The next closest galaxy to Blossom Field held several planets though only three sustained life of any sort. One, known as Aria, held the black poppy as its Core flower, and the other, Celia, held the forget-me-not. Neither world had Defenders—there had never been need—but both had Rulers. Aria tended to keep to itself for the most part, but Celia loved to have alliances and had been happily making friends with planets all across the universe. Perhaps fittingly for a world that loved to make friends and gave generously of its assets, the Flower Element of Celia was Nature. They had prodded at Aria as well, and succeeded; testament to the stubbornness of the Ruler Cultivator lineage of Celia.
Now that even the slightest hint of war had evaporated from between Delphinium and Protea, Celia wanted to contact both worlds to more formally ally with the galaxy as a whole. They had tentatively reached out to both Statice and Iris who sat closest to the edge of the galaxy, but both queens had directed them to look to the High Queens.
The kingdom of Celia had three children. The eldest and heir was a fully Activated Ruler Cultivator within his own right thanks to being firstborn. He had a younger sister and brother alike, and both had Deactivated Seeds. At twenty-six, Matthew could have inherited the throne if he had been inclined, but he felt no hurry. He also felt no hurry to give serious attention to his suitor list, much to the mutual frustration of his parents and suitors alike.
His companion-at-arms and pseudo-bodyguard also happened to be his best friend. Quint Haven came from a noble family of his own, and he had volunteered to keep an eye on Matthew simply because it meant they could spend more time together. They acted almost as brothers, really, and sometimes even Matthew's parents would forget that they weren't! Some jokingly called Quint "Prince Quint" and he took it with good humor. He had an upbeat and cheerful manner from a clearly Light personal core that contrasted his serious friend's Dark one.
All that lived had a Light or Dark core inside their soul. It was the deepest foundation of their personality and mannerisms, and while some people could sometimes show aspects of both, no one ever actually had both. The presence of Light or Dark deep inside all living beings was what made Protea and Delphinium's roles so very important—and made another valid reason for Matthew's parents to tell him to get in a ship and make his way out there. He went willingly enough, but he dragged Quint along.
The Blossom Field galaxy, for obvious reasons, had border patrols along their galactic edges. Matthew's small ship had to stop at Statice to not only refuel but also get papers giving him safe passage. When he returned to the ship after obtaining them, Quint lifted a blond brow over pale pink eyes. "You look somewhere between confused and wary."
"An accurate summation." Both emotions mingled in Matthew's violet eyes. His eyes and hair alike reflected the violet hues of the Core flower that had birthed his Seed, but his eyes held a red tint while his hair had a blue. "I met with Queen Claret Statice. I would swear she had been internally laughing at my telling her our intent to make alliance."
"She doesn't think we'll get it?" Quint held the door to the ship open for Matthew and then followed him inside and sealed the door behind them.
"She says she's very confident in a powerful alliance forming. That is why I'm befuddled. She seems to know something I don't." He sat down in the pilot's seat and fastened in before starting up the systems.
"Isn't Statice the only world in existence to hold Memory as its element? That may have something to do with it. Rumor says they tend to be pretty sensitive to events as a whole, almost borderline the gift of Sight."
Matthew didn't think there was anything borderline about Claret Statice's potential Sight. He had heard rumor that the Statice Defender Cultivator was Librarian to the Hall of Records, and that meant the Defender had to have Sight to do her job properly. It seemed unlikely that the Ruler Cultivator would not have it herself. "Well, here's hoping that whatever she did or did not see will not make our job more difficult. I'll hold hopes on her being right about the alliance being easy."
Quint snorted softly as he took control of the ship to navigate out of the spaceport. "You mean unlike Aria?"
"The fact that it took until my grandmother's generation to get that sealed says it all." He leaned back and linked his hands behind his head. He usually let Quint pilot; the other male had far more talent at such a thing. "Can't say as I'm sorry to be getting off the planet for a bit, though."
His companion laughed outright at him. "Is someone feeling a wee bit of pressure to find his soul mate?"
"I should marry you just to make them shut up!"
"I'd be willing to help in that way, if it weren't for the fact that no one would believe us to be anything more than friends, and the expectation of you having to have an heir means your mate ought to have the right equipment to bear you a child."
