Someone was watching our community. When Gabe and Max left us, that someone gave the word to send in the Bassano symbionts, so that it would look like the Vetrovs were the ones who attacked us. That was what we concluded when we gathered again. Who would do this was our next question. Despite the Three Centuries Law, we suspected the Silks, as well as the Dahlmans, and those who had voted against Momma when she was a child: the Moriarius, the Andreis, the Svobodas, and the Nicolaus. Everyone would be asked their whereabouts on the nights in question, but extra attention would obviously be paid to these families who, if they hadn’t sworn that Momma was so impaired she couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth, had clung to loyalties rather than facts.
The Davescus and their symbionts situated their ballroom into a formation great enough for such a large event. They placed thirteen long tables into a large arc-shape on the back wall in front of the platform where bands must have played on special occasions. Each table held three short microphones. A standalone stood in the space before the tables, and speakers hung on the walls at even intervals. Cards with each family name were placed every few seats away from each other. As the accusing parties, a card marked Matthews-Gordon sat in the center. On the far left was a card for the Vetrovs; the Sullivans on the far right. Between the three points were the cards for the thirty-seven elders who would oversee the Council. From the entrance way up to about twenty feet in front of the tables were rows and columns of chairs situated for everyone who would witness the first Council of the Goddess in over two thousand years.
Strict instructions regarding the time for each family to arrive had been given to us, as to not have any opposing sides bump into each other. We were the first to be seated, accompanied by Jakob Davescu, who would host and moderate. The neutral families were the next to arrive, those with no close ties or relation to either family. Then, those with close relations arrived, such as the Ahkmatovas, mates of the Vetrovs; and my elderfathers and second elderfathers. One elder from each family sat around the arc to participate as members of this Council.
April and Dale approached me in the time we had before the proceedings began. April rubbed my back and shoulders. I closed my eyes, relaxing into the pressure. “You might feel weak by the first break. We’ll try to bring you blood before then.”
I nodded. Through the ten hours we had to wait for the last families to arrive, I slept again, took a full meal from April when I awoke, slept, and was given raw meat when I awoke again, over and over in that manner. At this rate, I would need those new symbionts before the week passed.
Jakob, from his spot beside us, called for the Council to begin. April and Dale gave me a kiss and sat in the audience. “Welcome, friends, families, symbionts, and deputies. This is the first Council of the Goddess in many, many centuries.” He sounded too enthused by that, given the circumstances. “I ask that Elizabeth Ahkmatova, as our oldest member, please give the blessing over these proceedings.”
Elizabeth had been a good friend of my deceased eldermothers. Before she stood, she gave Momma a loving smile. Her six-foot frame gave her aged body an exaggerated illusion of frailty, but her voice was strong and as poetic as it was grave.
“Let us always remember that above all, we are Ina: an ancient, honorable people with over ten thousand years of recorded history. We are proud and powerful. Let us remain aware of our duties to our families, to our kind, and to all that makes us who we are. Let us continue to treat our symbionts, our human friends, with love, kindness, and the respect they so deserve. May we remember that they are not pawns which we take for granted but people, like us, who live and breathe and feel. Let us stay true, loving, and generous to our mates with whom we bond for life to continue our Ina bloodlines. Tonight and tomorrow, may the proceedings of this, the first and hopefully last Council of the Goddess of our time be carried on with honor, justice, and truth. Let us honor and remember our Goddess, remember what she wants of us. Let us come to the truth of why we are here so that we can throw away all that does not honor her forever, for if we continue to desecrate what makes us unique, what makes us Ina, we can never return to Paradise. May we do our best to live in unity again, and may this Council serve to protect that. Let us begin.”
Elizabeth sat down gracefully and placed her hands before her on the table. Momma’s face could have glistened with tears, the way she contained her smile and sighed. Jakob stood and thanked Elizabeth, welcomed everyone again, and then introduced the Council members around us. There were many families I knew—some who had been my earlier suitors—and many I didn’t.  I had never seen so many Ina, so many people who were like me but at the same time didn’t resemble me. The elders beside me all towered over me, even the women. Their pale skin revealed blue-green veins in places, and aside from the dark-haired Sullivans, they all had light blonde hair. I felt like a robin in a field of cranes.
Momma placed a hand on my knee, and I turned to meet her warm eyes.
I wasn’t alone.
“Daniel, as the one who called this Council, please explain to us what happened,” Jakob said.
Poppa stood with his microphone. “As everyone is aware, the Matthews-Gordon families were gathered to welcome the final groups of male families who were to meet our daughter Ruby, as she is of age to mate. We were only in the first week of these visits. The Bassanos were the first family. They came to us and left us safely. The Vetrovs were the second family. Two occurrences happened during their visit. The first, Ruby informed us Dmitriy Vetrov had warned her that the Sullivans were of Dahlman blood.”  There was no need to explain, as all of the families were notified those years ago of Katherine Dahlman’s fate following the Council of Judgment. Glances were given to Sophia Dahlman, her sister, but she remained composed and nodded for Poppa to continue. “Of course, this is common knowledge, so we thought it a desperate attempt to eliminate the competition. The second, one of the Vetrovs’ symbionts’ wives called and told them not to come home that night. We learned of this after their plane crashed. We called for our guardians to be alert and continued on, as the Sullivans were already en route to our community.”
