Anima, Book 1
by Ana Raine
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-63476-750-7
Print ISBN: 978-1634767507
[ Fantasy Romantic Suspense, MM ]
When a Dryma is born, his soul attaches to a tree and to sustain their lives, the Dryma conscript the Kuro to protect their woods. In their servitude, the Kuro are languishing and dying off. Kanji is desperate to reunite his people with their stolen wings, but the task seems impossible.
I could smell the excitement reeking from their pores, and it made me sick with fear. Was this the time I wouldn’t get to the trees in time? Joel and Zain were on the patrol schedule with me, and in the thirteen years we had served as guards to the Dryma fairies, our masters, we had yet to slip up.
The same could not be said for all of our kind, because there had been plenty of mess-ups due to a simple case of negligence. The dreary cold Canadian wilderness did nothing to boost our strength because by nature, swans were meant to be in warmer climates.
A familiar ache formed between my shoulder blades, and I longed to feel the pressure of wings bursting from my bones. To hear the incessant flapping of wings upon my back and to feel my feet lift from the stale ground. What I wouldn’t give to feel the flight my relatives spoke about as if they were reliving a dream.
I could scarcely remember what my life was like with wings before they’d retreated back into the marrow of my bone. Before my kind had become servants to the Dryma.
The flapping of wings above me diverted my attention as the birds taunted me with their continued flight.
Zain, where are you? I asked.
My friend of twenty-six years could not initiate a telepathic conversation, much to his dismay. Only a few Kuro swans had retained the trait.
There was a knot forming at the base of my neck, like he was trying to split my skull open. By the north border. Where the fuck is Joel?
I pulled my hat down over my ears to keep the chill from dulling my hearing. According to the humans, the weather was relatively tepid, and on my way to the nature reserve, I had even spotted humans sporting shorts and spring jackets. But the weather was never going to be warm enough for me.
You’re telling me. This weather is ridiculous. Can’t we just close the park down or something until it gets warmer?
I hadn’t realized my thoughts were still channeling to his. Don’t I wish.
As if the Dryma would ever allow such foolishness. I imagined death himself would show more kindness to his victims than the Dryma fairies showed us. Before I knew it, I was racing through the forest, motivated by my fear of the Dryma.
I rounded the bend, my foot catching on a protruding stone and making me stumble. Just before falling to the ground, I caught myself, and despite the burning pain in the sole of my foot, continued to run. Even though I’d been protecting the trees of the Pasky Nature Reserve since I was fourteen, my lungs and legs had never become accustomed to the constant running. Most of us were tall and very slender, just as swans should be. Sometimes I wished I could have some more muscle so I could get through the woods in one piece.
My gun clacked against my hip, reminding me of the wildlife threat. I did a quick look around before diving into the woods. The lake was behind me, the water beckoning me to forget my duty and come swimming into its depths.
I could hear Joel’s similar longing.
Stay focused, I ordered.
Joel was as optimistic and obedient as Zain was pessimistic and defiant, but I wouldn’t have traded their friendship for anything. I wasn’t sure how long I’d been running from the south border, but I saw the sign signaling mile marker nine. Whoever these kids were, they’d certainly deviated from the suggested beginner trail. It was going to take everything in me to not rip their heads off.
I caught the scent of alcohol and heard a high-pitched giggle before I broke into the clearing. Joel wasn’t there yet, but he was close. I could hear the beat of his heart.
Clearing my throat, I slowed my steps and took a moment to brush my shoulder-length hair back into a ponytail so I looked less frightening. With pitch-black hair and pale skin, I often frightened the tourists enjoying the park. I figured my height probably had something to do with that too.
“Can I help you?” I asked, regaining my voice as I assessed the scene. All of the Kuro swans that were old enough to be on protection duty had specific trees, which they knew they had to guard, but unfortunately the trees were scattered into different groups amongst the nine miles of wilderness.
There were three teenagers on the ground circled around a fire that was nowhere near up to code. One of the teens had his hair cropped short and so much ink I wasn’t sure what the tats were even supposed to be. The other two teens, a boy and girl, were encircled together. The beer cans were scattered about the ground, and the girl was naked save for a pair of underwear.
But none of that mattered because to humans, I was nothing more than a ranger, someone they didn’t need to fear. Despite my very human title, I needed to protect the tree they were encroaching.
The girl covered her mouth and giggled violently as she tried to stand up. The other teenage guy who wasn’t her boyfriend took hold of her hand and tried to help her, but she kept stumbling. Judging by her flushed face and her swaying body, she was flat-out drunk.