"I have siblings that could have an Activated heir if I should mate to someone not birth-capable," Matthew reminded him dryly. "And I was mostly joking. I pity anyone you finally marry. They'll have their hands full keeping you in line!"
Quint grinned. "Which is why I do a good job of protecting your rear if there's trouble. Still say they shouldn't be paying me for that. I have so little to do. You're pretty damned skilled within your own right, Matt."
"Eh, makes the kingdom feel more secure where I'm concerned. I endure because I know they love me. Makes the fuss over a suitor more tolerable, too. They want me to be happy."
Though the specifics of laws could vary among galaxies, some things remained constant where Cultivators were concerned, just to keep things tidy. A Ruler Cultivator would receive a suitor list at age twenty that any eligible folks could vie to be on. Then, at twenty-five, the Ruler would have to actually look at the list and start the search for a soul mate. Some didn't even get to looking at their list by being lucky enough to find their soul mate early. Very few made it past age twenty-six without being successful. Defenders also tended to find their soul mates around the time they became adults, though exceptions existed there as well. Destiny provided for her Cultivators.
Matthew and Quint alike had recently turned twenty-six. Quint, not being royal, did not have to bother with a suitor list though he had had plenty of offers. Matthew had gone over his list already, and no one on it had stood out in any fashion to him. Most soul mates sparked desire right from the first meeting. Others simply sparked an intense friendship that developed into more. Either way, something happened instantly, especially after age twenty-five.
Twenty-five was not merely the age where someone became an adult; it was also the age where someone could truly, deeply, recognize a lover soul mate and feel the full force and fury of their emotions. You could recognize a lover soul mate sooner, and feel desire for them as early as age twenty-one, but you never knew the true depths of a feeling into your soul until full maturity. Matthew had felt nothing so far, of any fashion for any person.
"Thinking about Rulers and laws and marriages and the like," Quint said, "didn't I hear that the High Queens we're going to meet are the only Ruler Cultivators in their galaxy not yet to find their soul mates?"
"You did indeed. The information I collected says that all Rulers took their thrones at twenty-three or twenty-four after a horrific battle against evil that took their parents and the Elder Defender Cultivators alike, and over the last year plus, all queens have married their soul mates except for the High Queens. In fact, the next generation boom has already begun. I understand Carnation Kingdom just celebrated the birth of a daughter. Veronica, I believe."
"Royal Era Year 2, bringing to you the Blossom Field baby boom of the latest generation." The words were slightly dry since most everyone knew that it inevitably fell where all members of a generation were born in the same year.
"Considering I believe that Aster, Hyacinth, Orchid, Gladiolus, and Iris are all expecting as well, indeed." Matthew had to grin. "At least that makes it easy to plan the celebrations of the birth of new heirs. They just have to pass the decorations from kingdom to kingdom!" He stretched and watched out the viewscreen as they passed beyond the orbit of Hyacinth and Aster and approached Protea and Delphinium. The two larger worlds seemed to nearly glow within space as if to radiate the power of their Cores. He didn't think he was imagining it; any Core that could hold two elements would surely have to glow from its importance.
He actually looked forward to this mission. He had heard some amazing things about High Queen Genevieve Protea and wanted to meet her to see if they were true. He felt a bit as if he might meet a kindred spirit; rumor said her suitor list might rival his own. Poor thing.
His reverie broke as the ship lurched a bit violently and only his seat's fastenings kept him from taking a nosedive into the console. "Quint! What are you doing? Don't brake so hard!"
"That was not braking." The muscles of Quint's arms had bunched as he fought for control of the ship. "That was a meteor hitting us. We're losing propulsion rapidly."
Matthew hastily began typing commands on the console and the litany of abuse that came back from the system made him wince. "Communication systems completely down. Propulsion is definitely lost, and we're about ten minutes from being completely dead in space."
"Or just dead!" Quint said something vicious under his breath. "Apparently we have meteor magnets on the ship! Others are coming right at us. Screw it!" He gave up on control and unfastened his belt. He freed Matthew as well and hauled his friend along out of the cockpit. Though Matthew was not small at six-foot in height with a lean frame, Quint stood fractionally taller and had a broader build. "We're heading to the escape pods. Crash-landing isn't exactly the most polite of hellos, but I doubt they'd prefer calling home to say Cindy is going to be the next Ruler instead of you!"
