaw grazing mine.
Did he know what a simple comfort his touch was? How did everyone in the world not want a mate? Having someone to listen when you unburden your soul and to sleep wrapped around in the night? How was that not a prerequisite for life?
“You are inherently good,” he said, his voice a vibrating purr against the side of my throat. “And once you set your sight on a course of action, you will not be able to push it from your mind.”
He was so right.
I was assaulted by everything that needed to be changed on a daily basis and crushed under the weight of the status quo. The landslide of obligations from the vital to the mundane never stopped. There were expectations and demands, and endless responsibilities.
I hated it.
SIX months had come and gone, and still I felt like I was drowning. Every morning when I woke up, I wondered if that day would be the day I finally got my bearings. I was still waiting. I wanted to go back to the night Logan Church had twisted in his seat and stared at me with a glint in his gold eyes, and tell him to go to hell.
“You should be a semel again,” he had said with that familiar deep rumble in his voice. He had no idea the effect he had on me, on everyone; it was simply how he was, just Logan. “You’re ready, Domin. You need to step out into the light.”
Two years before, the man had ended my reign. I had been the semel of a tribe of werepanthers, leader of the tribe of Menhit, and he had fought me in the pit and won. He could have cut out my heart with his claws, but instead… instead he offered the path to redemption. He opened his home, welcomed me into his tribe and into his life. I was trusted, my counsel heeded, my strength relied upon. It was a gift, the second coming of the friendship we had when we were young. I had worried that I would be consumed by bitterness and would turn on him, catch him unawares, betray him, and then kill him. But I had forgotten about my own heart.
I loved Logan. Not like a lover, not with carnal intent, but—and it was so cliché—like the brother I never had. I wanted him back in my life more than I wanted to hurt him.
I was a shitty leader: the selfish kind, the vindictive kind, the one everyone wished would just die already so they could get someone better, someone who cared at all. So when he beat me in the pit, absorbed my tribe, and took me in, I simply surrendered. Logan was a force of nature, and I had been so tired of fighting him, fighting his nobility and his ethics and his strength, that I let the bitterness go. No good had come from it. Time, instead, to try something new.
Being his maahes, the prince of his tribe, had worked for me. I was easily the second in power. He made the decisions; I carried them out. He navigated; I drove. I was able to be his emissary because I was talking for him, not me. It was so easy.
What came as a surprise was that I changed. I shed my anger, my vanity, and all the pain, and I became everything he’d always seen in me. The man’s faith had made me better, his day-to-day belief invested me in the future of the tribe, in the people, in growth and security and the welfare of all. I was different now, and I owed it all to my old friend, my new semel, Logan Church.
So when he had gazed at me with his honey-colored eyes and told me he wanted me to reclaim my birthright, I couldn’t argue, because he believed. I could be, he said, not just a semel, but the semel, the semel-aten, the leader of the entire werepanther world. I would be able to lead those who wanted to follow me because of the changes I had experienced myself. I would be able to get through to those werepanthers who had lost their faith and their way. I would be a catalyst for change and restore prodigals to the fold, Logan was certain of it.
“You’re insane,” I had replied. “It should be you. You’re the strongest.”
He shook his head. “You’re wrong, it’s you.”
But no one was stronger than Logan Church. He was semel-netjer, the only panther in the world whose mate was also a nekhene cat.
Jin Church, his reah, was the most fearsome werepanther I had ever seen, that anyone had ever seen, and only Logan had tamed him, could tame him, because only Logan was his true-mate. It was ridiculous for him to even suggest that I could be stronger.
“But you can go anywhere and do anything,” he assured me. “I need to stay in the place I was born, rule my tribe, and never leave. All I want to do is go to bed every night with my mate in my arms and wake up every morning to his beautiful gray eyes. Do you understand? You’re stronger than me because you can be whatever you want. All I can be is me.”
I shook my head. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“You’re going to be semel-aten.”
I was certain I had not heard him correctly. “You have lost your mind.”
“No.” He lifted one golden eyebrow as he stared into my eyes. “Listen and then tell me what you want to do.”
