9/17 - Today is the first day of Fall. I think I'm back...

This is a full sequel to Hand of Grace. If you haven't read that one, you are missing out on a lot of character and plot points!

Also, I fully realize I made a lot of you scream when you checked your email.

Iced Cream

Lord Teles of House Haley, Chief Advisor and Military Liaison to Her Royal Majesty, Jade of the Kingdom of Lled, gazed at the contraption he held in his hand. He rotated it so he could observe it from all sides. It served its limited purpose and he supposed it was aesthetically pleasing even if the construction was somewhat crude. He mused that there were at least a half dozen possible ways to improve the design; perhaps by increasing the thickness so that it could bear more weight or tightening the curvature at the bottom to prevent seepage and structural deterioration. He drew the contraption close and he gave its contents an experimental lick. His tongue tingled from the coldness of the cream, a pleasant contrast to the heat of the midday sun, strange during this time of the year for him, a son of Lled, but not so strange for the great River City of the Kingdom of Asteria where he found himself currently situated.

Teles gazed up into the blue sky filled with fluffy, white clouds. All three of Gaia's three moons were visible though it was the middle of the day. It was unusual, but not ominous. To his knowledge, there was no prophecy dealing with the moons. He gave his iced cream an absent lick. "Shouldn't you be with your mate?"

From his side came a snort and an annoyed rejoinder. "Shouldn't you?"

Teles glanced at the incubus who held a concoction of peach juice and lemonade that he had been sipping. Teles had mentioned that he needed to leave the estate for a while and his former ensign had volunteered to accompany him. After the obligatory visit to the weapons shop, they'd stopped in the dessert parlor that their mutual charge had grown to favor these past several weeks. The day was sweltering even though it was a little after noon, so the chilled cream had sounded like an excellent idea. It seemed like everyone else in the city had had the same idea; they found themselves sitting in the far corner of the outside patio rather than being able to be seated indoors. The patio was shaded by a vegetation-covered trellis and sported several large fans that provided a pleasant breeze to contrast the stifling heat. Teles couldn't discern out how those fans moved so he reasoned that they had to be enchanted by a cubus

The heat was a good thing. He was getting sick of it and he would be happy to go back home. That was what Teles told himself. Speaking of going home… "Well, mine wanted to see her friends one last time," he answered.

Zephyr neé Oakthorn of House Dragonborn, imposing because of his physical size, perfection, and beauty and absolutely terrifying because of the dark, swirling energy surrounding him and the hard glint in his eyes, gave him a wan smile. "Mine wanted a private conversation with my father."

Teles took a lick to cover his discomfort, but it wasn't because of his companion. He and Zephyr were friends. In fact, at that given moment, Teles couldn't think of anyone he trusted more than the person beside him. The problem was that the words spoken by this frightening bastard made Teles self-consciously realize that while Zephyr explicitly knew that his mate had wanted privacy, Teles hadn't actually asked if Miranda had wanted him to accompany her. He had assumed not. Now he wasn't so sure. She hadn't specified that she wanted to meet her friends by herself. She'd said she would be meeting them and asked what he was doing. He had assumed it was a subtle request for him to leave. Now he wondered if it had been a subtle request for him to remain.

"I can open a world-gate for her if Miranda ever wants to visit," Zephyr said. "She's probably strong enough to open one now though."

The off-comment caught Teles' attention, making him forget the iced cream. "Really? But she's a Second Rank like Lieutenant Rauno." His new brother-in-law, Teles reminded himself.

The incubus, himself unranked because he was beyond any measurable standard in existence, shook his head. "Rauno can learn if he's willing to learn. She needs to be retested, though. Her power increased after you told her to start packing."

"Wait. What? That can happen? Why? How?"

"Matings can increase a cubus' rank. It depends how in tune the cubus and human are. It looks as if you two finally came to terms with each other after you made that announcement to her. To be honest, it's atypical for a pair of individuals who are both remating."

Teles frowned. His former pupil was already wickedly strong, physically and in terms of his cubic powers. The idea that uniting with his beloved would increase Zephyr's strength was a terrifying idea to entertain. Then again, his beloved was the Lady Terra herself. Who better to manage this cubus?

"I don't need a power increase, Teles," the incubus smiled and shook his head.

Teles cursed softly, both at the comment and the cream that had dripped onto his fingers. He hastily cleaned his fingers with the provided cloth napkin. "Back to mind-reading?"

"I don't need to be a mind-reader to know what you were thinking. I'm sure mating with Anne could have increased my power if there were a need. But such an occurrence would imply that Jove made me deficient in my ability to protect her."

Teles shook his own head. To think that his soft-spoken ensign from the Coutoure Exercise was Thanatos, a being fashioned by Jove to administer His judgment. A being with almost unlimited power at his fingertips. A man who was considerate of others, at least as far as his Jove-given nature would allow him to be. An incubus who Teles liked. "Have I ever told you that I'm proud of you?" Teles asked on a whim.

Zephyr's slightly widened eyes showed his bewilderment. "Ah… what?"

"Have I ever told you that I'm proud of you," Teles repeated deliberately. "Because I am. I'm very proud of the man you've become."