Matthew did not argue. The escape pods were personal devices, so each male got into one and strapped in. The pods ejected out into the relative safety of space and their smaller stature allowed them to quickly navigate past the strange onslaught of meteors. The ship did not fare so well; another few blows cracked it open entirely. Matthew tried to navigate his pod toward Quint's, but he had gotten too close to Protea without realizing. The planet's exceptional pull on space—one of the ways it helped keep the planets behind in line—meant that small objects floating around would get sucked in, and Matthew lost control of the pod as the planet towed him into the atmosphere.
He hit the communication system. "Quint! I'm going to be making an unscheduled landing on Protea."
"I'll let you know how mine on Delphinium goes," came the dry answer.
If Matthew had ever envied anything about his almost-brother, it was Quint's ability to always have a cheerful spirit even in the middle of danger. "You ever get the feeling Destiny herself might be setting you up?"
"Every day of my life, friend. Every last day."
* * * * *
"Hey," a woman said softly, and gently. "Can you hear me?"
"Umph," was the best Matthew could manage. It felt as though his entire body had been slammed face first into a wall. He did not remember crashing, though, so perhaps he had gotten lucky and passed out on impact. Some traumas he just did not need to remember.
"That would be a ‘yes,’" another woman’s voice put in dryly. "I told you, Gen. He’s just fine. He’s just going to be feeling that crash for a few weeks. Or years," she added with an audible wince. "I've had my share of crashes."
Matthew gingerly opened his eyes and briefly squinted at the bright sunlight. His eyes finally adjusted, and he found himself staring at one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. Concern had turned her rich pink eyes to the color of a protea blossom in full bloom, and he knew he would never forget her face. Dazzled by her, the best he could manage was, "Hi."
"Hi to you too!" She grinned, and dimples flashed in her cheeks. "Welcome to Protea. And watch out for that first step, it’s a doozy."
"You really need a sign." He very carefully tried to sit up but couldn’t quite manage alone. He would have fallen back again if hands hadn't braced him to help keep him upright. He glanced back to see who had aided him and found a blue-haired woman in a mask and armor. The colors of her armor as well as her eyes and hair bespoke of Hyacinth origin, and the mask belied her position. Her sleeves hid her Flower Mark, but he did not need to see it to know her identity. "You're a Defender?"
"Hyacinth Defender, indeed," Krysta confirmed. "You made quite a ruckus in your landing, friend. I wasn't about to bring Genevieve here unless I came in armor to protect her." Her eyes swept over him and his distinctly flower-inspired suit. "You look like a Ruler Cultivator, so," she removed her Mask and her armor disappeared to leave her in a more casual uniform, "I'll trust you."
He squinted one eye closed on a sigh as the name and situation clicked belatedly. "If you're a Defender, then . . ."
She grinned. "Turn and introduce yourself to High Queen Genevieve Protea."
He turned again and found Genevieve grinning as well. Looking at her again, he could not mistake her identity. Not just her hair and eye color spoke to her Cultivator magic, but also the gown she wore. It looked very much like the protea blossom that effused her world's Core and had given it its name. "I promise that I intended a far better first introduction."
"Oh, I've seen worse, trust me." Genevieve looked her unexpected guest over more closely and found his Ruler suit reminded her of a forget-me-not; he could only be from Celia. No surprise; she and Hannah alike had expected the friendly planet to come knocking eventually. She just had not expected the Crown Prince to be quite so devastating to her senses.
He definitely went to the top of the list as one of the most attractive men she had met, and she put her hands behind her back before she gave in to the urge to brush his hair out of his eyes. Unexpected yet recognizable feelings began to surge inside her body and soul with violent force. Desire. Love. Breathless, she could only stare at him. The premonition that had led her to needing to find the pod had not warned her that her destiny might lay inside.
The silence stretched. Krysta slowly lifted a brow as she realized the silent sparks looked very familiar. She had seen before, and personally felt, what could happen when soul mates of the romantic quality met for the first time. At the point where Destiny, Love, and Life came together, a cataclysmic force could be unleashed as souls began to interlock in something far more intimate than making love alone. She cleared her throat and watched both jump as if they had forgotten her presence. "Introduction?" she asked Matthew again, this time with heavy dryness.