One of the Vetrov fathers clenched his hands together. I knew he wanted to say something. I still wish I had prodded that symbiont, but then again, because the Vetrovs and Sullivans were feuding, perhaps there was no good solution. We wouldn’t have risked them being in the same vicinity had we known.
“After an unexpected fraternization between Ruby and one of the Sullivans’ sons—” My father-Daniel’s voice took a brief parental tone of annoyance as he said that, but I didn’t change my expression despite the glances at me from around the table. “—Kean thought it best that he and his sons leave early. As they were leaving, symbionts of the Bassanos, Goddess carry them, attacked their car and Ruby’s home. We suspect some killed three of our guardians. We apprehended one who killed our driver and one who was fleeing the community. Another shot Shori before stabbing Ruby multiple times. Shori killed him.” I wished I could wipe away the memory of that pain. A bullet was an awful, fiery pain, small at first then resonating around the wound. A knife, as painful leaving the body as it was entering, surpassed that bullet. “As she recovered, we learned from the other symbionts that they had been taken. They couldn’t remember who it was, though they had to have seen them kill their bonded before sending them to us.”
“You are certain the Bassanos had no part in this?” Jakob asked.
Poppa turned and handed me the microphone, so I stood to explain. “The symbiont who attacked me looked as though it hurt him to do it. Whenever he tried to fight it, his nose bled, and he kept saying, ‘It’s not us. They killed them.’” The silence that came after I spoke was heavy with understanding. It was the act of one or more Ina. I sat so Poppa could finish.
“The day we initiated this Council, I received a call from Shori’s symbiont Joel. They learned two of the guardians we had hired belonged to children of Isaac Torbert, sym Vanya Vetrov. Also, Nicolai Vetrov called to accuse us of siding with the Sullivans in their feud. At the time we were unaware of this feud. Nicolai did confirm the identities of the Torbert children but informed us they were planted as spies, knowing the Sullivans were one of the families Ruby would be meeting. The Vetrovs have accepted our word, and we have accepted theirs. The Gordons and Matthews families have chosen to remain neutral in the feud, but many questions remain unanswered, such as why they are feuding, and whether either family had anything to do with the death of the Bassano family.”
“We have already told you we had no part in that,” Vanya Vetrov said. “Perhaps you should ask the Sullivans, since they’ve already succeeded in killing one of our sons and our youngersons.”
“You have been threatening and attacking our family for months,” Antaine Sullivan spoke up. “My sons acted irrationally, but did you honestly expect them to stay quiet?”
“I suppose we shouldn’t have expected more from an Ina who raised his sons as bastards.”
“Vanya, that was quite uncalled for,” Jakob said calmly.
“They are still our sons,” Michola Rosricu, one of Antaine’s mothers said calmly from her place on the council.
Antaine was the oldest living Sullivan. His fathers and brothers were killed by the British in the Battle of Culloden. He fathered Kean and his brothers, Ailin and Evan, and had been revered by many families for doing so. He spent time with other male families, though he would not join one and refused the assistance of many to help raise his sons once they turned 60, which other families—apparently the Vetrovs included—also considered disrespectful.
“You may pretend innocence, Vanya.” Antaine said “Vanya” as though it were a curse word. “But you and your family torched my fathers’ property hoping that I and my sons were there.” All eyes turned to Nicolai and Vanya, whose faces spoke of exposure beneath their angry visages. “If you thought for a second I wouldn’t mention that, you are sorely stupid.”
Jakob looked down at the table the way a parent would, dealing with his children who couldn’t stop coaxing each other into fights. Nicolai and Vanya yelled across the arc at Antaine as the other families piped in their voices in attempt to cool the men down. It was a sharp, grating sound to my ears, as I’m sure it was to the other Ina who weren’t involved. The Vetrov and Sullivan sons glared at each other with burning hatred. The emotions around me pierced my temples: the hostility, conviction, the apprehension of the symbionts sitting and watching their bonded reduce themselves to such disorder, and the need of my parents and the host to have order restored. Their voices and elevating scents constricted my lungs. I pressed my hands flat against the table as I began to hear the blood rushing through everyone’s veins, their hearts crashing against their chests. My throat and mouth dried out. I couldn’t swallow. I closed my eyes and tried to will the commotion from my head.
“Daniel,” Momma spoke with urgency.
Then, I only heard my own heart pounding.
When I opened my eyes, Poppa stared up at me. He was kneeling at my side, pressing one hand to my ribs and pushing me back against my seat with the other. Momma had a firm hold of my right arm with both hands. I was trembling. My skin felt too heavy for my bones. All was silent. Poppa cupped my face. “Ruby, speak.”
I kept my eyes on Poppa but felt everyone looking at us. “Why is it so quiet?”