And as he had spoken to me on the long flight to Beijing, I wondered if he even knew what he was talking about.
“What if something goes wrong? What if you and I aren’t in the pit at the same time? What if it’s just you and Ammon El Masry, the semel-aten, at the end, Logan?”
He shook his head. “It won’t be. It can’t be. He’ll want a guarantee that I’ll die. He’ll want to make sure. The law says that the semel-aten can challenge me alone or have his maahes with him as well. That’s how he’ll do it, I have no doubt.”
“But he’ll find someone else, Logan,” I insisted. “If he really wants you dead, he’ll find a ringer, he’ll get someone from another tribe.”
“That won’t matter,” he guaranteed. “Any cat that’s not a semel, I can subdue. You’re the one who’ll have to kill Ammon. Can you do that?”
Had everything led me to a place where leading was again possible? Was I ready to step out of Logan’s shadow and take a stand? Did I have the faith in myself that he had in me?
On the high of his praise and faith and love, I gave my answer. “Yes.”
Logan smiled, so obviously pleased. “You’re going to be amazing.”
My prayer had been that he would be right.
It all happened so fast. I became semel-aten and everything fell into place exactly as Logan had said it would. But now I was in Sobek, the ancient werepanther city, semel of the tribe of Rahotep, the tribe of the semel-aten, and everyone was expecting me to lead. They all thought I would just instinctively know what to do and… and instead I was drowning. I was in way over my head and cursing Logan Church because the man was a selfish son of a bitch.
He made me semel-aten because even though he was the best choice for the role, he didn’t want to do it. There was no doubt in my mind that Logan would have done a better job than me.
I shared my thoughts with Yuri but no one else. Even as everything threatened to crash down around me, he was the only one I trusted with that secret.
THE problem was that even though they knew me, with my change of status, the people I brought with me suddenly expected me to simply know what to do. It was, I imagined, what happened when one became a parent. All at once you were expected to know things no one would ever suppose you needed to know otherwise. The weight of their scrutiny made me lash out.
That morning, as I took my usual walk with those closest to me—my maahes, my sylvan, and my sheseru—I was again venting my frustration. There was no way to stop it. I’d tried, but even with all good intentions, the minute they turned to me for guidance, I got pissed and lashed out. I was a horror to be around and I knew it. I was the biggest of asshats to Crane Adams, my maahes, prince of my tribe. Normally, he gave it back with both barrels. He could speak up for himself. Why he hadn’t, why he was just taking whatever I dished out, had been bothering me for the past month. I was ready to have it out with him once and for all.
“So, this Elham,” I said softly as I walked the villa with Crane and Taj Chalthoum, my sheseru, and Mikhail Gorgerin, my sylvan. “He has a lot to say about me.”
“Yes, he does,” Crane agreed. “And I’ll handle it.”
“Which means what?”
“Which means,” he said as he sighed, “that I’m talking to him, and it will either escalate and I’ll meet him in the pit or it won’t and we won’t.”
Mikhail cleared his throat.
As I glanced at Mikhail over my right shoulder, he gave me a slight shake of his head. But how could I drop it?
“Crane.” I took a breath. “You realize that this man, this Elham, is the brother of Ammon El Masry, the last—”
“I know exactly who he is.” Crane gave me a slight smirk so unlike him I almost lost my train of thought.
Crane Adams never did anything just a little. He laughed big and loud, he had adamant thoughts on subjects that were none of his business, and he poked and prodded until you just confessed your heart to him to get him to shut up. He was strong and kind and fair, and so much more than annoying. But I had never, ever, seen him subdued and quiet. The fact that all his passion and vitality had simply drained out of him was driving me out of my mind. He wasn’t himself anymore. He was simply present.
“What the fuck is the matter with you?” I stopped in place.
He kept walking. Everyone else stayed with me, the procession halted.
“Crane!” I barked.
He let out a deep sigh and rounded on me.
I waited expectantly.
He tipped his head sideways because, apparently, he was waiting on me.
I closed on him fast, pointing at his chest. “Don’t fuckin’ semel me. What the hell is wrong with you?”
“In what way?”
