My sister Jessica found me and Poppa when the Bassanos arrived. I slipped into the ballet flats that matched my dress, and we returned downstairs. Lucas Bassano, the representing father, gave me a wide smile.
“It is good to see you again, Lucas.”
“And you, Ruby,” he said. I liked his faint, French-Canadian accent. Everything he said sounded sultry. “You look radiant this evening.” His three sons stood beside him, long-bodied and taller than even my fathers. Their dark blonde hair was cut and parted neatly, and their eyes sparkled. They wore gray suits and burgundy silk tops. They looked like a set. “These are my sons: James, Gerard, and Alain.”
Alain appeared to be the youngest. He looked ready to pounce on me at any moment, but James had a soft hand wrapped around his wrist.
“Be welcome,” I said to them.
“We will leave you all to talk,” my mother-Stacia said. She glanced at Alain, then to me. I nodded. A fight wouldn’t ensue simply because he couldn’t control his impulses. I was strong enough to keep him at bay, but he also had his brothers to restrain him if necessary.
I offered the brothers the couch on the other end of the room as I sat in the armchair beside me. It smelled like Wright. I wanted him there, if only for his scent, but his chair was good enough. I pretended as though he stood at my side, looking large and intimidating to these young men who could be, from some aspect, his sons-in-law.
“Well, I will begin,” I sighed. “Had you heard much about me before you agreed to pursue this union?”
“A few things,” James said with a confident nod. “We heard that you could wake during the day, that you could endure the sun.”
I nodded. “I have to wear a high-SPF sunblock, but yes, I can go out in the daylight.”
“Magnificent,” Gerard whispered, as though he’d made a breathtaking discovery. I smiled. “And you feed as we do?”
“I am Ina, so yes. I need the blood of my symbionts, and as I grow, I need raw meat.” I dreaded the next meal Momma would inevitably force upon me.
“And your genes, you would give our children the sun?”
“My eldermothers, Goddess carry them, engineered my mother-Shori well, and her children have received the dark-skinned gene because of it. Even my lighter brother will have at least one child with my coloring.”
James and Gerard looked at each other with pleased smiles. I turned my eyes to Alain, who stared at me as though he was on food restriction and would get in trouble if he gave in to his urges. His brothers dominated the rest of the conversation as well, so I knew if he spoke, he would break the chains holding him back. I wouldn’t choose the Bassanos, not only because Alain wasn’t ready, but because I already could tell James and Gerard had more interest in the outcome of our mating. I knew, on some level, all of the families were looking at our potential children gaining the sun, but I wanted my mates to have some deeper interest in me as well. It was a romantic hope that I couldn’t help. I wanted the love Momma and Poppa had, the love and security she had with Wright.
“Thank you for your patience,” I said at the end of our time. I stood and backed away a little, to pull my scent further from Alain, and gave them a modest, polite smile. “Do enjoy the rest of your time here. I hope you’ve already found the guest house to be to your liking.”
“We have, Ruby, thank you,” James said as he and his brothers stood almost simultaneously. I wondered if they rehearsed this. “We shall hear from you soon.”
The symbionts attended a party at Marta’s house. It was much too loud and full of scents and emotions for me to enter, but I did peek into the window to see what my local symbionts were doing. Clint was grinding against one of Peter’s symbionts who had bunched the skirt of her dress up so he could caress her legs. Jay and his wife Anne were kissing and groping each other in the corner as though they hadn’t seen each other in years. They were drunk. I looked for Camille and found her standing sheepishly in the far corner. She looked around with wide, anxious eyes, and I balled my hands into fists hoping someone would go dance with her. There was one guy, a Bassano symbiont, who kept looking at her and shifting his feet. He looked like my brother Nicky, tan skin and sandy curls. He blushed redder the more he looked at her.
“Go on,” I said aloud. “Go to her.”
Finally, he took a shot of whatever was in the punch bowl and crossed the room. Camille saw him approaching and shuffled back and forth on her feet before she stayed put. When he stopped before her and spoke, a smile crept across her face. I smiled, too. She would be all right.
My mother-Stacia’s symbionts were watching the little kids, human and Ina. Our youngest Ina was Marta’s daughter Iliyana. She was three years old, still as tiny and fragile as an infant, and still considered one to my kind. I rocked her to sleep as she drank from her bottle. She suckled eagerly as her eyes closed, and her lips slowed to a stop. Then, she jerked awake and continue to drink. Tisha was the next youngest. She rubbed Iliyana’s fuzzy blonde hair and giggled whenever the baby fought to stay awake.
“Daddy said you have to have a baby,” she whispered when Iliyana finally drained her bottle and fell to sleep.
I nodded. “I’m at the age where I must mate and start having children.”
“Is that why the Buhsanos came to see you?”
