Just as he said, they left soon after sunset. I watched their car ride off from the porch, only allowed to say goodbye to Kean. I was unsure whether he had spoken to my parents, they had heard us the night before, or I hadn’t washed away Ciaran’s scent as well as I thought, and it could have been all of those things. I did know Momma was angry with me when she told me I was to stay in my house when they left, and I returned to my room sorrowful. I sat at my desk on the south-facing wall and rested my chin in my hand before I noticed a folded paper beneath the lamp. I plucked it out and unfolded Aidan’s moist scent into my space. His handwriting was delicate, making the straight and curving letters of Ina look like feathers painted onto the white paper.
My dear Ruby,
I write this having just scented you all over my baby brother, and I am almost angry that I hadn’t thought to sneak over to you myself. Ciaran did always have trouble listening to our fathers, however, so of course he would rebel first. I do hope he has not ruined this for us, because I intend to ravage you and give you beautiful red-haired boys. I must go now. Your scent is making everything quite hard at the moment. I have stolen Ciaran’s clothes. He will not want them back when I am through with them.
We will meet again, little mate.
I was laughing by the end of the letter, and I held it to my chest when I finished. I missed them already.
“I’m glad you find this funny,” Momma said in my doorway. I turned to her with a sigh. “Do you know how close you came to insulting the other families?”
“I didn’t ask for him to come over, Momma.”
“You didn’t turn him away, either.”
“I didn’t know what to do. I told him he had to leave. Do you want me to apologize for him not leaving quickly enough?”
Anger flashed in my mother-Shori’s eyes. “I want you to apologize, period, but I don’t think you’re even truly sorry.”
“I can’t apologize for how I felt. We were pulled to each other.”
Momma sighed. “Your hormones are controlling you. We should have waited and trained you better.”
I wanted to disagree, but I remembered my father-Daniel telling me to be patient with her, so I grit my teeth and turned back to my desk. Besides, she was right. “Maybe you should have,” I admitted.
After a moment, she came to me and wrapped her arms around my shoulders. “I’d give anything to remember right now…I wish I understood you, Ruby.”
I took one of her hands and kissed it, then held it to me. “So do I.”
“Shori!” My father-Philip’s voice came up to us from outside. “Come quick!”
I looked to the window as Momma approached it and peered out. “What is it?”
“A call from Clint. The Sullivans’ car crashed!”
Momma ran from the room. I followed, but there was a quiet “tchiu,” and Momma cried out. I flinched from the spray of blood that hit me. When I opened my eyes, a trembling young man dropped the gun in his hand. His tan face was wet with tears and a bloody nose. His sand-colored hair was matted with dirt and sweat. He was one of the Bassanos’ symbionts, the one who liked Camille. Momma writhed in pain on the floor, and I grew hot with anger. I rushed him and grabbed his throat, but a sharp pain ran through my stomach.
“It’s not us,” he whimpered, but he twisted his hand. The knife shredding my stomach took my breath and words away. “It’s not us. They killed them!”
His face twisted, and more blood dribbled from his nose, but he pulled the knife out and stabbed again. The blade split through my sternum and the edge of my heart. Each racing beat ran my heart against the blade, and my sight faded out. The floor came up to catch us both.
“They killed them. It’s not me,” he cried before he pulled the blade out and shoved it back in. It was the worse pain I had ever felt, and he did it again, hitting my stomach once more.
I felt my mother-Shori struggle to her feet and leap towards us. Then, the symbiont bent backwards, and I heard the familiar squish of teeth ripping through flesh. I was wet with the blood gushing from my wounds. My legs grew warm with his urine and probably some of my own as Momma continued to chew on him. I gasped and drowned on the blood rising up my throat. The last thing I heard was Momma falling against the wall and calling for help.
When I awoke, my stomach cramped with hunger. The world around me was a bright, thick whiteness. I smelled warm, living flesh everywhere and wanted nothing more than to feed. I tried to move, but metal dug into my wrists and kept them up by my ears. I tried to draw my knees up and couldn’t, the same metal pressing against my ankles. I jerked my arms, trying to get free. My breath quickened. I needed blood.
Something smelling of sweet, molten copper drew near. I instantly felt the need to attack, but when I tried to draw myself into a pouncing stance, the metal strained my limbs, and I remained where I lay. I screamed and raged, threw myself back down and bucked my hips as I kicked. My skin yearned for food, and it was right in front of me, out of my reach. I continued to thrash until my legs would no longer move and the muscles in my body throbbed. Then, I lay still wailing and choking in anguish. Arms quickly cradled me—they were my mother-Shori’s. She shushed me, but I continued to moan with each exhale as I calmed down.
I came to recognize the softness of my own bed and pillows, the scents of everyone else there: Poppa, Wright, my mother-Stacia, and Dr. Corbray, one of her symbionts. He specialized in major Ina injuries. There was a cloth tied around my eyes, and I didn’t know why. I tried to mutter that I was hungry, but even the muscles of my jaw were sore.
