They hiked quickly through the thick grove of trees, leaves raining like emeralds from brown velvet as they brushed past them. Distracted as she was by Gray, Jewel almost led them into a pool of quicksand, then off a staggeringly high cliff. Gray jerked her to safety each time, his arms banded around her.
During the last incident, he'd held her longer than necessary, his gaze lingering on her lips. She'd shivered and ached, her mouth watering for a taste of him. His warm, male scent constantly enveloped her, luring her. Tantalizing and mesmerizing her. But she'd at last pulled away. He still bore traces of fatigue, his face pale and his limbs shaky.
He always remained a few steps behind her, his silver gaze focused intently on her back, his arms ready to shoot out and drag her into the hard shield of his body. She wasn't normally so inattentive and unconcerned with her surroundings. Knowing he was behind her, however, played havoc with her attention. His spicy male scent wafted around her.
"So how do the men around here impress the women?" he asked, speaking for the first time since they'd left camp.
She flicked him a glance and grinned, grabbing on to the thread of conversation as if it were the most precious thing in the world. "Some men - "
"Eyes on the road," he commanded. He grabbed her robe by the hood and tugged her away from a large boulder.
Gasping, she returned her attention to the forest.
"Good. Now, what were you going to say?"
"Some men kill the woman's greatest enemy and bring the body to her as a gift."
"Then you should be thoroughly impressed with me. I might not have gift-wrapped the demons, but I did kill your enemy."
"Yes, you did."
"What about the other men? The peace-lovers you grew up with. What did they give their women?"
Her lips pursed as she considered his question. She'd never been on the receiving end of a man's romantic attentions, but had witnessed many courtships. "Depends on the creature, I guess."
"Sirens. Tell me about the sirens."
She searched her mind. What had the men of her village given her mother when they'd wished to seduce her? What had her mother liked to receive? Her eyes widened as long-forgotten images surfaced, her mother's tinkling laughter drifting from the far recesses of her mind. "Once, a male centaur wrote a play for my mother. He acted the part of hero and hired others to be his cast. It was a love story about two people giving up everything to be together, and I remember the way my mother sighed dreamily and smiled for days afterward."
Gray's only response was a shudder. Of revulsion? His silence soon began to weigh heavily on her shoulders. "I know you give your women flowers and candy," she said, stomach clenching at the thought of how each one had rewarded him with kisses. Sometimes naked kisses.
"That's easily done and requires little thought," he said darkly.
She stayed the urge to look back at him. Was he irritated with her? Or himself? Before she could ponder the answer, she stopped, a thin layer of bush the only barrier between her and the path to the city. "We're here."
"Don't go any closer until I've done reconnaissance." His hand latched onto the tendon at the base of her neck, massaging gently as his gaze darted in every direction.
Her nerve ending leapt up to meet him, craving more of his touch. She knew he was cataloguing their surroundings, deciding what was safe and what wasn't. Laughing female voices drifted to her ears. Ahead of them on a cobbled path stamped a herd of female centaurs. Each possessed a mane of hair, some red, some brown, some pale, their chests covered by blue cloaks, the color marking which clan they belonged to. Every one of them carried a basket or satchel overflowing with wool.
The women approached an enormous, glistening pearl gate that arched toward the skydome and led straight into the pulsing heart of the city. Jewel's excitement expanded, grew, unfurling through her entire body. She searched her senses for any sign or shiver of danger but felt nothing. She wasn't surprised. She never knew when she herself would be in peril.
"The Inner City is so much different than the Outer City. Here, the people are friendly and honest and hardworking. Notice that no one is carrying weapons."
"None that we can see, that is."
How like him, she mused with a grin, to suspect everyone of foul play. He was a warrior to the marrow of his bones.
"Get ready," Gray said. To their left, a group of robed - what the hell were they? They were as ugly as legend claimed Medusa was, with too-big, black eyes, a too-big beaky nose, and hair comprised of serpents. Those snakes hissed and slithered from their heads. Gray slid his hand down, wrapping his fingers around Jewel's. They jolted into motion. Because his backpack was under his robe, he looked like he was some sort of humped-backed creature.