After running nearly three miles in fifteen minutes because of the threat I felt to the tree, I had only encountered this?
There had to be something I was missing….
Carved into the tree near the base of the trunk were words, names I presumed belonged to the teenagers. The offending weapon was a cheap hunting knife sticking out of the dirt. I crossed the space between us and grasped the knife so I could pull it from the earth.
The guy with the tattoos stared at me open-mouthed and I thought he was trying to form words, but I just heard babbling sounds. I ran my thumb along the blade before shutting the knife and pocketing it. I would need to keep the weapon as proof I wasn’t too late in case the Dryma fairies pitched a fit.
“You do know it is illegal to harm any of the trees here?” I asked, struggling to keep my voice even.
They had a half-cocked tent, and through the trees, I could see their jeep. They were obviously not native to the land, which meant their offense could’ve been all that much worse. The Dryma were not forgiving when we failed in our duty to protect, as evidenced by the scars on my back.
“What’s the problem, man?” the teenager still on the ground slurred. His shirt was unbuttoned, revealing tanned skin. If anything made me hate him more, it was seeing he obviously came from somewhere warm.
A chill ran down my spine as a particularly nasty bout of wind whistled through the trees right before Joel and Zain joined me.
“The problem, man,” Zain sneered, “is that this isn’t the designated zone for fires. And these trees are protected.”
Zain had short dark hair he was constantly dying vibrant colors. For the past couple weeks, he had light blue and purple streaked through his hair. Joel was more conservative with his light brown hair parted neatly on the side and well kept. Both of them wore the same pale green and brown ranger uniforms we were required to have.
Beneath our gloves was the mark the Dryma fairies had placed on our wrists, a seal we would take to our graves.
“Sorry guys,” the teenage guy with the short hair said as he stood up and brushed off his khaki pants. Out of the three of them, he seemed the one most likely to come to his senses. Extending his hand, he fumbled to help the girl to her feet. “We’ll just head back now.”
“Why do we have to leave?” the girl whimpered as she leaned on her boyfriend for support, her head lolling back.
“Because we’re not supposed to be here.”
The guy with the tattoos looked like he was going to put up a fight and said, “I don’t want to leave. There’s no sign or anything.”
His friend seemed to have all the sense. “Billy, let’s just get out of here. There’s three of them, and I have to help Katy keep standing.”
I noticed Billy’s knuckles were bruised, so he was clearly prone to getting into fights.
“Probably a good idea to follow your friend’s advice, Billy,” I agreed, straightening to my full height.
He backed away, grabbing their equipment as they went until there were only the beer cans left over.
The sober friend luckily got behind the wheel, and then they peeled away from the scene, leaving a trail of dust in their wake.
“Well that was shitty of them,” Zain coughed as he kicked a beer can before sighing and deciding to pick it up. “Where the hell is Micky anyway?”
Joel kneeled down next to the tree and ran his fingers over the words etched into its flesh. “Probably sleeping somewhere. Poor kid never does at home.”
Leave it to Joel to think the best of people.
To be honest, part of the reason I always tried to help cover Micky’s shifts was because he had just turned fifteen and I remembered how unfair I thought life was back when I started. The last thing I wanted to do was become tied to some tree because Dryma fairies told me I had to.
I spun around and saw Micky take a step out of the cover of the woods, guilt on his face. He had one of those faces that made you want to bend over backwards to help him and god only knew how much of a heartbreaker he’d be when he grew up.
If he grew up, I amended.
“Where were you?” Zain growled as he played with a strand of blue hair until I thought he was going to pull it straight out of his head. He was only twenty-seven, just a year older than me, but he’d taken on a lot of responsibility and as a result, he looked older.
Not that we aged like humans did. In ten years, I’d probably only look a year older, so I could easily pass for being twenty, which was kind of creepy at times.
“I got lost,” Micky admitted as he kicked a pebble with the toe of his scuffed boot. He was rather short, so the uniform was ill fitting on him. If it weren’t for the gun at his belt, the humans would’ve thought he was a kid impersonating his father.
“Sure you did.”
“Just leave him alone,” Joel whispered as he stood back up and began to collect beer cans. “Help me out, Micky, so we can go home for the day. Night shift starts soon.”
Micky crouched unmoving on his perch by the clearing, looking like he was ready to run if need be.
“The tree is fine,” I remarked, giving it a once-over. “They won’t punish you.”