“You fainted, my jewel.”
“Here.” Olivar Davescu stood on the other side of our table with a covered Styrofoam cup and a straw. I tasted the blood before it even hit my tongue and drank with a desperate thirst. “How long have you known of the pregnancy?”
I felt Ciaran’s eyes on me then and looked up to see him in the audience standing beside Aidan, as many people had stood from their seats to stare at me with worried eyes. His wide-eyed expression relaxed, and his lips curved into a soft smile.
“Hardly a day,” Poppa answered for me. “Forgive us. We thought she had fed enough before the Council began.”
“She’s still growing,” Margaret Braithwaite said. “She will need more blood than normal until her growth spurts stop.”
Jakob glanced at everyone around the arc. “Let us straighten out the matter before us so we can move on. This child has been through enough as it is.”
Everyone standing sat again. Poppa watched me carefully, but I nodded to him. I felt better, was no longer shaking. I supposed the Davescus had a reserve near, to bring me blood so quickly. I finished it and gave Olivar a gracious smile as he handed the cup off to a maid waiting to dispose of it. Momma rubbed my neck as Jakob asked Vanya, then Antaine to explain their sides of the story. From what they both said, it began with a territory dispute between the Rosricus and the Vetrovs. Antaine had intervened to support his mothers and sisters. Sore feelings towards him made the Vetrovs not so polite in the matter of backing down. That was when the fighting between the sons began. A gathering which was meant to be peaceful became violent. Then, one of Pascha Vetrov’s transitioning symbionts visited Ailin’s pub in Cabra, Dublin, where Evan seduced her. As a result, Pascha kidnapped one of the Sullivans’ daughters, Leticia Guion, from their vineyards in Côte de Nuits. The Guions sat on the far side of the room in the audience. Aidan looked like them, and I was correct in guessing the women in their family had the dark blue eyes, ethereal beneath their white-gold hair. Leticia was the youngest, five years younger than me, so her fathers went to save her with weapons both modern and medieval. Limbs were lost; bullet wounds and lacerations had to be sewn shut for both families, but mostly for the Vetrovs. Evan Sullivan had died once. Artem had actually just recovered when he brought his sons to meet me, during which time his fathers and brother burned down Antaine’s fathers’ estate. As a result, Ailin and Evan had the Vetrovs’ plane tampered with on their way home from meeting me.
Based on their scents and mannerisms, everyone around the arc agreed that both parties spoke truthfully. Jakob stood with his microphone. “We have heard both sides of this feud. Members of the Council, I ask that you take all words to heart as you decide for yourselves how to judge the matter at hand. We will now have a one-hour recess, and when we return, we will try to piece together who it is who has attacked the Matthews community so that they may be judged accordingly.”
Dale and April came to our table as everyone dispersed, and April hugged me. “I saw you falling over and had no idea what to do.”
“You didn’t even realize you were passing out, did you?” Dale asked, and I shook my head.
“There was so much happening. I felt like everyone was inside of me.” Thinking of it exhausted me. “I just wanted it all to stop.”
“Go sleep, Ruby,” my mother-Stacia said to me. “There’s time. You need your rest.”
“I’ll go eat something,” Dale offered as April took my hand and pulled me towards the doors.
Aidan and Ciaran approached from their seats, but their fathers came to stop them. Ailin and Evan were the younger of the three but stood slightly taller than Kean. Evan had stripes of gray in his short, black hair from the death he encountered during the battle with the Vetrovs. He looked at his sons with eyes as pale and severe as Kean’s.
“Return to your rooms.”
“You do not get to tell us where to go anymore,” Aidan said through nearly clenched teeth, his eyes simmering with anger.
The glare Kean shot him could have left a mark had it been his hand. “We are your fathers. It is still our right.”
Before Aidan could say anything else, I took his arm in both my hands, dropped one to link my fingers with his. He squeezed them to calm himself and looked away from his fathers. I looked into the eyes of Kean, Ailin, and Evan in turn. They needed to at least appear united in front of the other families. “Will you let them escort us back to my room?”
Ailin glanced at our hands intertwined and tried to hold back a smile. “We will not refuse the mother of our youngersons.”
I nodded. “Thank you.” Ciaran held out his arm to April, and she smiled politely before looping her arm around his. We walked from the ballroom and down the corridor towards the main stairway. “Will you ever reconcile with them?”
“We will have to,” Aidan answered, his voice still short, “but not tonight.”
“I thought you said Ciaran was the rebellious one,” I said with a smile. Ciaran scoffed.
We arrived at my room, and April went inside to wait for me. Aidan kissed my neck and stroked my cheek before he walked away towards their assigned wing. Ciaran looked down at me with a warm smile and laid his hand against my belly. I covered his hand with mine as he bent down to kiss me. My body was sensitive to his touch, and I kissed him harder to intensify the pleasure his lips sent through my skin. Had we been home, I would have taken him right in the corridor, but I pushed him back gently. He understood and brushed my cheek with his thumb.
“Go rest.”

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