I only ever saw her in dreams.
If she told me her name, I never remembered it later. The dreams were so real. She smelled like night-blooming jasmine and vanilla, and her black hair was thick, heavy silk that hung down to her waist. Her eyes were a dark, endless blue like a midnight sky. And her power…
I had never felt a queen like her before, waking or asleep. In her presence, I forgot to breathe.
She had to be real. Even if I couldn’t remember her name.
“I am real,” she assured me, drifting through my sleepy mind like a ghostly haze. “However, I’ll be leaving this life soon. My years are numbered.”
My heart shattered. She was my mentor and friend, as sad as that might be, considering that I didn’t even know who she was. We had talked endlessly through many nights. She had taught me so many things that helped me better understand my power, especially how to grow that power to protect my family.
House Zaniyah was small compared to the other Aima clans. We were secluded, exactly as we liked it. The powerful Triune houses couldn’t care less about our small Mexican nest, even though I was one of the few queens to be born in the past two hundred years. My mysterious friend had admitted that my birth was why she had sought me out. Young queens were few and far between, and even at my age, I was considered young. The only other queen younger than me had been the New York City queen’s daughter.
Even here in Mexico, the rumors had still reached us from Keisha Skye’s court, including the news of her daughter’s death. Making me the last living queen born in recent centuries.
I don’t know how much help I’d actually been to my dream friend. I had no idea who my father was, and my mother had died at my birth. If Grandmama knew, she had refused to tell me.
“Why are you dying?” I asked.
“A plan I set in motion before you were born comes to fruition soon. I will invest all my power and love into this spell, so that my daughter may live free, untouched by the political games so rampant in our courts.”
My throat ached. Was that why my mother had died? To have me?
I wanted a daughter more than anything to carry on our Zaniyah power, but if I had to die… I had so much to do yet. I couldn’t leave an infant daughter unprotected.
Like Mama had left me.
“My goddess calls me to make this sacrifice, and I do so gladly. I’ve lived many lifetimes already. Citla Zaniyah proved that a queen can be born, even if you don’t know how you came to be. Your goddess has other plans for your house, and I don’t believe your sacrifice will be required, unless you will it so.”
“But how can I have a child when I never breed?”
Ironically, Aima queens fed on blood, but over the millennia, we’d lost the ability to menstruate. We had so few queens left, which meant fewer strongholds where Aima could live under a queen’s protection. Only a queen could breed another queen, but we couldn’t have children at all. Let alone ensure the continuation of our long lineages with a daughter.
“Your mother accomplished much to have you, and she rejuvenated your family’s bloodline in you, but my guess is you’ll need a god’s power to conceive.”
“Who’s my father?” I whispered. “A god?”
She sighed softly, swirling around me, her hair a black silken cloud. “I believe so. An ancient god of great power. But how or who she might have found, only you can discover.”
Mama never had Blood of her own, protectors sworn to guard her as their queen. She’d never even formally been the Zaniyah queen. After a horrific attack when she was a young woman, Mama had barely spoken for days and weeks at a time. She’d only rarely gone anywhere outside our nest. She’d been too afraid.
Yet somehow, she’d not only managed to conceive, but to also deliver a healthy baby girl blessed with our goddess’s power. While powerful queens like my friend had tried every spell known to Aima courts and still failed to conceive a daughter.
“Prepare your nest first.” She wrapped her arms around me, flooding me with her sweet scent. I could feel her strength in her arms and the heat of her body. Yet I had no idea who she was. “Call as many Blood as you can. Make your nest as secure as possible.”
I clutched her, blinking back tears. “It’s too late. Keisha Skye has already cursed my nest. No queen will come to our aid. Do I dare have a child, when I can’t ally myself with any queen other than her?”
She pulled back and looked into my eyes, her beautiful face hardening. Her eyes glittered like shards of obsidian. “Whatever you do, do not allow your nest to fall to House Skye. Keisha is tampering with dark magic to gain an heir. She’ll want to claim your house so she can study your bloodline and try to duplicate whatever your mother did to conceive you. You must stay free and out of Skye’s control.”
“I’m stronger, thanks to your teachings, but nowhere near strong enough to stand against the queen of New York City.”
“You won’t have to stand against her alone.”
She gave me another hug, her smile transforming from fierce to secretive. “You will have assistance when you need it.”