The kid didn’t look convinced, but the promise of food and going home for the day made him move jump down so he could collect the cans with Joel. We checked the perimeters while we waited for our patrol to be relieved and then made our way back to the nature center where our car was.
Because of our dark hair and dark eyes, the Kuro swans passed as Native Canadians. So the fact we lived clustered together like a tribe didn’t put us on the radar with the humans and made it easier for us to serve. The problem was in order to get to our ramshackle houses on the highway, we had to pass the several gated communities nestled in the woods where the fairies lived.
Zain climbed into the driver’s seat of his yellow truck while I gathered the schoolbooks from the passenger’s seat and went to pass them back to Micky, but saw he wasn’t in the car yet. “Where’s Micky?” I asked Joel, who pointed out the window.
There were small ponds scattered throughout the wilderness, some dangerously close to the road. Standing beside a small splash of water that could hardly be called a pond was Micky. He has his hands in his pockets and was staring at a white swan. Its feathers had been matted and dirtied to the point where it was more brown than white.
“What’s he doing?” Zain grumbled.
I quickly scanned his thoughts and wondered whether or not I should voice them. When Zain grumbled in discontent, I quickly explained. “He’s wondering what it would be like to be able to transform into a swan again.”
Joel shuffled nervously in his seat. His voice was small. “Kanji, if we ever got our wings back, would transforming completely even be possible? Our magic has been kept from us for so long…”
“I don’t know.”
If Micky hadn’t turned around and shuffled to the car, I would’ve retrieved him just so I could stop seeing the forlorn look on his face.
“Take these.” I handed Micky the books after he’d climbed into the jeep.
“What’s the point?” Zain asked as he jacked up the heat. Shivering, I dug in the glove box for a packet of hand warmers and basked in the small offering of heat. The summers were bearable, although nowhere near as warm as we wanted it to be, but the cool September weather was killer.
“Don’t listen to him,” Joel said as he dug through a well-worn copy of a romance novel with a girl standing beside an ocean on the cover. “One day you’ll be able to go to college.”
Zain started to refute the claim, but I shot him a look. The words died on his tongue, and he muttered something incoherent. Eventually, Micky thumbed through the schoolbooks. He’d be home-schooled and get his GED, but then he’d be a protector until he was old enough to retire.
“What do you think they’re doing?” Micky said excitedly as he pressed his hands against the glass and stared enviously at the bright decorative lights above the fairy mansions.
“Beats me,” Zain commented, fiddling with the heat and pulling off his gloves.
“They’ve got to be doing something,” Micky persisted. “Look at all those lights.”
The fairies lived in their mansions, and some of them even worked alongside humans as CEOs, bankers, and investors. Before coming to the human world, they had lived in a parallel world that I’d been told was beautiful beyond imagination. They’d only come to this world seeking freedom and expansion, but because they needed nature to survive, they had only succeeded in becoming prisoners in another world.
And now they could never leave.
Because they needed to be so close to their trees, the majority of the Dryma Fairies lived within their gated communities and only left to go to the woods when they held events and festivals.
Or when they wanted to fly.
The bitter reminder came back to my shoulder blades and made my head feel heavy. “They’re having a ball,” I told him.
“How do you know that?” Micky asked.
“What do you mean?” Joel scoffed. “He’s our prince—”
“Don’t.” I cut him off, the ache in my neck decreasing slightly. “Not anymore I’m not. Just let it go.”
“Never,” Zain gripped the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles turned white.
I gave him a pat on the shoulder and resumed looking at the mansions. I would never admit it, but I always wondered what the insides were like. Because of my bloodline as former prince of Kuro swans, the fairy guard always seemed to seek me out. When someone needed to be punished, they’d find me. When they needed extra protection or servants, they’d find me. And when they were angry, they’d definitely find me.
It was exhausting as hell.
So the idea of living in a private little world with indoor swimming pools sounded pretty damn good.
“A ball for what?” Micky asked as the last of the lights disappeared from sight and we neared our town.
“One of the princes is having a birthday or something,” I muttered. “There’s seven of them, so I can’t keep them straight, but I think it’s the youngest.”
“Have you ever seen them?”
“The royals? No way,” Joel exclaimed. “The guards come here when they need us.”
“But Max said when they go to the woods….”
“Max needs to never repeat that,” Zain warned him, a dangerous edge clinging to his voice. “Got it?”