“Here,” Momma said before the smell of animal blood filled my nostrils. “Don’t speak.”
She pushed a small chunk of meat past my lips, and the smoky taste called to me. I chewed the one piece as much as I could and swallowed when I felt the next piece against my lips. Momma continued to feed me, ignoring when I accidentally bit her fingertips. Flashes of memory hit me. Once before now, Dr. Corbray had said, “Wait her out. She’ll tire soon enough.” Momma had fed me already, maybe once or twice. When a sharp, nauseating cramp hit me, I remembered that, too, and Momma once saying, “Calm down. Close your eyes.” It wasn’t until I retched that I recalled why. Some of what I had swallowed rose back up my throat, and Poppa’s hands yanked me onto my side before I threw up into a container quickly held before me. I had never thrown up before, and knowing what we ate, I must have panicked when I first saw my own vomit, which explained the blindfold. When my stomach settled, I leaned back into Momma’s arms. She wiped my lips and chin with a wet cloth.
“There’s still some scar tissue,” Dr. Corbray said, “but she finally kept some food down. That’s good. Let’s give her another day.”
“Sleep, Ruby.” Poppa’s voice soothed me. “It’s all right now. You’re safe.”
Wright was beside Momma, and I felt him try to pull her away. “No,” she said and jerked closer to me, her voice hard with pain. “I’ll stay with her.”
There was a sudden absence of everyone in the room but the two of us. For a full minute, Momma was silent. Her body was tense, shaking. Then, her breath became ragged. I wanted to console her, but I was too weak and still cuffed to my bed. I wished we could cry like humans. There was more of a release for them when tears poured from their eyes. When the tears stopped, they were done. But when was our grief over? Momma moaned softly and rocked me as she tried to steady her breathing. Her voice sent me back to sleep.
It was evening when I awoke again. The room smelled of raw goat. I sat up and found my hands free, so I pulled away the blindfold. My eyes fell on the plate of meat, and I snatched it up, chewed it more than I usually would. When my stomach didn’t hurt, I knew I had healed completely.
“She’s awake now,” Poppa’s voice said. He sat at my desk watching me with a warm smile. I could hear Nicky and Andrew on the other end of the phone. “I will. Goodbye.” He hung up and came to my side. “Welcome back, my jewel. Your brothers said hello.”
“How long was I asleep?” I asked him as he kissed my forehead.
“Eight days in total. You awoke three times: the first in frenzy, the second near torpor, and the third in frenzy again. Dr. Corbray transfused your mother-Shori’s blood into you—you almost bled to death.” He stroked my cheek and seemed to hesitate before he spoke again. “We tried to contact the Bassanos.”
“It wasn’t them,” I said as I remembered the symbiont’s words.
He sighed. “They’re all dead. It seems someone sent their symbionts here to attack us.”
I remembered what had drawn Momma and me towards the hallway where we were attacked. “The Sullivans…”
Poppa nodded. “They’re okay. They crashed into a tree after one of the symbionts shot at the car. The driver died instantly, but the Sullivans only suffered dislocations and scrapes. They made it back to London safely.” He anticipated my next question, as it struck me that I was to have met three other families this week. “We postponed the meetings. We need to investigate…It had to be an Ina.”
The venom in our saliva allowed us to control humans, almost an innate order they had to follow. It hurt them to resist. The Bassano symbiont was in obvious pain with the struggle of Ina wills flowing through him, his bonded’s against that of whoever had killed everyone he knew and loved before biting him. It was against Ina law to bite the symbiont of another Ina, and another thing entirely to kill.
“If you feel strong enough, Heidi and April need you.”
I nodded as Poppa left my room. I stood with ease and walked down the hall to Heidi’s room. She had been away the week before and scheduled to return a few days ago. Her pale skin, hair and eyes, and tall, slender body reminded me of an Ina. If she didn’t have her own human scent, she could have been easily mistaken for one. She slept uncomfortably, her skin cold and clammy and her pulse abnormal. I took as much of her blood as I could to steady her blood pressure. She stirred and turned as she opened her eyes.
“You’re okay,” she sighed and kissed me.
“I didn’t mean to scare everyone.”
What color she had returned to her face. “How do you feel?”
“I’m just glad I healed in time. You all don’t deserve this.”
“No, and neither do you.” She kissed me again and stroked my lips with her thumb. “I heard you got into a little trouble with a Sullivan,” she said with an amused smile.
I told her I would be back to tell her what happened with Ciaran and then left her to visit April, Dale’s wife. She had been visiting her sisters for the last time. She was in her early forties, but she still appeared to be in her late twenties. Her family was becoming suspicious. I fed from her and talked with her as we waited for Dale to return from his shift. When I left them, I found Camille in the hall outside of my room.
“I don’t know if I can stay here,” she said quietly, her cheeks wet with tears. Her body shivered in the little ball she had pulled herself into. I walked over to her and sat down. “All that blood…the hallway was covered in it…”
“I can assure you this is not how our lives are,” I told her as I wiped her face. “This has never happened for as long as I have lived…But you still have time to leave if you want. My fathers will find you a nice job or university.”