“In every way!” I snarled.
He crossed his arms. “Am I not the maahes of this tribe?”
“You know goddamn good and well that you’re the maahes! What the fuck does that—”
“Then allow me to perform the duties of my station and conduct affairs as I see fit. If I need help, I’ll ask for it. If I mess up, you’ll definitely hear about it. But until then, don’t worry.”
“I have to worry! Elham El Masry announced his intention to meet my maahes in the pit!”
“I’m well aware.”
“Crane! He was in line to be semel-aten! Since I killed Ammon, he’s out, and now he wants to be maahes because he can mess with me and my plans if he’s in your spot.”
“Again.” He sounded annoyed. “I know.”
“By law, anyone can challenge your position and—”
“Crane,” I said, my voice rising in anger and frustration. “I don’t want Ammon El Masry’s little brother in my private circle! As maahes, he would hold considerable power and eventually could sway people to his cause and—”
“Everyone expected him to be made maahes. Asdiel Kovo, the new priest, never stops asking me when it will happen. He, much like everyone else, never considered that Ammon’s brother would not be made maahes. He said that choosing you was—”
“I don’t give a shit,” Crane cut me off. “The new priest is a dick.”
Taj, who’d been listening the whole time, snorted from behind me, and when I looked back at him, he opened his eyes wide and shrugged.
“What? Crane’s right, he is a dick.”
“He’s a man in love with the sound of his own voice,” Mikhail chimed in.
“Whatever he believes, or doesn’t, is of no interest to us. Crane’s right—do not concern yourself with these petty annoyances. Allow your maahes to handle the affairs of his station.”
“Thank you,” Crane grumbled and stalked away, first down the hall, and then I saw him veer off down the stairs leading to the back entrance and beyond to the gardens.
I faced Mikhail. “Have you lost your mind?”
The expression on his face was pure annoyance. “Here’s what’s probably going to happen,” he said. “Elham will insist on a challenge, and it will be him and one other in the pit with Crane and whoever he chooses.”
I figured there was more, and when I realized that was it, I glared. “For fuck’s sake, Mikhail, I know that! But it can’t be you, and it can’t be Taj or any of my khatyu or the Shu, so who the fuck from around here is going into the pit who gives a shit about Crane or me? That’s what I’m trying to get him to think about. Whoever he takes in there with him is just gonna fold and let him get beat up, or worse, and if anything happens to Crane on my watch, Jin will—”
“Then you shouldn’t have brought him,” Mikhail said sharply. “If you’ll excuse me, I have a meeting of the sylvans to lead.”
He took off before I gave him my permission to go, and Taj gave me a quick nod before he was gone, walking away in the opposite direction.
“Thanks,” I yelled out. “I really enjoy these morning get-togethers of ours!”
No one was listening to me.
THE villa was supposed to be mine. It didn’t feel like it. The residence of the semel-aten, while a home, was more like a vast resort and college campus all rolled up together. I had no idea who half the people in the sprawling mansion were at any given time. The place was simply too big, too filled with marble columns and staircases and statues of gods and goddesses and balconies and alcoves and just space. So much yawning space. It was supposed to be my haven, but my sanctuary wouldn’t be filled with floor mosaics and frescoes that ran through rooms and down halls. Living in the villa of the semel-aten was like living in a museum. The only time I felt any sort of peace at all was when I was in my own quarters.
The area I occupied with Yuri was small—by villa standards—and was located behind the patch of papyrus near the back of the roof gardens. To get to our bedroom, you came up a winding staircase and there encountered a wrought-iron gate that remained locked at all times. Once that was opened, you stepped out onto an enormous stamped concrete terrace that had a view of the main courtyard and, beyond that, miles of desert and hills. Walking the length of the patio brought you to a set of pivoting glass doors, and through them was our area.