Micky nodded, and then there was only the sound of turning pages until we reached our community. To call what we lived in houses was an insult to the name because most of them were more like glorified mobile homes. As the former prince, I had an actual house, but my aunt and uncle lived with me. After retiring, a Kuro swan wasn’t allowed to guard the trees anymore, but they couldn’t leave either. So without having any income or job, the elders tended to die quickly from lack of purpose.
At least my aunt and uncle continued to fight after my parents gave up. Zain parked next to my dusty blue sedan. “See you guys later.”
Joel and Micky argued about who got to sit in the front while Zain asked, “Are you coming later?”
“Yes, I’ll be there,” I promised, swinging my heavy workbag over my shoulder. I had left it in the car during my shift, but it contained spare clothes and an extra coat if the weather deemed it necessary.
“Be where? What’s going on?” Micky stopped fighting, and Joel took advantage of the moment to jump into my abandoned seat.
“Never you mind,” Zain snapped as he waved to me. “Later.”
I could still hear Micky and Zain arguing as the car left a trail of dust behind. The house smelled like arrowroot pasta and vegetables, which made my stomach constrict with hunger. I hadn’t eaten anything for hours because there simply hadn’t been time.
“Kanji, there you are. You’re late.”
“There was an incident as we were leaving.” I shoved my coat and bag into the too small closet. “Nothing to worry about.”
My aunt leaned in the doorframe between the kitchen and the hallway. In her hand, she absently spun a wooden spoon while she tapped her foot against the hardwood. My aunt Catarina was the kind of Kuro swan men would’ve flocked to in the hopes she would look back at them, but years of warmth deprivation and captivity had dulled her features so much that when I looked at younger pictures of her and my mother, I hardly recognized her.
Still, even though her hair was much shorter than she had kept it before, it was a rich black. Her prolonged life made her wrinkles less severe than they would’ve been otherwise, and human women would’ve killed to look like her at eighty.
“Your uncle is downstairs resting.” She spoke with a smile, but I saw the worry on her face. When Kuro swans mated, they mated for life, and just knowing her mate wasn’t faring well made her sick. It was part of the reason I didn’t actively seek out a mate.
Male and female Kuro flocked to my house often, sensing my leadership in their blood. But their efforts didn’t matter; the truth was I had yet to find my mate.
“Mari called and wants to come over later,” she said as she adjusted her sweater so her wrists were completely covered. “I went ahead and told her it was fine.”
“Why?” I stacked my shoes by the door and headed toward the stairs. I’d told them they could have the upstairs room and bathroom, but they’d insisted I have it. “I’ll be going out later.”
My aunt called up to me, “And where will you be going? Don’t tell me you have to go back on patrol?”
“No.” I paused at the top of the stairs just long enough to finish my sentence. “I have a meeting.”
She made an annoyed groan but knew better than to ask. The few times she had, the answers she’d received were far from what she wanted to hear. When there was talk of peace and freedom, then she might be willing to listen.
I shut my door with a click and tried to ignore the nagging suspicion telling me I should go see my uncle. Usually, I would have before even taking my shoes off, but today was different.
Between the extreme chill that had come out of nowhere and the stupid kids defiling the tree, I was at my limit. I felt like complete shit, and the “meeting” loomed ahead of me like the disfigured trees they made us protect.
But all those things I could deal with. Hadn’t I come to terms with my fate years ago when I’d tried to escape and had been dragged back by a faceless Dryma wielding a whip? I could still feel the sting between my shoulder blades where I thought he was trying to dig the remnants of my wings from my bones.
No… what I felt wasn’t the anguish for myself. It was for Micky and the other youth like him. I peeled my shirt from my sticky skin, turned the space heater on full blast, and collapsed onto my bed. Having seen Micky’s startled face when he saw a tree with carved words, something no ordinary human would bother caring about, scared me more than I liked to admit. The fear had been raw and wild in his eyes, the same look I’d stopped seeing in my own eyes shortly after my seventeenth birthday. Three years… that was how long it took me to come to acceptance.
My aunt rattled her spoon on the handrail to signal dinner was done. I hunted through my drawers for a warm sweater and pulled it over my head, but the chill was still there. If I could help it, I would never mate. I would never willingly put another Kuro swan through the same hell I felt.
There was nothing wrong with Mari and as far as Kuro females went; she was considerate and had empathy extending far past the norm. The Dryma fairies at least allowed our females to stay at home, but my guess was they only did so because they thought the females would be useless.