“I will? But who? If you’re gone…”
She kissed my cheek and backed away, fading like a ghost, or a figment of my imagination. “My daughter will come when you need her most. She will stand against even the Triune for those she loves.”
* * *
I opened my eyes and touched my cheek. I could still feel the petal-soft touch of her lips on my skin and smell her scent of jasmine and vanilla. But her name…
Squeezing my eyes shut, I concentrated fiercely. Who are you? What is your name? Who is your daughter? When will she come?
Wind swirled through the open windows, carrying the tinkling of chimes. A nightingale sang from the avocado tree that grew by the kitchens. I thought I heard soft laughter mixed in with the chimes, but it might have only been my imagination.
“My queen?” My alpha, Eztli, whispered beside me. “Are you well?”
His big palm was warm and soothing on my shoulder. I rolled to him and he pulled me tightly against his chest, his heartbeat loud and steady beneath my cheek. “I’m fine. It was just a dream.”
“The unknown queen again?”
I nodded, rubbing my mouth against his skin. “I wish I knew who she was.”
He’d been the first Blood I’d called, and for many years, my only protector. Since Mama never had Blood, I’d never tried to call my own. I didn’t think I was strong enough. But the woman in my dreams said he was out there, desperately waiting for me to call him.
She’d been right. As soon as I knew what to look for, I felt him miles to the south, prowling the jungle in his jaguar form. He was everything I’d ever wanted: strong, loyal, kind, steadfast, and a large part of my heart that I’d never known was missing. He easily stepped into the role of my alpha Blood, helping to protect the nest and my family, though I was always his primary concern.
I couldn’t imagine life without him. Yet in over a hundred years of wonderful sex, he’d never been able to give me a child. I’d never even had my period, the first sign of a breeding queen. My alpha would give me the moon and stars if he could. To know that I wanted a daughter, and he couldn’t provide one…
It broke my heart to feel his guilt. To know that he felt like such a failure, when I loved him so very much.
“What did she say this time?”
I didn’t want to tell him. I didn’t want to make him feel worse. “I need to find out who my father was.”
“Surely Tocih knows.”
I shook my head, turning it into a caress, my lips sliding over his skin. “I asked Grandmama many times as a child, and she said she never knew. I gave up asking, because in the end, it didn’t matter to me.”
His fingers combed through my hair, a slow stroke that didn’t tangle or pull my hair once. Goddess, he was so tender. So gentle. Why couldn’t he be the one to give me the heir we needed? “Yet it matters now, after the dream.”
I curled tighter against him, trying to shield him from the truth. “She said I ought to know.”
Silent a few minutes, he continued to stroke my hair. His chest rumbled beneath my face, a low purr rolling from his throat. His scent filled my nose, stirring my hunger. Sleek, powerful jaguar, the mighty jungle hunter, silently gliding through the deepest jungles in search of prey. I could smell his fur and the lush greenery of the jungle, as if he’d crept through ferns and branches to reach me.
My hunger was more than just a need for blood, though yes, as an Aima queen, I needed his blood to enhance my power. I yearned for the jungle. A thousand scents on the air, from rich loam to sweet fruits. The air heavy with dampness, heat, and the scent of frantic growth. Everything was either trying to grow taller to find the sun above the canopy—or adjusting to life below the trees in near darkness.
An apt metaphor for my life. I wanted more power, yes. I needed more power, or I wouldn’t be able to hold my nest against the Keisha Skyes of the world. I wouldn’t be able to keep my Blood. Yet if I blindly rushed to the top of the canopy in search of the sun…
I would miss this. The quiet comfort of my alpha’s arms around me.
“Why is your father important?” Eztli whispered.
I closed my eyes, even though he couldn’t see my face. I wouldn’t lie to him. Ever. And not telling him…
It was the same as a lie. Even if the truth would hurt him.
“She thinks my father was a god.”
My alpha was many things, including extremely clever, for a man, at least.
He huffed out a breath of amusement, picking up my thought in our bond. “That’s how your mother was able to conceive you.”
I remained silent, letting him put the pieces together in his own time. I felt the exact moment he realized why it was important to me. A heavy weight sagged in our bond, as if all of Tenochtitlan had been built on top of his heart. Tears pooled in my eyes, but I didn’t cry. I wouldn’t hurt him even more by crying. He hated my tears.
His fingers never ceased stroking my hair. “Which god will you claim to sire your heir, my queen?”