"Crown Prince Matthew Celia, of the planet Celia from within the Tarmol Galaxy. And, yes, as that implies, I am a Ruler Cultivator. My Flower Element is of Nature, and my Core's flower is the forget-me-not." He picked at the grass in his hair and clothes with a rueful smile. "I was sent as a delegate to Blossom Field with my best friend, but our ship was hit by meteors and we had to escape in the pods. I saw him getting towed toward Delphinium. He hopefully landed there somewhere."
Krysta winced and pulled a small version of her Mask off the bracelet she wore. It glowed and she said, "Gladiolus." After a pause, the Mask turned green. "Mandy, keep an eye out for an undignified entrance from a dignitary. A ship got smashed, and one of the two inside landed here. The other supposedly headed Delphinium way."
"I was wondering what that sound was," Amanda muttered in response. "I'll grab Hannah and check."
Genevieve smiled at Matthew as Krysta put away the communications mask. "There we go! They should find him very quickly." She got gracefully to her feet and brushed out the petals of her long skirt. "Really, this does work out. We would have sent one or both of you there anyway to see how both kingdoms operate. Is he authorized?"
"Well, after a fashion. He's technically my companion-at-arms, but he's such a part of my family that even my parents forget he's not part of the bloodline. He's of noble blood within his own right, though." Matthew shook his head in bemusement. "So, yes, he's authorized to act as a delegate as well, as far as I'm concerned."
She hesitated and then said, "We can trade the two of you, if you like." The words nearly got stuck on their way out, and that confused her deeply. He couldn't be her soul mate! No Ruler Cultivator of Blossom Field had ever found a soul mate outside the galaxy, not even all the way back to the daughters of the original generation!
Matthew gingerly gained his feet as he said, "I think I'll stay here a while." He turned in a slow circle to look at where he had landed, and he found a beautiful grassy plain for as far as his eyes could see. In the distance to the east, he could see the line of a majestic castle and knew that had to be the capitol. He studied every line of the land and sky and felt entranced. Celia had a different sun than Protea did, so their worlds looked vastly different for that reason alone, but it seemed as though something more about Protea made it different. Made it seem to feel more lush and overwhelming with life. Perhaps the Core of Dark had something to do with it; Dark types were known for being protectors. "It’s beautiful," he said in a soft voice. "Amazing. Rumors don’t do it justice."
"I know." Genevieve followed his gaze and then tilted her head back to look up at the sky. She smiled softly. "It might be just because I’m a Daughter of Protea, but I think I love this world more than anyone else does. I hope you’ll love it too," she added as she turned to smile at him. "I want everyone to feel the love I do."
He looked down at her. Her taller height meant she came up past his shoulder, which he much enjoyed. She felt both young and yet mature, evidence of an early adulthood forced on her by terrible events. He wanted nothing more than to ease her burdens. The powerful emotions churning inside him were the ones he had been waiting all of his life to find. He couldn't stop himself from tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear and then tracing the line of her cheek. "I think I will," he said softly, huskily.
She had a feeling he was no longer talking about the planet, and she couldn't find a single word to say. "Uhm."
His fingers slid down to cover her hand. "Are you accepting more suitors?"
Breathless, she stared up at him. "I can't get rid of any of them, so what's one more?" The smile that flashed across his face only made it harder to catch her thoughts. She was in so much trouble.
"I would like to be added to the list." He brought her fingers to his lips. "Please."
Suitors very rarely asked permission of the one they wanted to court; it was normally asked of her mother. Yet, Genevieve was an adult whose mother had passed. Most had assumed that meant they didn't need to ask at all, and they just had to show up and state their intentions. Matthew's respect for her only made him dig his way into her heart in the way he had already dug into her soul and body. Truly, if it hadn't been for what marriage meant to her kingdom, she would have accepted him then and there and happily booked a honeymoon trip. Fear for the future made her hesitate though she knew her chance at eternal happiness stood before her. "I'll think about it," she said softly.
"That's all I ask," he said simply.