I had no doubt Mari could’ve held her own in the woods if she were given the chance. I knew her eyes perfectly because shortly after I’d started protection duty, I’d tried to mate with her. I stared at the blues and purples and greens of her eyes for so long, my eyes felt like they were going to pop out of my head. Nothing came of my staring except for the fact that she was convinced we were mates.
“Must you go already?” my aunt asked as she wiped her hands on her paper napkin before crumpling into a ball and setting it beside her still full bowl. She’d taken a bowl of food down to my uncle but had come up shortly after, food in hand.
“Where do you have to go?” Mari inquired, curling strands of her hair around her pinkie finger. I could tell Mari had been into town because I could smell the scent of human males clinging to her skin. With her large eyes and beautiful dark hair cascading like waves to her waist, there was no denying she was stunning. Male Kuro swans and humans gathered around her, and I was sure if a Dryma saw her, he would’ve been smitten.
“They’re going to be there at eight,” I told my aunt as I rinsed my plate in the sink before shoving my phone into my pocket and retrieving my coat.
“Be careful,” my aunt warned me in the same flat, dead tone she’d been using for years.
I had just finished lacing my boots when Mari met me in the hallway, her own coat pulled over her shoulders. “I’m going with you.”
I squinted at her. “Why would you want to come? What makes you think they would even let you?”
She shook out her hair and gave me an indifferent look. “Makes no difference to me what they think. Just let me come with you.”
“I can’t,” I said firmly as I slid a pair of gloves into my pockets and marched to the front door. I heard her at my heels.
“Tell them I’m your mate,” she said, her voice hollow with longing. “Then they’ll be okay with it.”
I groaned inwardly. “But you’re not and they would know.”
Mari placed her soft hands on my shoulder and spun me around so she could look up into my face. I realized I had been seeing her but not really looking. Her cheeks were sunken, and there were thick dark circles underneath her eyes. Her ever-luscious hair was thick and long, but lacked the bright sheen I was accustomed to seeing.
“We’re dying,” she said flatly, tightening her grip on my upper arm. Despite being taller, I was more slender than her and unable to shake free. “Tell them we need to be around the sun and maybe they’ll let us.”
I laughed. “You think we can plead with them and they’ll let us go down south for a vacation?”
“We don’t have to go all at once. There are more than enough of us who can stay and guard the trees while the other half goes. Then we could….”
Gently, I detached her hand from my shoulder and placed her arm at her side. “We’re tied to the earth just as surely as they are, so there’s no feasible way we could leave. And you’re right about there being more than enough of us, and that’s what the Dryma are counting on. If we actually all started to die they might care, but until then….”
Her voice was dead. “Until then nothing will change.” The wind whipped my hair around my face and pierced my skin through my clothes. Standing on her toes, she pressed her lips to my cheek, the action demanding. “How long have we known each other?”
“Forever,” I answered automatically.
“Then why do you refuse me? I could be everything you need in a mate.”
“We’ve been through this,” I pointed out. “I don’t feel the pull.”
“Then how can I?” she countered, her voice vicious.
I knew the action would appear heartless, but all the same, I shrugged. “I don’t know why you feel it, but I don’t.”
“There is no one else for you to mate to,” she snapped, crossing her arms over her chest. “Unless you happen to find a human lover.”
“Many of us have yet to find our mates.”
Mari gave me an evil smile. “Which could mean only females are feeling the pull.”
If Zain hadn’t pulled up behind us honking the horn like a deranged murderer, Mari might’ve tried to kiss me. She was right about there being a lack of mating rituals taking place, but maybe that was for the best. Did I really want to bring a child into this sick world where they would never know the feel of wind through their wings?
“I have to go,” I replied, my throat dry. “Go back inside and stay warm.”
Dragging my eyes from her face, I made my way to Zain’s car and refused to look back. I knew the only thing I would see in her eyes was a pile of accusations at how weak I was. Slamming the door, I fastened my seatbelt. Zain gave me a quizzical look.
“Yep, just drive. We’re going to be late.”
Joel made a noise from the back to signal he agreed, and then we were plowing our way down the road and away from Mari.
“What was she doing at your house?”
“Same old, same old,” I replied, smoothing my hair down and trying to get it to stay on one side. Above all else, Drymas prided themselves on beauty and grace, so we had to do our best to meet their expectations.
“Why won’t you just mate with her, man?” Zain asked, flicking his fingers through his blue hair. “She’s pretty.”
“And kind,” Joel volunteered.