Inside the suite, to the left was a wall of floor to ceiling pivoting windows that resembled the doors but half the size. When everything was open, a warm breeze blew through the space and it felt open and airy. The room itself was a thousand square feet, with a bathroom and a smaller balcony on the opposite side that ate into the space. On the main terrace section you had to cross to get to our private quarters, one portion of the area was the garden with acacia trees, papyrus, blue lotus that grew near the reflecting pools, and bougainvillea. The other part of the enclosure had a table, chairs, and many lavish chaise lounges. There was also an enormous canopy covering it and drains built in so rainwater couldn’t flood the space, though, being Egypt, rain was rarely a problem. It was quiet and serene, and I had moved my bedroom there the second week I was in Sobek. It was supposed to be a place the semel retired to for reflection, but I claimed it for Yuri and me.
The servants had been scandalized by me taking such quaint accommodations, and they were further stunned when I converted the lavish quarters of the former semel-aten into several smaller guest rooms. No one understood why I was so insistent about my privacy. I didn’t need people to clean my room or dust it, and I didn’t want anyone but Yuri going through my personal things, poking around or snooping. Laundry could go down the chute, and that was it. No one came in; trays of food were left at the gate and picked up there. I knew it was strange for them—I was strange, and the word kadish was used a lot.
“What is that?” I had asked Taj.
He spoke softly, kindly. “Domin, they say you are kadish, impure, because you do not know the truth of your station. You have to let them serve you.”
“I do! All my meals are prepared, the villa is cleaned, and other people who visit are cared for… I don’t get it.”
“You need to be seen in your home; you can’t hide up there in the gardens.”
“I don’t hide!” I insisted.
The lift of one dark brow said differently.
Alone now, leaning against an enormous stone pillar, I had time to think about the situation I found myself in.
It seemed like an endless problem. The people in my home didn’t feel like they belonged to me unless I ordered them around. I wanted to treat them better than that, to ask instead of order and say please and thank you. But apparently, that was very poor manners on my part. It was exhausting. I was supposed to be the kind of semel I could no longer be; going back to being a selfish prick did not seem like a step in the right direction although, after my behavior of the past two weeks, no one would call me anything but a tyrant.
I realized that I would be better—mood, attitude, everything—if my mate was not gone. As it was, the past fourteen days without Yuri were wearing on me. I hadn’t even been able to talk to him because he’d taken the wrong phone, and… I missed him and I wanted to see him and touch him. The whole thing was a mess. I shouldn’t have let him leave at all. I was an idiot.
“I hate this,” I muttered to no one.
“What’s wrong with you?”
Turning, I found Mikhail, having reappeared, staring at me like I was stupid.
“I thought you had a meeting,” I groused.
“It was moved to four,” Mikhail ground out.
“By one of your akers, a manu, Alhaji Yacouba, who was running late getting back from a day trip to Cairo.”
“Why do you care?”
“I don’t, but apparently Ammon’s sylvan, Traore Uago, did and decided to wait for the man.”
I studied him, wondering why he let that happen. It wasn’t like Mikhail to allow other people to change his schedule. “What are you going to do?”
Mikhail drew in a slow breath. “I’m going to remind Traore that he is no longer the sylvan, that his rank is now shefdew—”
“I think you just called the man a papyrus scroll,” I pointed out.
I raised an eyebrow.
“Then how do you say scribe?”
“I’ll look it up,” I quipped. “Or, more likely, I’ll ask someone.”
He grunted softly. “Well, anyway, Traore thinks that he still has power. He doesn’t and he needs a reminder. Alhaji needs to understand who he should be listening to. He too will be educated.”
“I’m going to have your sheseru discipline them both.”
As if on cue, Taj was there, an enormous bullwhip rolled up in his right hand.
“I’m sorry,” Mikhail said quickly. “I know you prefer not to punish, but there is no recourse.”
“They’re the ones who should be sorry,” he replied. “They cannot be allowed to insult you. It’s not maat.”
It was not like Mikhail at all. “You—”
“They continue to test me. I’ve cited them, I’ve fined them, and no one responds. I’m done.”
I had no idea Mikhail went in for physical punishment. “This doesn’t seem like you.”
“Respect is earned, and I understand, but barring that, fear will work in the interim. I’m done being talked about behind my back and having them talk about me in Arabic and Egyptian and Farsi. They think I don’t know what they’re saying, but I do. They think I’m not trained in the law, but I am. I’m the sylvan of my tribe, and anyone who wants to, can debate the law with me, but I will win. If they don’t like how I conduct the affairs of my station, they’re free to challenge me in the pit. But I will no longer stand for insolence.”