Krysta barely refrained from whistling merrily. She gave them two days before thinking was forgotten about entirely. The explosion would be spectacular.
* * * * *
"Well," a woman’s dry voice said somewhere above Quint's head, "if we’re going to have strangers crash land on Delphinium, at least they have the decency to be really gorgeous."
"Gladiolus, really!" It was a scolding from another woman, but there was a trace of amusement in her gentle voice. The gentleness seemed ingrained, almost as if it came from the very center of who she was, and yet there also existed a youthful edge to the tone that made her sound very impish as well.
Quint was instantly intrigued, and he cautiously opened one eye. He promptly closed it again on a curse as a light shined merrily right in his eyes and seared his battered head. "Blast and damn, let me die in the dark, will you?"
"Okay, I really like him," the woman called Gladiolus said on a snort. "Hannah, you need to keep him. If you don't, he goes home with me. Harriet will love him!"
"Amanda!" The rebuke sounded both exasperated and embarrassed. "Will you stop embarrassing me in front of our guest? And move that light while you're at it."
The light moved, and Quint carefully opened his eyes again. This time his eyes focused, and he found himself staring into the lovely face of a woman who literally took his breath away. She looked soft and wonderful and magical. Her coloring echoed the flowers of the world where he had landed, and he very badly wanted to get his hands into her fluffy white hair and see if it felt like the flowers it emulated.
Crash landing had not been the first impression he wanted to make on the High Queen of Delphinium, but he felt no desire to knock the circumstances. His head rested comfortably on her lap and her perfume gently teased his nose. Too many emotions to name raced through his heart and soul, and his body ached to feel her soft curves pressed against him. Happily falling in love with his longed for soul mate—and recognizing that he was doing so—he smiled up at her. "Marry me."
Pink touched her cheeks as she tried to ignore her madly racing pulse and the ache inside her heart and soul telling her to grab him now and not let go. From the moment she had pulled him from the wreckage, she had just somehow known he was her destiny. Her soul mate. But, he couldn't be! A little desperate, she looked at Amanda. "Can brain damage affect someone like that?"
"He looks lucid enough to me." Amanda set down the lamp she carried and then pulled her Mask up to sit on her head. Her armor disappeared back to her casual uniform, and she shook her head a bit. "His eyes responded to the lamplight—and sorry about that, but we had to be sure. We'll grab Sandra later and have her examine him to make certain there are no internal damages we can't see. Sandra is our resident healer," she told Quint.
"My brain is just fine," Quint assured them both. "And I’m also serious." He tried to sit up, but even though his brain worked fine, the rest of his muscles were another story. He felt as though he had been beaten, wrung out, and then pulled backwards through a keyhole. He tried again to lever upright, and this time Hannah helped. He managed to stay seated and some of the aches went away as he got control over his muscles again. "Very serious," he told her pointedly.
"Mm-hmm." She ignored both proposals. She also ignored the rising urge to fidget and brush out her hair and dress. No clumsy attacks around delegates, damn it! That was her rule, and she would stick to it, no matter how often her own genetics tried to literally trip her up. "Welcome to Delphinium. I am High Queen Hannah Delphinium, and the other person is Amanda Rai, the Gladiolus Defender Cultivator as well as one of my personal bodyguards. It's an honor to meet you."
He nodded his head at Amanda without taking his eyes off Hannah. "Quint Haven. A nobleman from the planet Celia in Tarmol, and the companion-at-arms and sort of bodyguard but mostly best friend to Crown Prince Matthew Celia." He slowly smiled as he took Hannah's hand and brought it to his lips. Her blush only deepened and charmed him more. "Believe me, the pleasure is all mine. I don’t suppose Matt's shown up anywhere, has he?"
"He's on Protea," Amanda confirmed, and she did her level best to keep a smug smile hidden. She herself was a veteran of that first moment meeting a soul mate, and she was intimately familiar with the signs. It was about damn time Hannah found a good man to love. She had been ruling alone for long enough.
Hannah tugged at her hand unobtrusively, but Quint held tight without any effort. Recognizing she was up against a particularly stubborn type, she abandoned subtlety and looked him directly in the eye. "I'd like my hand back, please."
"Does it belong to anyone else?" he teased. "Say, perhaps, a suitor?"