“Yes. Tomorrow, I meet the Vetrovs, and the night after, the Sullivans. Three more families will come next week, and another three the week after. Then, I get to pick my mates.”
“And then you have a baby?”
Whereas human females carried a child for only nine months, give or take, and didn’t even know they were pregnant until weeks after conception—some even the entire gestation—Ina knew almost instantly when they had conceived, and as Ina grew more slowly, female Ina carried just as slowly. Many didn’t begin to fully show until the ninth month and then carried for another four.
“Uncle Gary’s one of Aidan Sullivan’s symbionts. He said Aidan has red hair!”
“We’ve never seen an Ina with red hair, have we?” Most white Ina were blonde, and a very small minority was brunette, so even I wanted to see Aidan.
“I hope Uncle Gary comes. I miss him. He talks like he’s from England. It’s funny.” I chuckled.
Artem Vetrov’s sons Sasha and Dmitriy were shorter than the Bassanos by a few inches but more handsome. They also didn’t come dressed as a set. Sasha let his hair hang across his forehead and wore a dark grey suit while Dmitriy chose to comb his hair back and wore a navy shirt and chocolate slacks with a matching tie. I liked that they could feel comfortable in that way, though the tiniest of gestures or shifts in their stances proved my scent agitated them as it had the Bassanos. They sat tall and straight, gentle smiles on their pink lips.
“Had you heard much about me before you agreed to pursue this union?”
“We had,” Sasha answered. “We have followed your progress over many years.”
“And how am I doing?”
“We are pleased with you. You are growing at an appropriate rate for Ina women, and your scent proves you are strong and very fertile.”
I hoped my smile hid how awkward his sentiment made me. “I like to ask about the female family. Your sisters are the Ahkmatovas, correct? I’ve had the pleasure of meeting them a few times.”
Dmitriy nodded. “Anja and Katja. They speak highly of you and look forward to seeing you again.”
“As do I.”
He asked if I spoke Ina, and I nodded. Momma had taught me the Ina language and script as I learned to read and write English. “Fe. Lrrsho Ina e liffa.” Yes, I learned Ina when I was a child.
We spent the rest of our time together speaking in Ina. I liked Dmitriy more than Sasha, but I did feel they were suitable mates. I could love them in time, so I didn’t dismiss them as a choice.
When we finished and they stood to leave, Dmitriy leaned carefully over the coffee table between us and whispered, “Hiocu nisSullivan. Shiyif taDahlman.” Beware the Sullivans. Their blood is Dahlman.
Katherine Dahlman had been the representative chosen to defend the Silks against my mother-Shori during the Council of Judgment. She had ordered one of her symbionts to kill one of Momma’s, an older lady named Theodora. For that, Katherine was sentenced to lose a limb, and because she refused and tried to kill Momma in front of everyone, she was immediately put to death. I had only heard her name as part of Momma’s telling of her past. It was almost a curse to use it otherwise. Momma hated her more than she hated the Silks. The Sullivans had once mated with the Dahlmans, and Kean and his brothers were of a distant relation by blood.
“I suppose they thought you didn’t know,” my father-Wayne said.
“They must have meant to anger me so that I would turn the Sullivans away,” Momma said. She was annoyed, but she remained calm. “Dmitriy should have known better than to try to sway you so.”
Poppa nodded. “It just shows they are desperate, and men have done more foolish things when desperate.” He smiled and stroked my cheek. “Take it as a compliment.”
That morning, I walked out into the backyard. The sun’s rays hit my skin as hot as fresh laundry. A rabbit nibbling clovers looked up and dashed away as I passed it. I sat and wriggled my toes in the cool grass. A few birds called to each other across the trees. The air smelled clean, full of wildflowers and soil. I breathed the scenery in through my nose and blew out a sigh. Within the decade, there would be more of us who could gain the sun, and I would be the mother of some of them.
After sitting there long enough, I stood and started back towards the house. A whisper of a voice caught my attention, one of Artem Vetrov’s symbionts on the phone. He stood on the porch at the guest house next door, and it sounded as though he had just awakened but was trying to stay hushed.
“You woke me for this?” Silence. “No, I’m not trivializing your worries, but what can I do?…I can’t tell him to ask for another day here. That’s not how this works—no, listen, everything—stop. Everything is fine. Someone’s just trying to scare you, and it’s working. Have a drink. Go back to sleep. We’ll be home before sunrise…Right. I love you. Bye.” He came around the corner, spotted me between the houses, and gasped. “Wow…I’m sorry…So it’s true.”
I smiled. “I didn’t mean to scare you…Is everything all right?”
“My wife just doesn’t like me being too far away. Thank you.” I nodded as he returned inside. I took the stairs to my porch and sat on the rocking bench to watch the clouds.
Later that evening, the Vetrovs’ jet crashed.