“I don’t remember ever hearing about you having anyone flogged in Logan’s tribe.”
“Begging your pardon, but until you believe that you are semel-aten, the people will not. No one ever questioned that Logan Church was meant to lead and be followed. His respect flowed to me.”
“And what, no one respects me?”
His eyes, deep cobalt blue, locked on mine as he waited. He had a good face, chiseled and strong, striking and sharply angled. You remembered him, but he wasn’t beautiful, not like Yuri. Normally, Mikhail wasn’t the kind of man you noticed, but now, in the middle of a town in Egypt, he stood out. With his fair complexion, his height of six two, and lean muscular build, you noticed him moving through a crowd here. In Nevada, where we had come from, he inspired no second glance, but in our new home, he drew attention.
Sobek lay between Cairo and Giza on land that was almost like another country, with borders patrolled by armed guards and a no-fly zone above it. The land gift dated back to the time of pharaohs.
I shook my head. “Just, do you really need to—”
“Yes.” His voice, normally smooth and silky, was hard and cold. “I do. No one but me changes my schedule. No one.”
He left then, Taj walking beside him.
I didn’t like the harsh changes I was seeing in any of them, the men who made up my household, who helped me lead my tribe, at all.
After walking down one of the many long staircases, I took a right into the vast library, an endless room filled from floor to vaulted ceiling with shelves of books, ancient texts people from all over the world came to use.
As I crossed the floor, people lifted their heads and greeted me as was custom.
“Sah’eed nahharkoo,” they called out.
It meant “good day” in Arabic, and though I was learning the language, the task was daunting. So I waved and walked on. As I passed one of the many small alcoves riddling the library, I saw the place where I had last touched my mate before he had left for Ipis two weeks before. I nearly stumbled over my feet getting to the window where he had stood. He had been there, standing still, staring down into the courtyard…
I moved up behind him and put my hands on his hips.
“You know, the semel-aten will have your head if you touch his mate,” Yuri vowed.
“Will he?” I whispered, inhaling his musky scent before pressing my face into the side of his neck and kissing him.
“He will,” he said, taking one of my hands, easing me closer until my chest rested against his broad, muscular back, and then placing it over his heart. He flattened my palm there, over his hard pectoral, and then slid his fingers between mine. “He’s very possessive.”
“Why do you put up with that?”
“Because if he stopped it would kill me.”
I adjusted my stance so my groin rubbed against his plump, round ass. It was beautiful, solid and soft at the same time, a cushion when I took him from behind, and I could never keep my hands from it. Yuri was heavy with meaty muscle; it was thick over wide shoulders, pecs, arms and legs. Under his clothes, he was massive and hard, but he could also wrap around me so tight, engulf me in warmth and….
It was all shit except for him.
Suddenly I wanted him naked in bed with me more than I wanted to breathe. I needed him—his closeness could fix things I never thought possible. Every other lover I’d ever had was treated to me being in charge behind closed doors.
All except him. I could submit to Yuri.
“Come with me to—”
“Are you seeing this?” he asked abruptly, tipping his head, indicating the courtyard below.
I was surprised to see Ebere El Masry, the previous semel-aten’s yareah, getting out of a stretch limousine, servants there instantly to welcome her home.
The servants brought a bowl of water for her to wash her hands, a towel, as well, and then lifted an enormous palm-frond shade to keep the sun off her face. It was all still overwhelming for me—the protocol, the training, the standard of service in my home.
“You should go greet your mastaba,” Yuri suggested, patting my hand before twisting in place. The warmth in his eyes as he gazed at me… God. I was supposed to walk away from him?
It had only been six months since I’d claimed him as mine, and I found that every passing day what I felt got stronger, more desperate and clinging. I barely wanted to be parted from him. I would cut out my tongue before I admitted it to him. Confessing my heart was not something I did. I was cool—cold, even—speaking of what lay beneath… no good could come of that.