"My suitors don't suit me."
"And it's such a pretty hand, too. Won't you give it to me instead?"
"I'm a bit attached to it. You'd have to take all of me with it." As she heard her words, she realized what she had said. Her eyes widened. "Wait!"
Too late. "Deal!" he said cheerfully, and he scooped her up into his arms as he stood. He grinned merrily at Amanda and asked, "Do you mind if I sneak to the front of the line and run away with her?"
"Put me down!" Hannah looked around quickly, but to her relief the only person near them was Amanda—who would be of no help because she had almost doubled from laughter. Hannah could only be glad none of her subjects were around. How would she explain this? "Put me down this minute!"
"Your wish is my command." He dropped her lightly onto her feet only to have to quickly catch her when she tripped on the edge of her Ruler gown's skirt. "Oops!" He grinned when she covered her face with her hands. "Dear goddess, you are adorable." There was no response, and his smile slowly faded. He gently pulled her hands away from her face and lifted her chin until she met his eyes. "Hey," he said softly. "I was teasing, Hannah. Everyone’s clumsy once in a while."
"I'm clumsy most of the time." She struggled to keep the tears back. Stupid Light core often made her emotional, leading her to cry at the silliest things. "Byproduct of being an Illusion element. We're squishy and not strong, and we usually trip over everything, including allies!"
"Tessa forgave you for that," Amanda murmured dryly.
Quint ignored her and reached out to tenderly wipe away the tears escaping Hannah's control. She looked up at him in surprise—she barely reached his shoulder—and she found herself caught by the shimmering promises in his beautiful eyes. His breath caught in turn, and he slowly leaned down to touch her lips with his. Nerves drowned in a searing wave of something heated, hungry, and achingly lonely for what only his heart and soul could give her. He truly was her destiny. Her lips trembled as she stared at him in dawning understanding. "Where have you been?" she whispered.
"It doesn't matter," he whispered back. His thumb caressed her cheek. "I'm here now."
Amanda smiled in satisfaction. "I get to make the bouquet for the wedding."
* * * * *
The words echoed down the hall, and Hannah winced wryly. "I said," she repeated patiently, "that I'm getting married."
"To whom?" Genevieve could only gape at her best friend. She had walked in and, with her normal cheer, dropped an unexpected fireball. "I thought you disliked your suitors!" Her brain finally clicked. "Wait, hang on. You're getting married, and you showed up with our missing delegate. Let me guess, you're marrying him?" She jerked a thumb toward where Quint patiently stood.
"You make me sound like a disease," he said drolly.
She aimed a finger at him. "I like you for that alone. Go talk to Matthew and get out of my drawing room. I want to talk to your fiancée."
"Yes'm." He winked at Hannah and amiably headed out into the gardens.
"Alright," Genevieve said once he had left, "he's gorgeous, smart, personable, and he'll make a damned good king. He also obviously thinks you walk on water, which is just better. But, really, Hanny? I thought I was the impulsive one!"
"You're Dark," Hannah countered simply. "You don't see as clearly as I do. And, well, you always let your mind win over your heart, Gen." She took her friend's hands tightly. "He's my soul mate. It scared me. It still scares me. But I knew him." A surprisingly shrewd light entered her eyes. "Not unlike how you knew that handsome prince wandering your gardens?"
Color rose on Genevieve's face. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh, yes you do!" She pushed Genevieve into a chair and sat down beside her. "I'm not that naïve. The moment you introduced Matthew, I could see the sparks between you. The way he looks at you says volumes." She lifted her brows. "And of course, the way you look at him. Has he said anything?"
"He asked to become a suitor," Genevieve reluctantly admitted.
"And you said?"
"I'd think about it."
She sighed gustily. "I have every confidence that Quint is giving Matthew the same lecture I'm about to give you."
"Lecture. Goddess save me, my conscience is giving me a lecture." Genevieve braced her shoulders. "Let's hear it."
"Why are you sitting here brooding when there’s a gorgeous and sweet man who is head over heels in love with you, thinking that you don’t know he’s even a man, pacing in the gardens with my fiancé?"
It took a few moments to untangle the mess of the statement, and Genevieve eyed Hannah warily. Normally her tirades went on much longer. "That's it?"
