When Venus left The Hartford Ranch with Dervinias and Zaren, darkness blanketed the night.

Dervinias had torn into view around seven, right after the moon appeared. Like a dragon dropping from the sky, he’d emerged from the shadows, large wisps of smoke from his and his horse’s breaths coming into view before he did. He’d appeared haggard. Acting scared, he said he’d gone on ahead and become lost. 

Venus knew he lied because kelvieri couldn’t lose their way.

She’d exchanged a knowing look with Zaren. Neither of them called him on his fabrication. Confronting him in front of Cheverly and Michael would’ve raised too many questions. Perhaps caused them to wonder about their relationship, or remind Michael of other strange oddities Venus possessed—like the color of her blood. It took a lot of effort to ignore the concern biting its way through her stomach. Still, she’d resisted and waited to say anything until they drove away in Dervinias’s truck.

“Where’d you go?” Venus asked. Her stomach clenched with dread.

“I got bored waiting around. You guys were taking too long. Not to mention the obvious fact that I’d have been a third wheel. The trip wasted my time. I deserve the chance to have some fun.” His eyes shone with a renewed excitement.

Venus’s inclination to panic settled. Clearly, there was no reason to be worried. His excuse made sense. She wouldn’t have enjoyed being the odd person out either. 

Zaren seemed rigid. He kept his face straight ahead when he said, “Michael thought it was odd. Cheverly said you’ve done that before—taken off. Why come if you’re going to turn around and leave?”

“Why not? When there’s a big group, I usually hook up with a girl. If I don’t, I leave.” He shrugged like it wasn’t any big deal. 

“Michael suggested sending out a search party. He didn’t care if you died or not, but worried Chev might get into trouble for losing you. She didn’t seem too concerned, though, so Michael blew it off. I think he knows you’re different. You should be more careful.” Zaren crossed his arms. 

Venus studied Zaren, trying to get his attention. He had to know she wanted to be included on whatever was going on in his head, but he didn’t respond. Venus huffed, wishing she could read his mind. 

Dervinias glanced over. “Chev’s cool. No worries buddy.” He pounded Zaren on the shoulder.

Venus stopped caring, momentarily too tired to do anything but breathe. Plus, the truck cab was stuffy, her shoulders touching Dervinias on one side and Zaren on the other. Venus tried to empty her mind. That was impossible, so she worked to think of safe subjects.

She’d no doubt Dervinias would be listening in. She wished she knew of a way to block his intrusive behavior. Zaren probably listened in as well. So she thought of home, of her family.

The chorus of a song from her childhood, Alayeahian Sea, kept repeating in her head. Her mother, Queen Karrina, used to sing it to her when she was little, after tucking her into bed at night. The one time each day she spent alone with her mother—the two of them. She’d stroke Venus’s hair, her fingers soft as she sang. 

Her mother’s voice reminded Venus of the Eding bird. Turquoise, bright pink, buttery yellow and salmon feathers covered its compact little body. The birds were tiny, but their song rang loud and strong, exploding from their black, pencil-tip-sized beaks. Such beautiful music, it made people burst into tears at its loveliness.

When her mother sang, she possessed the same beauty. Her father, King Quinlin, bragged she could sing better than anyone in all of Kelari. Venus agreed.

If Venus tried, she could’ve remembered the whole song. But it was easier to keep the chorus on repeat in her head.

Friends. Lovers. 

We had the chance to be,

Together forever under the Alayeahian Sea.

As if to prove there was no avoiding an invasion of her mind, Dervinias started humming the chorus along with her thoughts. Ugh. He deserved a thorough beating. But her whole body hurt. She rested her head against the seat and listened.

His sang in a deep baritone. After a few times through, he said, “It’s been so long since I’ve heard that song. Thanks, Venus.”

He made it difficult for Venus to stay mad.

Zaren reached over and grabbed her hand. Grateful for his comfort, she squeezed; pleased he knew exactly what she needed. “You’re welcome, Dervinias.”

They continued home in silence.

Venus said her goodnights to Zaren and Dervinias on the way in the house. She wanted to be alone. It took every effort not to drop into bed and sleep, grubby clothes and everything, but the idea of dirtying the pretty white comforter drove her into the shower.

Before she went to sleep, she stretched her mind to reach Cheverly, placing loving ideas about Michael into her head. Cheverly had quite the dreams, too. It made Venus’s job all the easier. After Chev, she entered Michael’s mind—well tried. There wasn’t anything to enter. Clearly, he hadn’t gone to bed yet. Venus waited for a while, but fell asleep.

When she realized she was on the fringes of his mind, she searched through his dreams as well as his memories. The visions she encountered terrified her while simultaneously breaking her heart. 

No!

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