"Pull your hood tight around your face," he said, and as he spoke, he fitted the hilt of one of his blades in his hand, covering the metal with the cuff of his clothing. When she complied, he added quietly, "We're going to try and blend in with those snake - things."
"Gorgons," she said. "Do not look directly in their eyes; if your gaze meets one of theirs, you will be turned into stone."
"Why bother trying to blend in with them? No one will recognize us with these robes covering our faces, and we aren't being followed."
"In case anyone is questioned, they won't know that two individuals entered the city at a specific time. Anyone who sees us will think we're part of this group, and I highly doubt the demon queen will make the connection."
Ah, that made sense. If she hadn't been glad to have Gray with her before, this would have convinced her. "I can project my thoughts into their heads and convince them we are not even here."
"That tires you out, and I need you strong."
The Gorgons didn't pay them any heed as they came up behind them. They were too busy discussing - my gods. Her ears perked, and she listened intently, frowning all the while. A cold sweat trickled over her skin. Back and forth the Gorgons threw comments about the demon and vampire armies that had passed through their village, demanding to know if they'd seen a human male and female. Jewel stiffened.
The vampires and demons were working together? How... odd. The two races had never outright warred, but they had never allied themselves, either. What had brought them to mutual terms?
Reeling, she glanced up at Gray. His face was partially shadowed by his hood, but she saw the grim line of his lips. Had he understood them? She projected her consciousness into his mind, but met with that frustrating block.
He squeezed her hand, and she bit her lip. Did he know she'd just tried to read him?
"Where were they headed?" she asked the Gorgon in front of her, using their harsh dialect of the Atlantean language.
All of them skidded to a halt and turned to her.
Gray growled low in his throat, but he kept his head turned.
"Well?" she demanded, pretending she had every right to be among their group and question them. "Toward Javar's palace," one of them answered, and they all kicked into motion.
Which meant her enemy was headed away from the Inner City. That was good, but... Why journey all the way to Javar's, the former High King of the dragons? Javar had been dead for many months, and Darius, the new king, had sent a legion of his men to protect the palace from invaders.
This made no sense.
The moment she and Gray passed through the city gates, they pulled away from the Gorgons.
"The point was to blend in with those things, not announce we were there and didn't belong," Gray whispered in her ear, his tone fierce. He claimed the lead, but retained a tight grip on her hand.
Three-headed dogs bolted from behind a stone hut and frolicked around her feet as carts and vendors came into view. The scent of sweet pies and meat tempted her nostrils. Her mouth watered. Beautiful, brilliantly colored clothes greeted her eyes, and gems sparkled in the light.
She wanted to taste every kind of food, try on every piece of material, cover herself in the jewelry. "Look for a weapons dealer."
"Of course," she said, a wealth of disappointment in those two words. "Can we explore the city after?" "We have to - " He threw a glance over his shoulder, then paused. He turned toward her, facing her fully. She slammed into him.
When she steadied, the long length of her lashes swept up and her gaze met his. "Is something wrong?"
Silent, Gray stood in place, studying Jewel's face and the eager gleam in her eyes, making them sparkle like sapphires. A smile half curved her lips, and a rosy glow lit her cheeks. There was a palpable air of excitement radiating from her.
She'd never looked more beautiful, more alive - and the sight of her hit him straight in the gut. He was unable to move, could hardly breathe.
He'd thought to get business out of the way first. It had seemed like the most important thing at the time, the smart plan of action. Now, looking at her, the only thing he could think of, the only need inside him, was to make her happy.
During their trek to the city, he'd thought of nothing but giving this sweetly innocent woman the perfect gift. When she'd told him of the romantic play that delighted her mother, he'd heard the wistfulness in her voice and had known she desired the same for herself. He wasn't a writer; he wasn't an actor. But he didn't want to give Jewel the same things he'd given other women. Flowers seemed cliche and candy didn't seem good enough.
He didn't know why, he only knew that it was important, necessary, that he do something for her he'd never done for another.