“And not my mate,” I threw back. “Guys, how many times do we have to go over this?” Without meaning to, I sent my thoughts to them about what she’d said. A wave of silence filled the car before Zain broke it.
“Well, shit, I never thought about that. If only females can choose mates now, who’s to say ours isn’t freezing to death in one of those shacks right now?”
I turned up the heat. “We have to focus and worry about mates later.”
To respect their privacy, I made an effort to stay out of their heads, but I was also afraid to hear what they really thought of me. The same things Mari had been telling me with her eyes could easily be how they felt.
Christophe Olen was the captain of the Dryma guard, but he was also the owner of the Crystal Cove Dance Club. Whenever I walked inside, it was easy to forget the place wasn’t just for Dryma fairies because the walls and doors were decorated like something right out of a castle. With glittering double doors leading into the club, a full dance room complete with mirrors, and then an upper floor for private parties, the Crystal Cove was never empty.
Zain muttered under his breath because we had to park far away and brave the cold to get into the club. “Why can’t we use valet parking?” He slammed his door and wrapped his coat more tightly around himself.
Joel and I exchanged a glance but were too cold and nervous to speak. I knew that once we got into the club and were led upstairs into the private room, most of my efforts would be spent making sure Zain didn’t say anything that would lead to him being punished.
Still, there was no one else I would’ve rather had by my side.
We sidestepped a few human girls clustered together in mini skirts and leather jackets. I saw a blonde appraising Zain, her eyes settling on his blue-and-purple-streaked black hair. I wasn’t surprised she would focus on him, not when his broad shoulders and defined arms gave him the appearance of being both strong and caring.
Zain noticed the girl and gave a half nod. “Hey, how ya doing?”
That was all it ever took for a human girl to be smitten by him. I didn’t blame him for clinging to whatever he could of his heritage, even if that something was extreme sex appeal. Sometimes I wondered if mine was broken because I never noticed people looking at me the way they gazed at Zain.
“Later,” I reminded Zain patiently as we pushed past the girls waiting outside and made our way to the front.
“Why did he choose a Saturday night to meet?” Joel asked nervously as we continued to push past the throng of people to the bouncer at the front. The air was brutal and whizzed through my clothes, chilling me to the bone. “He never summons us on the weekend.”
Probably the prince’s birthday needs extra protection or something, I channeled to them. Let’s just get this over with.
Although the Crystal Cove was mainly a club for humans, sometimes there were fairies within the glittering walls. I could never figure out why Christophe had bothered with the club because I knew all Dryma had more than their fair share of money. I got the impression he tired of the sedentary lifestyle most of the Dryma experienced locked behind their fancy gates, which made sense considering he was the most violent fairy I’d ever met.
The space between my shoulders ached in reminder of how miserable he could make me if he wanted to.
When we finally made our way to the front, the bouncer completely ignored us so he could browse through his tablet. I cleared my throat and looked into the eyes of a new Dryma fairy I hadn’t seen working there before.
“Can I help you?” he asked, a bored tone in his voice. Determining age was practically impossible because like us, Dryma fairies tended to not age past what a human would gauge as thirty. He had his blond hair pulled back into a ponytail, and his glittering blue eyes gazed at me intensely.
He took a deep breath, inhaling my scent and a wave of realization washed over him as he recognized what we were. His eyes flitted from me to Zain and then finally to Joel. In the club, he could pretend his shimmery skin was just due to the light, but I knew better. The same healthy glow that we were supposed to have was clear as day on his skin.
Contrary to popular belief about fairies, they were not a bunch of twinks with delicate wings. As evidenced by the tall, redheaded man heading toward us. A hush swept across the floor and the new bouncer nervously checked his tie. Female Drymas stared at him appreciatively, but looked away before he could call them out on their staring.
Christophe’s neck was corded with muscle, his broad chest demanding the attention of everyone in the room, and his accusing eyes keeping every human at a distance.
He was wearing a tight button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up past his elbow and a pair of dark jeans that hugged his legs. In spite of my hatred for the Dryma in front of me, I was also disgusted with myself for thinking he was beautiful.
“Don’t worry, Marvin, I’ll take them upstairs.”
The newbie, Marvin, nodded in agreement and then turned back to his tablet before signaling a group of guys lazing beside the bathroom door.
“You’re earlier than expected,” Christophe said with distaste dripping from his voice. He raised his hand to alert his favorite two guards, Ivan and Seth. They were both fairly similar to Christophe’s build, but they had their hair cut short so it barely made it to their ears. At their hips was a slight bulge where I knew they kept their whips.