“I’m coming,” I snarled at the servant who had come to let me know Ebere had arrived.
She recoiled from me. I saw the hurt that I had raised my voice, both in her demeanor and posture, suggesting that I had taken a hand to her, not simply been sharp with my reply.
“Your semel will be right there,” Yuri promised her, his tone full of infinite patience and kindness. Funny that he had been a sheseru, as Taj was now, because there was no trace of it left in the man, no enforcer, no punisher. He was simply my rock, and that was all.
“Yes, sekhem,” the woman said, bowing and stepping back, her body language conveying that he had smoothed what I had ruffled.
“Why do you take the time to do that?”
“What?” he prodded gently, facing me as I stepped away from him.
It was only then that I noticed what he was wearing. It was like he was dressed to go on a safari; the only thing missing was the big-ass hat. “Soothe their— Where the hell are you going?”
He squinted. “Domin, I’m leaving with Constantine in twenty minutes. I thought you came and found me to say good-bye.”
“Shit,” I groaned. “That’s today?”
“That’s now,” he said, his lip curling up in the corner.
I—breathe—how was I supposed to function without my mate? “Why do you need to—”
“The semel of the tribe of Tegeret, Ehivet Milar, says that he is being kept from his son, Garai, who he sent to speak with the semel of Feran, Hakkan Tarek, a month ago. Repeated messengers, even a trip to Ipis, has not yielded any results. The semel refuses to see him and—”
“What? One semel cannot refuse to see another.”
“I know, which is why he is asking you to intercede on the point of law.”
“How does this—who again?”
“Hakkan Tarek.” He supplied the name, his eyes gliding over my face like they always did, with such obvious appreciation. I loved the way he loved me.
I cleared my throat. “How does Hakkan Tarek not let this semel see his own son? That’s insane. He can start a tribal war that way.”
“Yes, I know,” he agreed in his low and gravelly voice. “So before things escalate, Ehivet asked for help. And he’s being very gracious. He thinks that because of the ongoing conflict Hakkan Tarek has on his own land that this is the reason for the semel’s distraction and inability to answer him.”
“Apparently in Ipis they have some kind of land dispute that the semel-aten will need to lend a hand resolving.”
“I—but why do—”
“The tribe of Feran makes their home close to the catacombs of Abtu, and apparently the catacombs themselves are in dispute. Ehivet says that he’s heard of a few fatalities.”
“Why would this man send his son to such an unstable tribe?”
“He had to. Years ago, he agreed to a covenant bond with Tarek, that when their children were of age they would be mated. Tarek has a daughter, Masika, who is now sixteen—”
“Sixteen? She should be going to high school.”
“Domin,” Yuri sighed. “These are not—”
“I’m going to pass a law, Yuri. All children will be educated. All of them. Boys and girls; no one will be exempt.”
“It will always be up to the individual semels to do with their children what they will, Domin. You can’t change that.”
He smiled warmly. “Your heart is in the right place.”
“Just talk to me,” I huffed.
“Well, so, anyway, Ehivet says that he simply sent his son to Ipis to let the semel know that they would wait until Masika was eighteen before performing the ritual of handfasting.”
“But now he has not heard from his son, or the ten men he sent with him, in over a month. All his attempts have fallen on deaf ears, and so now he has reached out to you to come mediate the situation.”
“Then I should go with—”
“Domin, you barely have enough time to breathe in a day so I—”
“You’re being unreasonable.”
“No, this Hakkan Tarek is. What exactly is wrong in his tribe?”
Yuri’s eyes remained gentle; his tone didn’t rise. It was as if being with me, becoming my mate, had changed him, made him the soul of quiet strength and reflection. Not that it had doused his passion for me, but the temper that used to be in him had simply disappeared. He was different, as were the others, but whereas they were all hardening, he had done just the opposite.
“The semel has two factions within his tribe: the peq, made up mostly of farmers and shepherds who live in the hills, and the shen, who are the merchants who live in the city of Ipis. Apparently, the hostility stems from a dispute over the ownership of the catacombs. There has been some kind of discovery there, and so who is heir to the land is in question.”