She wanted to explore the city, then by God they'd explore the city.
"We've got a little time to play first," he said, his voice rougher than he would have liked. Her eyes widened. "Really?"
"Just be sure to keep your face hidden and be on the lookout for demons or vampires." "We're safe from them. They're headed in the opposite direction."
"Sometimes armies hide in the shadows, sweetheart, and sneak inside. Now, where do you want to go first?"
Grinning, she glanced left and right, spun, glanced left and right again. "There," she said, pointing to a booth of jewelry. Something caught the corner of her eye, and she spun again. "No, there." This time she pointed to a table piled high with some kind of fruit and laughed. "Everywhere. I want to see everything at once."
The sound of her rich laughter was like a sensual battering ram, hitting him with thousand-pound force. He'd seen women take pleasure in shopping before, but never like this. Never with a potent enthusiasm that wrapped around him, tightening him in a delicious hold.
"Come on," he said, taking her hand, loving the feel of her soft skin, her delicate bones. He led her to a table of sparkling gemstones. "One thing at a time. We'll get to all of it, I swear to God."
Her gaze lingered on the rainbow of jewels, and she gasped. Her fingers lovingly traced an emerald torque, caressed an amethyst ring, and savored a gold and silver linked chain. The amount of wealth glistening up at him was staggering.
A male creature manned the table and watched them with an assessing stare. Though he possessed the body of a man, he had the face of a bull, with horns jutting from his forehead and fur on his cheeks.
Kind of freaky to see, in Gray's opinion.
"See something you like?" the man - bull - thing asked.
It was in that moment Gray realized he understood every word. The bull-man had spoken in the guttural Atlantean language, and so had the ugly Gorgons, for that matter. Gray had understood them, as well, and had listened to their conversation about the demons and vampires. He had simply been too wrapped in their words to realize they weren't speaking English. Now...
How the hell had he learned Atlantean? One day he hadn't understood a damn word of it, and now he knew the entire freaking language.
"Everything is so beautiful," Jewel breathed, cutting into his thoughts. She raised an armband with one hand and raised the sleeve of her robe with the other, revealing several inches of smooth skin. Crystals gleamed from the torque, projecting a vast array of colors. A silver stone rested in the center.
The sight of the rich gold band contrasting with the smooth peaches-and-cream flesh of her arm proved more erotic than two chicks making out right in front of him. He wanted Jewel to have it. Real bad. So easily he could picture her wearing the armband - and nothing else.
"That looks beautiful on you," the vendor said, the words low and gravelly.
Gray wouldn't have minded stealing, but he, well, he didn't want to acquire the item that way. He wanted to gift Jewel with an honest purchase. Something she would look at and always think of him.
"Thank you," Jewel said, but she removed the item and returned it to the table, her sleeve falling back into place. There was regret and longing in her voice, and she gazed at the item for a long while before finally turning her attention to a bloodred ruby headpiece.
"Roasted fowl," someone called. "Only half a drachma."
Her chin jerked to the side. "Roasted fowl," she gasped, skipping to the vendor without a backward glance.
Gray watched her go, then did a quick scan of the crowd and decided she was safe enough for the moment He half turned toward the freaky bull-man, dividing his attention between his woman and the jewelry seller.
"How much?" he asked, pointing at the armband. Surprisingly the Atlantean language flowed easily from his tongue, as if he'd spoken it his entire life.
He couldn't ask what drachmas were or he'd look like an idiot who didn't belong in Atlantis. He merely nodded and pivoted. As he closed the distance between himself and Jewel, the bull-man called, "Thirty-five. I'll let you have it for thirty-five."
Gray pulled Jewel to the side, away from the roasted fowl peddler, a thickly muscled, one-eyed Cyclops. Jewel held two pie tins of meat in her hand and the Cyclops was eyeing them wearily, as if he half expected them to sprint away with the goods. She was biting her lip, staring down at the food.
His gaze returned to the Cyclops, and he noticed the man was clad in rags, and had hollowed cheeks despite his oddly muscled appearance. He was dirt poor, and Gray didn't have the heart to steal from him, either.