I shuddered at the thought and urged Joel up the narrow staircase before following. The music was loud and drifted up into the private room, but was muted enough for us to be able to hear.
Ivan locked the door behind us before he and Seth settled into plush chairs at the front of the room. Christophe lifted a pitcher of something from the table and poured himself a glass as he stared out the large bay window offering the glittering view of trees and the night sky.
I could feel Zain’s irritation beside me because he wanted to sit down too, and he wanted some of that alcohol Christophe was drinking with relish. Of course, we weren’t offered any.
When he’d downed his second glass, I took a hesitant step forward and ran my hand through my hair in an attempt to tame it. “Is there something in particular that you would like us to tell you about?”
Ivan raised his eyebrows at my boldness but didn’t say anything. He crossed his legs and leaned back in the couch. Out of the Dryma guards, I liked Seth the best because of his quiet, reserved nature. Protecting the trees was crucial to the fairies’ survival, so naturally they were tense about the forest at all times. But more than once, Seth was known to take it easy on the younger Kuro swans who slipped up.
Seth was also one of the more beautiful fairies I’d seen, although he didn’t drip with sex appeal the way Christophe did. Today he seemed on edge as he kept checking his phone and then straightening his shirt with the open collar, exposing his creamy throat.
“Prince Tristan’s birthday is quickly approaching,” Christophe started, not bothering to turn around. Faintly, I could see his face in the dark glass. “I expect you to have doubled protection in the forest.”
“There is more,” Christophe said, stopping me in my tracks. “The party is a week from today, on a Saturday.”
“We know what day it—”
Roughly, I nudged Zain in the ribs to shut him up. I felt the anger dripping from his body, but he smartly didn’t say anything else.
Christophe finally turned to face us, his expression wary. I wasn’t used to seeing him nervous, so I was instantly on alert. “There will be… visitors attending this party. The Prince of the Sidhee and a small guard of his choosing will be coming from their world to visit us.”
I thought Joel’s eyes were going to bulge from his skull, and I could feel the same anxiety tearing holes through Zain. I struggled to keep my voice even. “The Prince of the Sidhee?”
Although the ones keeping our wings held captive were the Dryma Fairies, we could never forget or forgive the Sidhee for tricking us. When we had offered our wings, we’d been afraid of the Sidhee and had only met them in our swan forms. But they had coaxed us into shifting into our human form and with magic I didn’t quite understand, they had bound our wings and given us to the Dryma.
“Yes,” Christophe said tiredly. “They will be leaving their world and as expected, they must be presented with a soul before leaving or they will be barred from reentering.”
Kuro swans had once been friends with the Sidhee and had offered their wings in service when the soul stealers needed to come to the human world. I tried to make sense of what Christophe was saying and stuttered a response. “Y-you, I mean, you can’t expect us to steal a soul for them.”
Christophe played with the buttons of his immaculately tidy shirt. “No, I do not. I simply expect you to deliver this.” He reached into his pocket and produced a white envelope sprinkled with colorful flowers. “They will be arriving the night before the party on the south side of the forest. You will meet them there and present them with this. Afterwards, you will escort them to the Castle De Mar. The envelope contains instructions so should they have questions, they will know who to consult with.”
I swallowed, my lungs dying from a lack of oxygen. “May I ask why you are not meeting them yourselves?”
Christophe stared at me for so long I thought he was going to tell me to go to hell and reach for the whip looped through his belt. To my surprise, he said, “Ivan, Seth, why don’t you go downstairs and see if Nicolai needs some help. I’m sure Kanji won’t mind speaking to me… alone.”
Zain tensed beside me, but I gave him a nod. Sensing they didn’t have much of a choice, Joel and Zain followed the two guards from the room, the door swinging shut with a soft click.
The music floated up the stairs, and the scent of fried food wafted through the floorboards. I rubbed my sweaty hands on my pants and waited for the assault to begin, just like it always did.
“Did you know the Dryma fairies have a long history of deception and trickery?”
My jaw clenched. “I can imagine so.”
“So naturally, we would decide to host a masked ball to celebrate one of our great princes’ birth.”
“I suppose it does seem fitting.”
“Your kind are not the only ones averse to forming an alliance with the Sidhee. The Sidhee knew what would happen to us when we came to the human world, but did nothing to stop us. They then gave us your lives in exchange for letting them have as many souls as they like when they come to the human world. It is a degrading, humiliating life.”