“How do you know all this?”
“The tribal records.”
“Oh,” I grunted. “Been reading those again, have you?”
He chortled. “Kind of a prerequisite to being the mate of the semel-aten, don’t you think? I swear, I have no idea how the tribe of Hatheret has—”
“The tribe of Hatheret in Paris. Their semel, Emil Lefevre. His family has compiled and edited the records since the time of the Crusades.”
“I know about the tribe of Hatheret!” I barked.
“Then why did you ask me?”
I growled. “So everything you just said, that’s all in the tribal record?”
“As you know, it’s up to each semel to compose his correspondence weekly and send it to the tribe of Hatheret to be entered into the logs.”
“That’s not mandatory,” I insisted.
“No, but maybe it should be.”
“That job has got to be daunting.” I sympathized with people I had never seen.
“I’m sure the stipend they receive from each tribe the world over for doing it more than outweighs the annoyance.”
He kissed my forehead, which just reminded me he was leaving and irritated me all over again. “Okay, so if the territory in Ipis itself belongs to the semel, I don’t see—”
“But we’re not talking about that, we’re talking about the land.”
“So there is a family that owns the land the catacombs sit on.”
“And who is that?”
I got a wicked grin. “I don’t know, love. I have to go there to find out.”
“But for right now, from what the records say, Hakkan Tarek can see no resolution in sight, but since it affects no one, he has left it in the hands of the two djehus.”
“But it is affecting those outside his tribe now.”
“This is only a brand-new development, though. Before this, no one knew or cared what was going on in Ipis. Ammon didn’t; there’s no record that he ever even visited.”
“But we care suddenly because of the semel of the tribe of Tegeret.”
“If not for him, you would not be making this journey.”
“No,” he said huskily, gazing into my eyes.
“And what precisely are you going to do?”
“First, I’m going to meet with Hakkan Tarek and insist that he send Garai Milar home to his father immediately. Then I am going to meet with the djehus, the leaders of the two factions in the tribe of Feran, and then report back to you. If it’s a question of the law, I might just send for Mikhail. If it’s more, then I’ll—”
“As soon as you handle the situation with Garai, immediately check in with the two heads of the warring factions and then come back,” I instructed. “Don’t try and fix anything other than sending the boy back to his tribe. I want you to gather information and that’s all.”
“I shouldn’t stay there and resolve the problem if I can?” Yuri taunted.
I was focused on his words, but it was getting harder. It was difficult not to notice and be mesmerized by the curve of his lip, the dimple in his chin, and his thick expressive eyebrows.
I cleared my throat. “No. You’ll give me a report, and I’ll decide what to do at that point.”
“Yes, my lord,” he said mock seriously, the deference over the top and playfully patronizing.
“That’s not what I meant,” I growled, not in the mood to banter with him. It was killing me that he was leaving. “You just need to come home!”
“Because it’s your duty.”
“My duty?” He was still teasing me.
“You’re supposed to stand right beside me!” I yelled and saw the surprise register that I was actually upset.
“I will, then,” he said quietly. “I’ll get home as fast as I can.”
I took a breath. “I don’t remember you telling me any of this.”
“Well, I did. I explained this all to you last night at length, again, as well as several times in the past week.”
Had I been listening? Ever?
“Kabore, yes,” I said sharply. “I’ve met the man, go on.”
Judging from the twinkle in his eyes, I was clearly amusing him. “He suggested that I take this task off your plate by going in your place.”
“And what if I don’t want you to go?”
His eyes were really the clearest blue I had ever seen in my life, and when they fixed on mine I could feel a comforting weight settle over me, spreading calm. “Is that what you’re asking me to do?”
I thought a minute. “Have other mates done these kinds of things?”
“Of course,” he said. “Missions of goodwill are what mates of important men do.”
“What if it’s dangerous?”
“It’s not. How could it be? I’ll be there to help return a boy that the semel of Feran has probably just not had time to think about. The man basically has a civil war being waged on his land; I’ll bet you anything, the boy is an oversight. He’ll welcome me with open arms, and when I tell him that I am gathering information for you so that the semel-aten might help him find a resolution, he might even kiss me.”