"What are drachmas?" he asked Jewel quietly.
"Money." She sniffed the food with a rapturous expression, completely absorbed in her task. "Like your dollars."
"How can I earn some?" As he spoke, he saw a group of the freakiest of all the things he'd seen so far. One arm protruded from their chests, and one leg swung from their torsos, and only the wings on their backs kept them upright. They formed a small, laughing circle.
Each whatever the hell they were held a good-sized lizard, and each lizard wore a jeweled collar, a different jewel for each different owner. They placed the squirming things in a line, using their only hand to hold onto the lizard's tail.
One of the men shouted, "Go," and everyone released their lizards.
Gray expected the cursed things - he hated lizards, ewww - to bite their handlers, but they surprised him by jolting into action and racing forward. The green-collared lizard crossed the finish line first and its handler fluttered up and down with excitement, clapping his hand against his thigh.
A heavy-looking pouch was thrown at the thing, and he caught it, opening the burlap sack with his teeth and withdrawing a dull rock. Gray would bet his substantial savings account that dull rock was a drachma.
God love the gambling community.
He brightened. "Never mind," he told Jewel. "I know how." His grip tightened on the blade he held. It was good-sized with a marble handle and worth a small fortune. His brother-in-law, Jorlan, a prince of some distant planet, had given it to him. "You ever gambled?"
"Today's going to be your day of firsts. Come with me."
"Wait." She replaced the food on the table, and he ushered her through the crowd darting along the street When she noticed the only possible destination for them, she said, "Uh, Gray, perhaps we should turn around now." He ignored her, never slowing. Soon the things 'low voices drifted to them, reminding Gray of something he wanted to ask Jewel. "Would you mind telling me how I now know your language?"
Her radiant sapphire eyes rounded. "You can understand?"
He nodded and cast her a glance. He could see wheels turning and watched her eyes widen as the answer hit her, but she merely shrugged. "How does anyone learn a language, really?"
"With hard work and a lot of studying."
"You could have learned it simply by listening to others speak it."
The woman was good, he'd give her that. She never lied, but when she didn't want to answer a question she had ways of trying to throw him off the scent. "I didn't work at this and I didn't listen closely to others. How did I learn it?" he persisted.
She paused, gulped, then offered, "I have heard some humans learn our language through magic."
Magic. His brother-in-law dealt in magic, and Gray knew firsthand the dangers involved in using it. A man could be turned to stone, while still able to see, hear and feel everything around him. A man could be cursed inside a box, allowed to emerge only when his female master had need of his services. He shuddered.
No, thank you.
"Did you use a spell on me?" Before she replied, he realized she'd never actually said with one hundred percent surety that he'd learned the language through magic. She'd merely suggested it. In fact, she hadn't answered his question in any way.
He gritted his teeth together, stopped, and stared down at her for a long while, making her squirm. "I'm on to you. Magic, indeed. When we're safe in our room tonight, we're going to have a long talk."
Our room, he'd said. Jewel swallowed, trying to alleviate the sudden dryness of her mouth. She suspected Gray understood the Atlantean language because she'd been inside his head and must have left pieces of herself behind. Amazing, surreal, but there it was. Had she, then, taken pieces of him with her?
She didn't know how he'd take to that news when he didn't seem to remember she'd been inside his head at all, so she said nothing, letting him rationalize whatever explanation he would.
Right now, she had other things to worry about. The Formorians' skin was as pale as a vampire's but looked more like dry paper with thin blue lines. They had just finished another lizard race when she and Gray reached their circle. Gray stopped, not saying a word, just watching curiously; she remained at his side, scanning faces, ready to warn him if anyone attempted to hurt him. The Formorians had blades strapped all over their bodies. She didn't know why they were here in the Inner City when Formorians usually stayed in the more accepting Outer City. They were a danger-loving race who didn't mind feasting on flesh, preferably while the bodies were still alive and screaming.
"I want to play," Gray finally announced to the surrounding crowd, as if he hadn't a care in the world.
