“I don’t understand what you’re saying.” Because following Macha’s train of thought was akin to tracing the journey of a raindrop in a bowl of water.
“Tzader’s a man with needs,” Macha told her as if Brina needed to hear that. “You think he’s been celibate all this time?”
Brina forced her hands to remain still and not cover her ears against words that gouged her heart. Had Tzader taken another woman in the past four years? The night she’d given her virginity to him he’d sworn his love for all time.
Their fathers had died before Tzader had been given a chance to ask for her hand in marriage.
Brina shook her head. “I don’t believe you.”
“Me? I never accused him of anything. I’m only infusing logic into this discussion. So you would force Tzader to go on for years with no one to love if you can’t have him. You think love is so selfish?”
Put that way, Brina flinched at the possibility that she was being unfair to him, but … she knew the truth in her heart. “Tzader would never walk away from me.”
“No, he won’t as long as you continue to encourage him. He’s a man of honor. Where is your honor? Don’t you care about his happiness?”
“Of course I do.”
“But not enough to free him to choose another?” Macha shot back at her.
“I—” Brina swallowed, trying not to choke on the words honor forced to her tongue. “I would do anything for him … even set him free if that was what he wanted.”
“Then prove it by allowing him the chance to decide without the guilt of hurting you. You’re the one who brought up the issue of an heir. Were your motives pure and in the best interest of the Beladors, or only for yourself?”
Who would have thought that immortals got headaches? Brina did, and the one coming on felt as though it might lay waste to her brain.
She lifted her fingers to her temples and rubbed. Of course she wanted to ensure the future of the Beladors, but give up Tzader? Her stomach ached as if two brute hands twisted the muscles. Was Macha right? Would Tzader move on with his life if he thought that was my wish? Could I speak the words over the shouting of my heart—the words that would free him to choose?
Guilt splashed her anger with cold reality.
Her da and brothers had died defending the Belador legacy and future. Could she not be as selfless with less whining?
She’d accepted her responsibility many years ago.
But she’d always thought the children she bore would have Tzader’s brown eyes and heartbreaking smile.
Not to be ignored, Macha interrupted Brina’s thoughts with soft words of advice. “We face a growing crisis with these Alterants and leave the future of our tribe in jeopardy with each day you delay producing an heir. I am not without compassion for your situation and have a proposal.”
Brina listened with a guarded ear, but she would make any concession for the possibility of having Tzader. “I’m listening.”
“Convince Tzader you are no longer interested in waiting for him. Give him a chance to decide his future without any burden of guilt. If, once he truly believes marriage to you is no longer an option, I am convinced he still persists in wanting you, I would be inclined to reconsider my position on this matter and entertain possible solutions.”
“Really?” Brina hesitated to believe Macha’s words so easily. The goddess wouldn’t blatantly lie to her, but she could turn words into a thousand different shapes and meanings.
“Do you question me?” The goddess stilled.
The fire beneath Macha blazed and grew in fullness.
“No, Goddess,” Brina quickly amended. “I was merely surprised … and overwhelmed.” Could she break up with Tzader and stand quietly by if he walked away and never came back to her? “But why can’t you simply ask him the truth?”
“Because he would cut his arm off before he’d hurt you.”
Brina enjoyed a thrill at Macha’s having to admit just how much Brina meant to Tzader.
Macha added, “And I believe he would relinquish immortality without a second thought to be with you.”
“Then what is the problem?”
“If he has suffered a life-threatening wound from Noirre majik while immortal, the majik may still linger in his body. If so, and I remove his immortality, he may suffer the aftereffects of that wound, possibly even die immediately.”
Brina couldn’t speak. Breathing hurt.
Tzader had fought countless battles against the Medb and been wounded more than once in the past four years. He’d almost died when the Medb had trapped him, Quinn and Evalle in Utah. A Medb warlock had stabbed Tzader with a spear tipped with the only substance that could kill him.
The thought of Tzader risking death just to be with her sickened Brina.
“But,” Macha continued, “let’s say he survives becoming mortal. Then he has to give up being the North American Maistir to live here, which sounds like a nonstop honeymoon, but eventually a warrior needs to battle because that is who he is.”
Macha sent her a pointed look and continued in lecture mode. “If he manages to get through all of that, Tzader would then face turning old and dying while you age in tiny fractions of the same time, still looking young and beautiful when he has one foot in the grave.”
Brina had considered many possibilities, but in the back of her mind she’d always thought they’d end up immortal together. “You paint a sad existence for us.”
“I only wish to know for sure that what you two have is more than a passing infatuation before I irrevocably change Tzader’s life. And if he did give up his immortality, it would be permanent. Can you in good conscience ask him to make that choice never knowing whether he could be happy without you?”
Brina fought a trembling chin and watched her dreams crumble beneath Macha’s onslaught of reality. She clamped her jaw and stiffened her resolve to find a way to make this work.
First, Tzader deserved to have a choice.
But now that Brina had said she was ready to have a child, Macha would not let that pass. There was no going back. Brina told the goddess, “I accept your proposal. I could never ask Tzader to make a life-altering decision without allowing him the opportunity to choose without limitations. I will set him free.”
Macha’s lips curled pleasantly and the fire around the grate settled down.
For the first time in three years, Brina smiled in earnest. When Tzader had first found out he couldn’t pass the warding and she couldn’t leave Treoir, he’d told her nothing would stop them from being together.
