I groaned internally as she wrapped her arms around me and pulled me to her in a hug. Her lips pressed against my forehead in a kiss. “Because you are my son.”

As weird as I already knew she was, even I was taken aback by the intensity of emotion in her voice as she spoke.

“You’re one of my own,” she continued, “my dependent. We are meant to be together forever. It is my duty to see to your well-being. I-I feel like I have failed you.”

I watched with a mixture of disbelief and awkwardness as a tear slipped from her eye and glided down her sculpted cheek.

Then her hold on me tightened even more. “No,” she said, her voice dropping to a hiss. “He cannot take you away from me. You are mine. My child. Mine forever.”

In her own warped way, she really does consider me her son.

I ducked my head out from under her grasp again and created about six feet of distance between us. I wondered whether all jinn were as possessive as this queen—whether all of them developed such an attachment for their serfs, as though they’d borne them from their own womb. Or perhaps with me it was just intensified because of the bond I’d formed with her.

Whatever the case, I supposed it could only work to my advantage.

“But how will you stop us from being separated?” I asked, attempting to play on her emotions. “How will you stop him from taking me away from you? You already told me that you don’t know how to help me.”

Her expression turned all the more desolate. “It’s true.” She clung on to me yet again—as though she was addicted to physical contact. “I do not know how to solve this, Benjamin.” Her chest shuddered as she drew in a rasping breath. “But I will do everything within my power to help you.” Her hands began to shake, her lower lip trembling. “I will take charge of you personally.”

Though her offer hardly made the situation seem less hopeless, I couldn’t deny that the thought of not having to deal with Aisha any more was a small relief.

Since I was supposed to be bound to the jinn, I wondered how the Elder claiming me would work. Whether his power would just override theirs—or whether their bond would still remain, but weakened. I had no idea. I asked the question out loud to Nuriya.

“You will always be ours!” Nuriya replied, her voice now more choked up than ever.

I decided not to ask her to clarify, since she seemed close to a nervous breakdown.

“Now tell me,” she said, gulping hard. “How can we help you?”

I clenched my jaw.

I wish I knew.

CHAPTER 2: RIVER

I woke up to a cool breeze blowing over me. When I opened my eyes, to my confusion, I felt sand beneath me. I wondered whether I was dreaming. The last thing I remembered, I’d been in Ben’s bed, lying in his arms and relishing the feel of his palm stroking my forehead.

Now I was on a beach. A long, dark beach.

Corrine was kneeling over me, a look of concern on her face.

“Where are we?” I asked. “Where’s Ben?”

Corrine didn’t answer as I stood up. Too fast. The blood rushed from my head. I felt dizzy and had to sit back down again. I realized now that I was still in my underwear.

“Put this on,” Corrine said, her voice soft and kind. She held my dress, the light cotton one that I’d changed into back in Ben’s apartment. She pulled the dress over my head and guided my arms through the sleeves.

As the veil of sleep lifted from me, Corrine didn’t need to answer my questions. A heaviness weighed down my chest. My voice became constricted. “Ben… He’s still in The Oasis,” I breathed. “He told you to bring me back, didn’t he?”

Corrine bit her lip, and tears moistened the corners of her eyes. She nodded, and tucked a stray strand of hair behind my ear.

“I’m sorry, sweetie,” she said. “I tried to make him reconsider… but this was what he wanted.”

My breath hitched.

I played over in my mind the moments we had shared before I’d fallen into slumber. I could hardly say that this came as a complete surprise. His mood … It had reminded me too much of the night he’d let go of my hand. I’d sensed that he was going to make me leave him—sooner or later—even as he’d held me in his arms and kissed my lips like he would never let me go. But although I’d expected it to happen, I hadn’t thought that it would be so sudden, while I wasn’t even awake to say goodbye.

“What is he going to do?” I managed.

Corrine shook her head. “He wasn’t sure.”

How could he be sure? From what the oracle told us, I had no idea where he would even start—if there even was any place to start—or whether he would just come to accept what she had claimed was his destiny.

I felt sick to my stomach as Corrine wrapped an arm around my waist and helped me to my feet. Still not steady enough to stand, I clung to her as we left the beach and entered a familiar clearing behind the jetty.

Emotions overwhelmed me. I already felt like I was in mourning for Ben. And I hated myself for it—that I could give up all hope so easily. I just didn’t know where to draw hope from when every door around us seemed to be shut.

I could barely pay attention to Corrine’s words. She muttered something about taking me to my family. She vanished us again, and we reappeared in the center of some kind of town square.

“This is The Vale,” Corrine said in a hushed tone. “The humans’ residences.”

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