The Formorians whipped around, frowning. "Do you have drachmas?" one of them asked, eyes narrowed.
Gray held out his dagger and gave it, hilt first, to the creature closest to him. The Formorian accepted the dagger, gripping it in his only hand. "I must see who I am dealing with first," he said.
"You see enough of me." Gray's tone had lost its easiness, becoming dark and menacing.
"I will see all of you." He motioned with a tilt of his chin, and another of the Formorians stepped forward, reaching out to push back Gray's hood.
Gray shoved the creature, hard, making him stumble backward. All of his friends growled low in their throats. "You stink of human," one of them spat. "We will see your face."
"And you stink of shit," Gray snapped. "All you'll see is another of my weapons if you don't get out of my face. Now, you accepted my dagger, so deal me into the game."
"You will leave or die. That is your only choice."
Gray stepped forward quickly, shadows covering most of his face. But through the shadows, his eyes were glowing bright, menacing red. "You will let me in your game. Understand?"
Seeing the glowing eyes - demon eyes - they nodded, now eager to please. Formorians feared demons, their stronger counterpart.
Jewel stilled a horrified gasp. The red light in Gray's eyes had already died down, leaving only the silver irises. The changes were happening, then. Gray wouldn't be spared as she'd hoped. Over the coming days, he would acquire traits of both the vampires and the demons.
Which traits, she could only guess. How he would react when he discovered what was happening to him, she could only dread.
The leader sheathed Gray's knife at his belt and handed him the amethyst-collared lizard, the least active of the group. Gray didn't complain, but he did grimace.
"Line up and we will begin. First lizard to cross, wins."
Gray nodded and lined up beside the other men. The disgusted expression he wore would have made her chuckle in any other circumstance. As it was, she didn't trust the Formorians to act honorably, so
retained a watchful eye on them.
"Go!" the leader shouted.
The lizards were released and bolted into action. Well, all but Gray's lizard bolted. Gray's began a slow, leisurely stroll. "Go, damn you," he shouted, poking at it with the tips of his fingers.
It turned and ambled in the opposite direction.
All too soon, a lizard crossed the finish line, ending the race. Gray cursed loud and long, then turned to the Formorian leader. "Again," he said.
"Show me payment."
He removed his wristwatch and handed it over. The Formorians gathered around it oohing and aahing, and Gray picked up his lizard. "Let's get this done."
Eager, everyone lined up.
Gray's lizard did a repeat performance, as did Gray. He cursed the entire race, expletives that near burned her ears. Afterward, he demanded another race, handing over his fire starter. A lighter, she knew it was called. The Formorians were salivating to own it, so they quickly agreed.
The men lined up. Gray's lips were taut. Hard lines bracketed his eyes and mouth. Determination radiated from him. "You better move this time, you disgusting sack of shit," he muttered. "Again. Winner takes everything." He handed over an energy bar, and the creatures sniffed, nodded.
The lizards scrambled forward.
Jewel had never entered an animal's head before, but she did this one. She didn't know if it would work, but she gave it a try, anyway. Anything to help Gray. Go, damn you. Swiftly.
Hearing her sharp command, the lizard leapt into action, moving faster than the others, and it inched into the lead. An odd sense of excitement grew inside her. They had a chance of winning this time! She was jumping up and down by the time Gray's lizard crossed the finish line, capturing first place.
Heated silence met the victory, and no one moved, only staring in shock at the amethyst-collared lizard. "My prize," Gray prompted.
All of the Formorians frowned and hissed as the leader handed over two bags of drachmas, along with all of Gray's belongings. Jewel clapped her hands and laughed, her hood almost falling in her excitement. Gasping, she reached up and secured it in place.
Gray clasped his arm around her wrist "Nice doing business with you, boys. If you'll excuse us... " He led her away, mumbling, "I knew that little bastard would pull through. With your help," he added with a grin. "How much is this?" He held up the two bags with his free hand.
"Two hundred drachmas is my guess," she said on a laugh, not asking how he knew what she'd done. "We have money!"
He tossed her a wickedly sensual wink. "Let's have us a celebration."