Camille shook her head. “I couldn’t let them do that.”
“It would be a gift.”
“…Who am I kidding. I’m not leaving…I’m just scared.” I wrapped an arm around her. She wiped her face and leaned her head on my shoulder. “You looked so sick when I saw you. You couldn’t even turn your head without it just falling over.”
“I was near torpor. That won’t happen again.” I couldn’t be sure, but I had to tell her something.
“Shori killed Robby.” I presumed Robby was the boy who attacked us. “He seemed so nice…How could he do something like that to you?”
“He couldn’t control himself. He was bitten by a hostile Ina.”
“What if they come here and try that?”
“They won’t. We have our guardians…” I trailed off as a thought hit me.
“That didn’t stop the symbionts who came in here,” Camille unknowingly agreed with it.
My heart pounded. Were some of the outer guardians in league with those who attacked us? Or had they been killed? We would get no warning if they had been before they could send one. I would have to check with my parents.
“Why don’t you try to rest, okay?” I wiped the fresh tears from Camille’s face and then walked with her back to her room. She climbed into bed, and I sat with her until she fell into a comfortable sleep.
“We found three dead the night you were attacked,” my mother-Stacia told me. Her face was calm, but her voice was worried. The central guardian house had been infiltrated. “The other two are missing. There was no sign of a struggle or a break-in, but neither has answered his phone.”
“Do we know if they even showed up that day?” I asked.
“Their ID cards were checked in, and the cameras captured them going inside…but they were disabled after the other three guards clocked in.”
I sat and mulled over the scenarios in my head, unable to answer positively when I asked myself if someone would kill three of the guardians and kidnap the other two. What would have made them more valuable? The attackers wouldn’t have let them escape, but the alternative sat poorly with me.
“Is there a possibility that the missing were involved in the attack?”
“Philip is running their background checks again. I don’t understand how we could have missed anything, but we need to be certain…We caught the symbiont who shot at the Sullivans and another trying to flee the community, but they were still very new. When they tried to describe who attacked the Bassanos, they couldn’t hold an image in their mind, not a voice or a name.”
Robby had been in his early twenties, probably a newer symbiont as well, though not as new as the one Stacia described. I couldn’t get Robby’s words from my head, or the anguish on his face. “It was calculated.”
Stacia nodded. “It was someone who knew the Bassano youngersons had taken in new symbionts, so they would be more vulnerable to another Ina’s venom. We’ve looked into their female family and other families close to them. Approaching them with suspicion may not be wise, but we may not have a choice, either.”
After we spoke, I went outside to work off my frustrations. High intensity lamps brightened the streets, and the soft beep of dormant alarm systems bounced around the air. I entered the woods behind our community. They served as good fighting grounds whenever I trained. I never imagined I would need to actually use any of my skills. I chopped away at the trees with my arms and legs, punched away bark and kicked at moss. I fought as many as I could until my knuckles bled, and then I used them as hiding places against imaginary men, so I could keep fighting something. Decades of security had made me complacent. I couldn’t tell if I were mad at myself or mad at the people responsible for so many sudden deaths. All I knew was someone would pay for them.
“Ruby, come inside please.”
I sighed. I wasn’t tired yet, and I wanted to ignore Momma’s voice, but I returned to the community and entered her house. She met me at the backdoor and took me into the kitchen.
“You shouldn’t get yourself so worked up,” she said as she wet a dish towel and came to me to wipe away the blood caking my fingers.
“I have to do something. Who knows how long it will take for my fathers to investigate this? And what will they do when they find the murderers? Call a Council of Judgment?”
“What would you have them do?”
“I want heads.”
“Ruby…” Momma sighed and pushed me down into a chair. She sat before me and wiped one of my legs, skinned and ashy from the tree bark. “It’s easy to say you want blood for blood. It’s even easier to do it, but we have laws to keep us from taking matters into our own hands. Stepping away from the laws causes feuding, and there haven’t been feuds for a few centuries now. We’re trying to keep it that way.”
“Tell that to the bastards going around killing innocent families. Artem, Sasha, Dmitriy, some of their symbionts are going to die no matter what other Vetrovs try to bond to them. The Bassanos are all gone. They shot you, Momma. They sent humans after us…”
“I know, child. I know.” Had she not had such a firm hold on my leg as she cleaned it, I would have been pacing the floor. My body trembled, and I breathed hard through my nose. “You have every right to be angry. I am, too, but we can’t afford to dwell on our feelings. They can make us as strong as they can make us blind, and we should stay focused.”
My anger had sent me lunging for that symbiont, and I didn’t see his knife until he was pulling it out of me. Remembering the push and pull of the blade inside of me made me wince.
Momma stroked my cheek. “I didn’t want you to live in this kind of world…We’ll have justice. I swear it.”