"It sums things up, doesn't it?"
"Fair enough." She sighed. "It's complicated."
"So tell me." Hannah reached out to cover Genevieve's hands. "Gen, I know there's something important you've tried to tell me. For over a decade, you have tried. Each time you dare approach the subject, something happens to stop you! Short of the ceiling collapsing on our heads, I'm not moving until I know what scares you!"
"The prophecy." Genevieve waited, but no cosmic force interrupted this time. She could finally tell her best friend what she had seen. "I saw the whole prophecy, Hanny. Everything lost to time." In a very soft voice she said, "Nemesis will be destroyed by the descendant of Shanta only when the kingdoms fall." When Hannah’s hands fell from hers, she didn’t move to take them again. "I had another premonition recently. The Apexes . . . they will be born within our lifetime. My daughter or granddaughter. One of them will be the one foretold."
"Let me see if I'm clear on this. You're thinking that it's better to not marry and therefore not have a daughter, hopefully stopping the process entirely." Hannah scowled. "Genevieve, you just said it yourself! If you saw a premonition, then it's going to happen! You know you can't stop your Sight! No one can. Why are you even trying? Why make yourself suffer more when you could be happy for what time is left? Besides, what would happen to Protea if you don't have a child anyway?"
Genevieve's head lifted quickly. "I didn't . . . that never crossed my mind."
"You think too much."
She winced. "Yes, I heard you the first time."
"Gen." Hannah took her hands again. "Cherish every minute. We can steal every selfish moment we need. Our happiness will give our daughters happiness. We know that. We saw what the opposite did to us. We can't regret anything." She squeezed her fingers for a moment. "Go find Matthew, accept his suit, and demand he marry you before the other suitors can protest."
After a thoughtful moment, Genevieve asked wistfully, "How much fun was it to tell them you were off the market?"
She grinned. "Far, far too much fun."
Matthew was partway through the massive gardens when Quint caught up with him. He felt absolutely no surprise with any of the events. Things happened symmetrically a lot of the time where they were concerned. The moment he had realized he was Genevieve's soul mate, he had predicted Quint would be Hannah's. "Fast work," he noted mildly.
"I know what I want." Quint grinned. "I knew she was my destiny, and I moved quickly to claim her. Give Hanny half a chance and she'll talk herself out of things that really are in her best interests." He arched a brow. "On what I suspect is a similar note, any particular reason that you and the beautiful Protea queen are barely speaking?"
Matthew gave a little salute. "We would seem to be soul mates as well, but something frightens her. She said she would think about accepting me as a suitor." His gaze lowered. "After talking to some people and learning more about the prophecy clinging to the universe, I think I understand her fear. The whole ordeal with ancient evils, nightmares, and the destruction of all that lives? It's centered right here. Her very bloodline."
Quint grimaced. "That'd be enough to convince any woman to reconsider marriage and children." He slowly lifted a brow as he saw Genevieve approaching them quickly. "Or reconsider something. Hello, Genevieve."
She didn't even spare him a look. She grabbed Matthew's sleeve and spun him around. "I have two things to say," she told him briskly.
He watched her very warily. "Yes?"
"One, I'm willing to accept you as a suitor."
Relief tangled with wariness. He couldn't quite read the look on her face, and her eyes were full of determination for . . . something. "I'm grateful. What's two?"
She went on her toes, buried her fingers in his hair, and dragged him in for a kiss that damn near put the heat of the sun to shame. It took only a second for him to drag her off her feet and return the embrace with the same fiery enthusiasm. He had been craving her taste from the moment they met. Sunshine and nature and everything wonderful about summer. She was all of it and more.
Quint turned a laugh into a cough and edged away from the scene as quickly as he could. He didn't know what Hannah had said, but it sure as hell had worked! He managed to keep the laughter in only until he was back inside the castle. The look on Matt's face when Genevieve had grabbed him!
The kiss continued until the sudden giggle of a maid going past reminded them where they were and what they were doing. Genevieve slowly released Matthew and looked up into his melting violet eyes. They darkened with his moods, and they had become a beautiful rich purple right then. Aching, longing, and hungry. Desire and love and a promise of happiness waited for her in his eyes. "Two," she said huskily, "is that I've decided I want to accept your suit as well."