“He better not.”
His eyes were warm. “Don’t worry about me. Everyone knows that to harm the mate of the semel-aten is a death sentence. No one would risk it.”
I was not convinced. “You will take thirty men with you.”
“Stop answering my commands with questions!”
“Am I doing that?” He was so restrained, so calm.
“Yes!” I yelled like a screaming idiot. “And it’s very patronizing!”
“Stop ranting,” he directed, half grinning, his voice sexy and calming at the same time. “Now, listen. Thirty men on a mission of mediation is overkill.”
“I disagree,” I said defensively.
“I used to be a sheseru,” he brought to mind, his tone placating. “I know how many men to take, Domin. Don’t fret.”
“I don’t fret!” I was indignant. “I just want you to be safe and—”
“I will be perfectly fine meeting a semel and the djehus. If I have too many men with me, it will seem like I’m there to impose your will instead of talk. Take my counsel on this.”
That was the second time he’d used that word. “What’s a djehu? I mean, I get that it’s some kind of leader, but the word’s new to me.”
“A djehu is like an aker, except it’s elected. Apparently, this is how the tribe of Feran is. Hakkan Tarek allowed djehus to be picked by the people instead of them just going to the sylvan.”
“Because they are two very diverse groups who live apart, don’t ever mix, and have basically nothing in common.”
“Except that they’re all panthers.”
“You know you don’t have to explain it to me like that. I’m not a child.”
“No. You’re not,” he said, his voice sultry and full of heat.
I swallowed hard.
“So, I’m going to meet with the semel, get Garai home, and then speak to the djehus and bring you back all their concerns, whatever they are.”
“Fine,” I growled, prickly with frustration.
“Good.” He soothed me. “Did you want to kiss me or—”
“Just go.” I was terse.
Instead of listening, he took my face in his big hands, hauled me close, and kissed me hard and deep and possessive. When he tipped my head back, my mouth opened, and he swept his tongue inside and mated it with mine.
I grabbed hold of the heavy jacket, my hands curling around the lapels as I whimpered in the back of my throat. I needed more, wanted more, and I resented everything, all of it, because being semel-aten meant I could not claim my mate whenever I wanted.
The rules, the protocols, the granted audiences and the myriad of people I saw in the course of a day kept me continually from his side. And then when I did see him, it often erupted because I was angry and he was the only one I could vent my frustrations to—or on—and became me attacking him, yelling, picking fights….
I wanted everything to be right between us before he left. I put all of it, everything I was thinking and feeling, into the kiss. He had to know how much I loved him. I needed it engrained in him, simply recognized and understood.
I sucked his tongue inside my mouth, then slid mine over his, stroking, slipping it back and forth, drawing the kiss out, feeling the shiver run through him. I moaned loudly when his hands gripped my ass tight.
“Domin,” he whispered. I kissed him until he had to tear his lips from mine to breathe. “Are you trying to kill me?”
“Just trying to make an impression,” I said, lifting my mouth for the next one, tightening my arms around his neck to bring him back down to me.
“I’ll never get out of here,” he pretended to complain as he fused his lips to mine.
Seconds later when he shoved me away, I was surprised. “What?” I was panting.
“I have to go.”
“Love.” The tone, the lull in it, the adoration, brought me out of my pheromone-fueled haze.
“I have to go,” he repeated.
“Take your phone.”
“It’s in my pocket.”
Faced with the dancing clear-blue eyes of my mate, I couldn’t even growl at him. I forced a smile instead to hide my worry, my fear, my aching heart, and most of all, my devouring need to keep him with me. “How long?” I posed the question as nonchalantly as possible.
“Two weeks, I would think.”
“How far away is Ipis?”
“It’s a ten-hour drive,” he said, taking my chin in his hand to lightly brush his lips over mine. “I’ll be home before you know it. I love you.”
I dismissed him with a flick of my wrist. The evil glint in his eyes said I wasn’t fooling him in the least.
Watching him walk away was almost physically painful. What the hell was I supposed to do without my mate for two weeks?