A Council of the Goddess was a shorter, much more involved meeting than a Council of Judgment. It was called when an Ina or a group of Ina engaged in activities which were a detriment to the entire race. There hadn’t even been one for centuries. No Ina alive had attended one, so time was being taken to review how to conduct it, agree to remove antiquated rituals and tasks, and then more time would be needed for the appropriate families to gather: all families containing an elder Ina—at least 3 centuries old—those who called the Council, and those who were being accused. We would meet in a neutral location, and one large enough to house so many Ina and their symbionts. The family who agreed to host the Council was the Davescu family, a quiet family with a lot of land on the northern coast of New Brunswick. Poppa called them once the Council of the Goddess was confirmed.
I rarely thought of our religion, but Momma and Stacia used to read to my siblings and me from the Book of the Goddess when we were younger. It said that the Mother Goddess gave us the Earth, where we were to live until we were wise enough to return to Paradise. I feared we weren’t anywhere near close to exodus if it were true. We couldn’t go one hundred years without another conflict of this magnitude. My parents believed that the feud between the Vetrovs and Sullivans was bleeding out into other families as well. If that was correct, we needed to get to the bottom of who had killed the Bassanos, the three Vetrovs, and their symbionts. I hoped the Sullivans had nothing to do with the Vetrovs’ deaths. The judgment would surely mean killing the fathers and sending their sons away to be adopted into other families. I couldn’t be sure that I would be allowed to mate with Ciaran and Aidan if that happened, even if I had promised myself to them.
One night as we waited, I received a text message as I lay with Heidi. Whoever it was sent me an address in Central Philadelphia. I knew the area. There were only clubs and restaurants there. The Sullivans owned a chain of night clubs and pubs across the United Kingdom, a few restaurants on North America’s eastern coast. Aidan owned the American clubs, and Ciaran managed the finances. They were probably in town to oversee one of the clubs.
Sneaking away while my mothers and sisters were awake was the hardest part of getting there. I kept close to the woods and ran to the outskirts of the community before I called for a taxi. Philadelphia wasn’t far, so I could hopefully come and go without anyone noticing.
The club was new, still without a name but bustling with people waiting to get in. The crimson lighting illumined the sidewalk and the people. The music inside was just loud enough to hurt, and I winced. A tall, thick black bouncer stood outside the door, and he stared at the line of humans with a threatening eye. When he saw me, however, he opened the door and handed me two earplugs. I pressed them into my ears and walked inside. The scent of bodies and alcohol floated all through the air. Pheromones wafted, and sweat lingered like fog. I pushed through as I looked around. The walls were black, decorated with red velvet curtains and lamps with red shades. Paintings were mounted on each wall, almost pornographic: an orgy of sleeping bodies on one, a tall, pearl-white man with red-violet hair fondling a tanner, voluptuous woman on another. More paintings featured the man either having sex with someone or entangled somehow with one or more partners. The one over the bar portrayed him biting the neck of a young man, and I realized these were portraits of Aidan.
“Ruby,” I heard Ciaran’s voice, muted through my earplugs.
He stood at the base of stairs hidden behind the bar. I continued through the dancing crowd and took his hand when he held it out. The higher we moved up the stairs, the quieter the music became. By the time we reached the enclosed loft, I could pull away the earplugs. The loft was designed as a bedroom as dark as the club below it. Another painting hung over the bed: Ciaran frowning in the center with Aidan hanging over his shoulder, his arm outstretched as though he were painting that very portrait at the time.
“How do you stand all of that?” I asked.
“I don’t,” he said, almost shortly. He rocked on his toes for a moment before he paced in a small circle. “Aidan loves the noise and scents, the availability of blood.”
That made sense to me, but I pushed it aside. “What’s wrong?” Ciaran clenched his jaw as he stopped pacing. “Is it the Council?”
“They did it.”
“My fathers, they…” He turned his eyes to me. I knew what he was trying to say, but still my heart sank.
“Yes…He sat there acting so concerned, and he knew…Fuck, he was a part of the whole thing!” Ciaran took two quick steps towards the far wall and punched a hole into it. “They had been fighting for a few years, but murder? The other families are going to find out, and they will have no way out of this.” Ciaran came to me just as quickly and cupped my face. His eyes were wide and desperate. “Bind me to you.” I wanted to respond, but my mouth hung open with no words prepared. “They won’t be able to send me to another family if we’ve mated.”
“What about Aidan?”
“When he gets here, take each other’s blood. We can’t lose you.”
