1. End of The Innocence

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"No. Of course not." She touched the charm that rested below her collarbones. A jolt shot through her fingers. "Ouch!"

Unease crossed Amberlee's face. "What's your problem?"

Venus let out a laugh. The pain had vanished as quickly as it'd come. "N-Nothing." She glanced at her fingers. There wasn't a mark.

"Swear you won't tell?" 

Irritated, she fought back the urge to smack her sister. "I swear, Amberlee. Cret! Hey, I'll tell you a secret. That'll make us even. K?" She sat back down and turned toward her vanity. Venus kept an eye on her sister in the mirror as she picked up her gold-toothed comb and ran it through her hair.

Amberlee crossed her arms and popped a hip. "Really? You have a secret?"

"You have to promise not to tell anyone." Venus set the comb back in its exact spot and turned. "Promise?" she asked, mocking.

"Yeah, Princess. Now what is it?" Amberlee smirked, picked up the small, perfectly squared piece of cake and shoved the whole thing in her mouth. Cheeks full of cake, she glared and had the audacity to laugh. "Come on, tell me," she said around all the cake.

Already regretting that she'd agreed to tell, Venus let out a huff. "Sadraden is pregnant, due in about ten days. Her baby will be the first irrihunter born in years."

"Those animals scare the helker out of me. And now there'll be a baby? Yeah, that's just what the kingdom needs."

"Hey, don't be mean. What've irrihunters ever done to you? They're the most incredible creatures. And to ride one is . . . well, it's perfection." 

Amberlee pressed her lips together, her stormy eyes squinted. She swallowed. "Uh-huh. If you say so. But, what about your journey? Are you still planning to ride her?"

"Absolutely. She'd be devastated if I didn't." Venus stood, an urgent need to get started overwhelming her. "I'd better finish packing since I'm leaving tonight instead of in the morning."

Amberlee nodded. "Thanks, Venus. It means a lot you . . ." she trailed off and her eyes glazed over, like her mind had gone elsewhere. A second later, she finished, ". . . told me." She walked to the door and waved a ring-covered hand over the family crest. The golden door twinkled and disappeared. Before moving over the threshold, she asked, "Did you see Zaren at your birthday party?"

"Sure. Why?" As her personal Formytian, he kept close, sometimes annoyingly so. She'd been seeing him every day since age two, probably longer. 

"I noticed him watching you, a lot. He's quite handsome. Black hair. Green eyes. Tall. Rippling muscles. Immortality looks good on him, don't you think?" She nodded encouragingly, as she scrunched a chuck of her hair with a hand.

Venus huffed. "Yes, Amberlee. When I get back, do you want me to put in a word for you?"

"By the Gods, no! I meant for you. Forever, Venus. Do you really want to live eternally without love?"  

Pressing her hands together, Venus dug her nails into her palms. Her sister knew a union based on attraction or . . . or love, wasn't in her future. "Palmo and I are promised to each other. Our kingdoms need us united. Life is about more than love." Venus walked to the large bay window next to her dresser. The suns were setting, the bigger one slightly higher than the smaller. Various shades of scarlet and gold shot through the clouds like long, glowing swords.

She turned in time to watch Amberlee's silver face grow hard and pale as their first moon.

"Love is everything," she said, her eyes fierce. Without waiting for Venus to respond, she stalked from the room.

Yet another reason why I was born first.

She carefully removed the mid-thigh length coverlette. It was certainly beautiful. Her mother had given it to her that morning. "A special dress for a very special girl." That's what the Queen had said.

It was gauzy and light. Thread the color of sunshine glowed at her wrists, neckline and hem. The long sash shone in the same color. As though the designer had somehow captured a piece of a sun and fashioned it into the sash. She placed the dress on the back of her chair and picked up her pack.

A few more necessities needed to be added before she left, like her cleaning tablets and some food patches, which she hated. But they were tiny and easy to carry and would sustain her for the few days it took to journey to the home of the Gods and back. 

  At her closet, she ran a hand over the Carania family crest. The doors shimmered. She opened the console next to the closet door and pressed buttons to bring up the coverlettes section. Different holographic choices appeared on the screen. Venus selected one in dark blue. Its soft material spun from the magical cairna spiders. It sparkled with what looked like clear dew drops. The thick ribbing along the front as well as the sash glistened with red rosithia flowers. 

The closet spun through her clothes on an invisible belt until the coverlette she wanted arrived in front of her. She held her breath and reached in. After pulling her arm back, she exhaled, and as she put on the coverlette, went to the mirror. Her reflection appeared normal, but a sudden and complete fatigue engulfed her. Like giant hands, the unseeing force crushed her with its heaviness.

Through weighty eyelids, she peered at herself in the glass and noticed a line of thick, blue liquid streaming from beneath the charm around her neck. She reached up and touched the substance.

"It's blood," she whispered. "How?" Her mind went decidedly numb and no answer would come. Darkness fell over her eyes. Her limbs turned weak. It took all her effort to keep herself upright. 

"What's wrong with me?"

On rubbery legs, she staggered to the bed, arms stretched out in front of her. Venus used the wall, her dresser and a chair as her crutches to help her get to the bed. She knew once the Body Sensors attached to the bed scanned her, they'd contact help. When she sat, sure enough the Sensors screeched a blazing warning. 

"Your life organs are unwell. A re—" a monotone female voice began and then abruptly stopped, as though turned off.

Venus wanted to be angry or afraid, but one physical need overrode everything else. Sleep. She laid her head against the silky pillow. 

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