She believed in the depth of his love and in their ability to find a way to make this work, but right now Brina hoped she could depend upon Tzader to forgive her later on for the pain she would cause them both by accepting Macha’s offer.
Macha moved faster than a thought, one minute atop the mantel and the next standing in front of Brina. Pearls sparkled across her breast and twittered in delight all the way down to where the gown swished around her bare feet. “As part of this agreement, you will end this relationship today.”
“Because he is on his way to see you.”
Now? The goddess had dropped an impossible choice in her lap only moments ago and now expected her to be prepared to face Tzader this minute?
“Are you already reconsidering your agreement, Brina?”
Brina knew better than to break a deal with Macha. “Of course not.”
“Good. In the interest of producing an heir within a year’s time, you have two moon cycles to choose a suitable husband.”
Huh? “Sixty days?”
“Dragging this out will make it more difficult for both of you.”
Macha vanished before Brina could say another word. How could the goddess expect her to select a husband when she’d had no chance to mourn losing her soul mate?
If she lost Tzader.
Macha’s voice ghosted through the room. “Once Tzader leaves today and believes you are no longer interested in him, he has the same time to convince me he will have no other than you even if it means remaining alone. If you give him any hint of our discussion, this deal is off, and if you fail to end this today, don’t bring his name up to me again.”
Brina glanced around, anticipating Tzader but not ready to face him yet. Her heart thudded, anxious at the possibility of winning him and frightened she’d never see him again.
Brina, I need to talk to you, Tzader said telepathically in her mind.
Her heart burst with a sudden rush of happiness at being alone with him for the first time in so long.
Not truly alone, since Macha had just made it clear she intended to observe the meeting.
Brina closed her eyes, searching for the strength to do this. Could she push Tzader away and risk losing him forever?
Brina? he persisted.
She believed in him. Believed in them.
Much as Brina hated to agree with the goddess, Macha had a point in that Tzader deserved a chance to make a decision that wasn’t based on a teenage vow. If he still came back to her, then Macha had to uphold her end and consider a solution to their problem.
But Brina would not leave everything up to fate.
A warrior always had a plan.
Tzader couldn’t enter Brina’s realm without an invitation and had to leave if she rescinded it.
She answered, You are welcome to enter, Tzader Burke.
And there he was … in hologram form. Still, Tzader’s presence overpowered the vast room, intimidating and protective all at the same time.
Black-brown eyes sharp with intelligence and a warrior’s keen gaze peered from a face so rich a shade of brown that his skin rivaled varnished mahogany. She missed running her fingers over his smooth bald head. He wore his usual black jeans and a gray short-sleeved T-shirt over muscular arms that hung loose at his sides with barely contained power. His fingertips dangled near the sentient blades hooked in his belt, but none of that could touch her when he was hologram.
His worry touched her, though.
For any hope of succeeding at Macha’s challenge, Brina couldn’t let Tzader know how much she missed him. She sucked her emotions in deep where Tzader wouldn’t discern them with those gorgeous eyes that took in everything.
Thankfully, neither he nor Macha could lift her thoughts.
She couldn’t read his either. Not since he’d become immortal as well.
Brina turned her back on him, stepping over to warm her hands by the fire. “What brings you here today?”
His confusion whipped around her, brushing her skin. She managed not to flinch when he said, “Aren’t you glad to see me?”
To empty her voice of any emotion, she drew on the frustration she felt each time Macha visited her. “Depends on if you’re bringing me a new problem or not.”
The hairs on her neck rippled at his silence.
Had she angered him? She kept her head turned away, afraid to see hurt in his eyes instead of anger.
When he spoke again, he asked, “What happened to Evalle?”
She allowed the flicker of jealousy over Evalle’s bond with Tzader to aid her, even though she knew Tzader’s interest in Evalle was no more intimate than Quinn’s. Brina drew herself up and turned slowly, determined to rip the bandage quickly and get this done one time and limit the pain.
She met his eyes with a passive gaze born of years practicing in front of Macha. “I can’t share any details of the Tribunal meeting with you, and Evalle is not your problem. I don’t wish to hear her name brought up again unless it’s to explain why Alterants are overrunning the human world.”
Her heart broke as all happiness to see her fled his face.
Stunned speechless, Tzader searched for the meaning behind Brina’s caustic attitude.
She acted as if this visit imposed upon her time. Why wasn’t she thrilled to see him when they hadn’t been alone like this in … months? He could only enter her castle in holographic form, but he was here, dammit, and had busted his back end to free up this much time.
And what had gotten under her skin about Evalle? Returning to his point, he argued, “Evalle is my problem. Where is she?”
When Brina spoke, her words tumbled out as flat and lifeless as the expression on her face. “As the North American Maistir, you have higher priorities than one Alterant, especially with close to a hundred more beasts having shifted, as of the last count I received.”
Tzader started to snap back at her but stopped. Brina had a temper, too. He wouldn’t find out what was going on with her by putting her on the defensive. “I have teams out investigating the humans that are shifting into beasts. I know my position and duties, neither of which is more stressful than yours. What’s wrong? Talk to me, muirnin.”
Her gorgeous green eyes quivered at his endearment. There was his girl, the woman he loved beyond all reason.
The brief emotion vanished from her gaze just before her face shuttered again. She pulled her shoulders back in the rigid stance she normally took to address her warriors. “Since you know your job, you shouldn’t waste your time—or mine—unless you have something more important to discuss.”