The trouble he was ready to get us into was only an afterthought in my head. We worried about the same things, and with the truth suddenly between us, the possibility of losing Ciaran and Aidan became real. I wasn’t going to risk losing them, no matter the consequences. When I nodded, Ciaran engaged me in the kiss I longed for since I first saw him. It was desperate and hungry and resonated through my skin as our tongues fought to hold onto each other. Ciaran only broke away to bury his face into my neck. Never having been bitten myself, I shuddered when his teeth broke through my skin. The pain was quick but followed by a wave of pleasure I should have expected. I knew how good our symbionts felt whenever we drank from them. Ciaran lifted me and ran his tongue slowly over the bite as it bled, licking surges of gratification into my veins. He walked across the loft to the bed and laid me down, kissing my lips again. I tilted his head to bite into the tender flesh beneath his chin. His body trembled against mine, and he moaned.
Ina blood tasted differently than human blood. It was smoother, lacked the metallic tang. I drank Ciaran’s with a painful need for more of him. We peeled away each other’s clothes, nipped and kissed other parts of our bodies so that blood seeped through tiny incisions all over us. His blood and saliva worked through me as I imagined alcohol did through humans, warming my body and causing my head to swim. The drunken pleasure on Ciaran’s face aroused me even more as he entered me. Our hips met with fervor and precision each time, the heat between us so strong that my body stung with the sweat rolling into my cuts. We made love until we were both spent, pressed together panting and caressing each other lazily. After catching our breaths, Ciaran started to lift away, but I pulled him back down to keep him inside me for a little longer. He relaxed, nuzzled my chin with his nose, and licked at a bite on my cheek. I ran my fingers through his hair as I closed my eyes.
I didn’t know how long I slept, but I awoke to hands pulling me away from Ciaran’s arms. The movement didn’t stir him, sleeping as though dead to the world. I turned and met Aidan’s shining, sleepy eyes.
“We must hurry, little mate. The sun will be up in an hour.”
He placed me on my feet with a wan smile, and I slid back into my clothes. As I fastened my jeans, I stepped closer to Aidan, and he leaned down to accept my kiss. He tasted very similar to Ciaran but mixed with the bitter copper flavors of a human he grazed from that night. A satisfied hum rolled up his throat before he took me into his arms to lift me higher. I ran my hand through his hair as he bit into my neck. The rolling sensation of pleasure through my veins made my eyes close involuntarily. Aidan ran a hand under my shirt, then down along my backside, squeezing it as he lapped up my blood. When he finished, I pulled his hair to one side. He sucked in a breath when I bit deeply into his neck.
“Fu…” He staggered but found his footing. “I can’t wait to have you.” I stroked the back of his head in appreciation as I drank. Then, I gave his neck one last open kiss before he slid me down his body. He looked sick and elated, trying to swallow as he smiled. “Go. Now.”
The sun chased me over the hills back down to my community. At the hour I returned, I asked the taxi driver to take me to the guardian house where Clint and Dale worked. They asked me where I had been, when I had left, but Dale took me back to my house when I asked instead of answering their questions. My mother-Shori, Wright, Joel, and Jay awaited me when we went inside.
“Where have you been?” Momma demanded as she neared me. When she stopped four feet away, I knew she could smell them.
“Philadelphia,” I answered.
Her face was blank, but her eyes were beginning to boil with anger. “With who?” Her voice was just as seething.
“Ruby, what did you do?”
“I had to do it, Mom—” She came at me faster than I could shield myself and slapped me. As I fell under the impact, Wright hurried to Momma and pulled her back.
“You had to do nothing!” she cried.
“The hell’s going on?” Dale asked after helping me back to my feet. When he handed me a handkerchief, I realized my nose was bleeding and pressed the cloth to it.
“She bound herself to the Sullivans’ sons.” All eyes were suddenly on me. Joel and Jay both looked at me as though they were disappointed. Momma didn’t fight Wright’s grasp, but she took hard, fast breaths. “We have been thrown into the middle of a feud, and you do something this stupid? That will only turn more families against us?” The anger briefly lowered, and a fear flashed in her eyes. She closed them and lowered her head. “Go upstairs. Now.”
I didn’t hesitate to run up my stairs as she spoke to Dale. “Put someone at her door, and bar her windows.”
“She is not to go anywhere until we leave for the Council.”
I walked into my bedroom, closed the door, and leaned back against it. The pain in my face would dissipate within minutes, but Momma had never struck me before. I had never seen her so upset. My body shook as I sighed, and more blood trickled down my lip. I wiped it away and walked into my bathroom to shower.