"After that kiss, I would hope so!" He tightened his arms around her waist and held her closer. She had gone far too long without someone to hold her. "What changed your mind?"
"I can't change my heart." Her gaze dropped to his collar because continuing to hold his gaze felt nerve-wracking. "I want to marry you. I want you to be my husband, and I want my world to have you for her king." She took a breath. "I want you to be the father of my daughter."
"So then it is true that no Rulers of this galaxy can have sons?" he asked softly.
"It's true. It's been that way forever. We do not yet know why. I know I ask a lot, that you forsake your world as Cultivator in order to be my Caretaker, but—" She broke off as his fingers tenderly touched her lips.
"I have a brother and sister. When my sister turns twenty-five in a few years, I will return home and Activate her Seed so that she may be the Crown Princess and pass along our Flower Element bloodline." He smiled. "I want nothing more than to be your husband, the king to your world, the father of your daughter, and your Caretaker who tends to the deepest needs of your soul as a Cultivator. Why shouldn't a Cultivator be a Caretaker as well, if it is what Destiny decrees? We can be Caretakers to one another."
The term Caretaker applied to all soul mates of Cultivators, and nearly all Caretakers had mild magical gifts of their own. Whatever made them up had been very carefully selected to perfectly complement the Cultivator they would love, and allowed them the strength to tend to a Cultivator's sometimes fragile soul. Very rarely, though not impossibly rare, two Cultivators could end up being Caretakers to one another when the two involved needed not just support, but understanding from someone who, literally, knew how they felt within their given role. Curiously, it only happened between male-female Ruler pairs, and any subsequent children would be especially hardy and resilient.
Genevieve's lips trembled into a smile as she looked up at her Caretaker. Though their child would be wholly of Protea and not inherit her father's magic, she would still be regarded as an almost-daughter of Celia and deeply beloved to that world as well. How better to make an alliance than by blending the royal lines? And how was it possible that a single person, this single person, could finally make her world complete? She had both of her soul mates now. Her soul was at last whole. "You know," she told him as she wound her arms around his waist, "it's January." When he lifted a brow, she helpfully explained, "The Blossom Field baby boom. We have until December to keep up tradition. I need to get pregnant by March, though maybe April, since Nature elements are usually born premature."
He scooped her up into his arms and began to walk toward the castle. "If my queen insists, I can only oblige. But we really do need to plan the wedding too."
"Tomorrow work for you?"
"Only if I can watch you tell off your suitors."
She could only sigh happily. "I'll make it a party and invite all of the Cultivators." She rested her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes as she sent up a prayer of thanks to Destiny and Love. They had worked perfectly with Life to give her the perfect mate.
* * * * *
Lycander went looking for his wife and found her bathing in one of the large waterfalls near their castle. He perched on one of the rocks and openly admired her naked full figure. She was the one who fueled his power over Desire, and he would have it no other way. "Happy?" he asked her. "Everything ended as you wanted. Now why don't you tell me what else you two are planning? You're obviously not entirely happy yet."
Enaya winced wryly. "Busted." She slung wet white hair out of her eyes and looked over her shoulder. A smile instantly touched her lips as she saw her lover. His chest was gloriously bare since he had tossed his shirt aside. Guardian of Desire, indeed. A mere look at him was all it took to have her entire body aching for his touch. It had always been that way and always would be. She considered herself quite a lucky goddess. "I won’t be truly happy until the threat is gone."
"That won’t be for a while yet," he reminded her.
"It'll be sooner than we think." She waded toward where he sat and rested her head on his lap. He gently ran a hand through her hair, and she let out a sigh. "Orion, Shanta, and Genevieve all felt it. Nemesis is growing strong, and the time is coming soon. Soon the kingdoms will fall. In the meantime . . ."
"In the meantime," he interrupted, "there’s nothing you can do. These cards were dealt a long, long time ago. No matter how you meddle, you don’t have absolute control, remember? Destiny has her own will and plans."
"I know, I know." With a sigh, she pushed thoughts of the future aside. "Let’s think about something else." She smiled slowly. "Want to scrub my back?"
©Stacy J. Garrett. Do not reprint or redistribute without permission.