“Having a masked ball where my kind can congregate without fear is the perfect way to introduce the Prince of the Sidhee into our community without opposition.” Christophe paused to pour himself another drink from the crystal pitcher before taking a step toward me. He took a swig of the drink and then set it down on the table. As he circled me, I could smell his cologne mixed with the alcohol on his breath. “Sidhee can be ruthless and tend to regard all life as little more than rungs of a ladder.”
“So why unite with them?”
Christophe parted my hair with his hand so my neck was exposed, my silky strands falling just above my shoulder. He trailed his hands down my back, resting on my shoulder blades and gently manipulating the muscle so a forced relief washed through me. “Kanji, you should know what it can take to survive.”
I flinched as he snaked one of his hands around my stomach and pushed his cool fingers up underneath my shirt and jacket so he could touch my skin. “So you need the Sidhee now?”
“Everything is changing,” Christophe whispered in my ear. “Your lives are tied to the trees just as surely as ours are. So why not stop pretending? I can feel your power in every breath you take. With every movement you make, you are trying to maintain control.”
“That’s not true.”
“You were born to be a prince,” he said softly, stroking my abdomen and working his way up to my chest. “Your father was tricked by the Sidhee, and yet you bear the burden for him. You don’t even know what occurred.”
“I don’t need to,” I spat. “The fact they betrayed us is enough.”
Christophe made an indifferent noise before wrapping his other hand around my neck and tangling my hair in his fingers so I was trapped. “What do I have to do to get you to give in? I can provide for you, give you things that would make even Dryma fairies jealous. All you have to do is become mine.”
“Become your slave, you mean,” I said coldly, bumping my shoulder upward in an effort to disentangle myself. His fingers tightened in response, and my fragile bones dared to crack if he pressed much harder. “What about the others? My friends? My family?”
“Relationships are empty,” he said, suddenly releasing me. I dragged air into my lungs and readjusted my shirt over my pants so he couldn’t see my bare skin. “In time, you’ll come to see your kind is done for and when they realize that, every one of your friends will want a Dryma for protection.”
“You need us to guard your trees.” I narrowed my eyes.
Christophe waved his hand dismissively. “For now.”
Mari’s words haunted me. “We need warmth.”
Christophe paused in drinking and stared at me. “Warmth?”
“Yes, we’re slowly dying from this cold.”
“Cold? You’ve gotta to be joking.” He pointed at his light shirt and outside. “The weather has been better than it has for days.”
“All the same.” I took a step toward him, my heart thundering in my chest. “Perhaps we could work something out where half of us could go down south and then when they get back—”
Christophe’s laughter shook the room. “Let me get this straight. You want a group of Dryma guards to accompany you down south so you can be a little warmer?”
I flinched at his words. “We need to migrate. This weather is killing us.”
“You’ve lived, what, twenty-three years like this? I think you can survive.”
How could I tell him the coloring of our skin was wrong? When I looked at Micky, I could see signs of aging that weren’t supposed to be there.
“Get on your knees.”
I was sure I misheard him. “Pardon?”
Christophe gestured to the floor as he leaned against the table. “Get on your knees and tell me you’ll be mine. Then roll over and let me take you.”
I felt sick. It was a small blessing I hadn’t vomited everywhere. “Never.”
“Take the envelope and go collect your friends.”
I shoved it into my pocket and was halfway to the door when he called my name. Reluctantly, I turned to face him.
“Just for the record, you’re already my slave. But I don’t want to take you until you’re willing.”
“That will never happen,” I promised.
“I won’t give up.”
“Honestly, what do you even see in me?” I hated him, but I was confused why he was so persistent in claiming me. I figured he would say it was because I was a prince and he would gain status, but he remained silent.
He just nodded before flitting his hand in my direction like I was little more than an annoying fly. Anger seeped through my body and made my joints stiff, but I turned from him and didn’t look back.
“How did it go?” Joel asked as he saw me coming and hopped from a barstool.
“Did he do anything to you?” Zain asked as he studied my face, turning away from the human women he’d been speaking to. Whatever he saw in my expression clearly riled him.
“Let’s just go.”
It wasn’t until we were outside that I permitted myself a backward glance. Standing at the window with a full glass in his hand was Christophe looking down at me like he had for most of my life. Sickened, I stumbled into the backseat of the car, ignoring Zain and Joel’s pleas that I should sit in the front, and nestled into the window.