Zephyr set his drink on the table. He hesitated and said, "I'm not sure if I understand the reason for this-"

"Just accept the compliment, damn it!" Teles interrupted. Then he said, "I don't think Jove could have chosen a better person to be his Hand of Justice."

Zephyr shifted in his seat, still uncomfortable, but he smiled, a genuine, open smile devoid of secrecy or snarkiness. It momentarily disrupted the darkness that normally surrounded him. "Thank you, Teles."

"I would be worried if someone else held the power you do and they arrived in Capital City," Teles added, throwing him a slightly anxious look. "You're going to be seen as a threat to my queen. They'll try to provoke you."

"Good thing you'll be there to talk me down," came the calm response, accompanied by another sip.

"Pardon, milords," a waitress said with a curtsy. "There's a lady here to see you?"

The interruption allowed Teles to blink and consider the statement Zephyr had uttered off-handedly. He did have that ability, didn't he? He was one of the handful of people who had permission to call the Hand of Justice by his birth name. He could divert Thanatos' attention in the midst of a blood-rage. He'd already done it twice: first, when Anne had been captured by Isszon and second, when Thanatos was prepared to annihilate the Rivan Assembly for interfering with Anne's autonomy.

A woman with long, black curls and flashing, black eyes strode into their midst. She wore a well-tailored riding outfit of softly cured leather with a long-sleeved lace blouse. "Zephyr," Anne, the Lady Terra and Jove's Hand of Grace, said, barely even waiting for the waitress to step out of the way.

The incubus raised his brow. "Lady?"

"Tiernan says that Lledan soldiers will inspect everything they see passing into the city."

Zephyr deferred to Teles with a turn of a head and the upraising of his other brow. Teles nodded in confirmation. "That's standard, Anne."

"You came here because you were concerned over a customs inspection?" Zephyr's brows furrowed.

"Well, no," Anne said, sitting down in the chair that Zephyr had pulled out for her between them. His arm loosely draped over its back. "I wanted ice cream and Tiernan said he would drop me off on his way to the Assembly. Oh, and Miranda said to tell Teles that she wants him to come home and meet her friends. They all came back a little while ago."

Teles stood up, clearing his throat as he did so. "Ah, Zephyr…do you mind?"

The incubus pointed a finger at the space behind them. The air shimmered, the particles split apart and a black hole opened. "It'll take you to the library."

Teles paused, "Ah… Anne? Why didn't she…" He gestured toward his head, not knowing how else to indicate the mind-speaking that cubi were able to do. Perhaps there was an agreed convention. He'd have to remember to ask. There was so much about cubi that he had to learn!

"Oh, she said she didn't want to interrupt you and Zeph," Anne said, waving down the waitress.

"Huh," Teles said and stepped through.

Not too long after Lord Teles' departure, Zephyr inspected his iced cream with a critical eye and a contemplative frown. The day was indeed hot as his leash holder and mate had observed. That was nothing new; all days in River City were hot. Often nights in River City were also hot, but surely, with all the cubic powers that existed in Gaia, something could be done to prevent his ice cream from melting so quickly. He gave the rapidly melting cream a preemptive lick to keep it from dripping onto his fingers and stifled any disgust – he hated having dirty hands.

"What's wrong?"

He gave his leash holder a side long look. He'd declined anything but a cocktail of juices when he had been sitting here with Lord Teles, but this demanding leash holder of his had ordered two new flavors of ice cream when he had confessed that he had not tried a cone.

"Do you not like it?" the Lady Terra asked.

Still eying her, he gave his ice cream a long, luxurious lick. He supposed this method of consumption was an advantage of the cone. Anne's eyes dropped to his tongue and a dainty blush appeared on her cheeks. He sensed mild embarrassment from her. She probably remembered how he had used that tongue last night. He was willing to give her privacy though and not dip into her thoughts to confirm his suspicions when he was unable to perform an encore. "The combination creates an interesting meld of flavors," he said, taking another lick, and watching her reaction.

He felt heat welling up in her belly, but she willfully ignored it. "Good interesting or bad interesting?" she persisted.

"I would purchase both of these flavors again," he said. He allowed a bit of amusement to creep into his eyes and she relaxed. She'd misinterpreted his disgust of having unclean hands, he realized.

His mate could be strangely self-conscious at times. Who knew she had such a vested interest in hyper chilled cream? In the time that she had started patronizing this shop, she had been able to get the proprietors to create about a dozen new flavors, all of which sounded puzzling, but surprisingly tasted good. She even got the owners to make cones, a thin quick bread made from batter that hardened after it was folded into a shape suitable for holding other food items. Zephyr's cone currently held two flavors: chocolate interspersed with a butter made from mashed groundnuts and vanilla ice cream with rum infused raisins.

He gave his ice cream another lick. "I think I prefer the rum and raisin."

"Peanut butter chocolate can be heavy on a day like today," she agreed. "Rum raisin is good for this weather." She absently swiped at her forehead and took several bites of her own cone.

Zephyr gazed at the hand-held edible bowl. He could now see why Teles was gazing at it so lost in thought. It was a brilliant idea, but the design could be improved. "I suppose I'll want to eat peanut butter chocolate when we're in Lled?"

"Yes, but not as ice cream. That has to be as hot drinking chocolate," she beamed.

He smiled at her excitement. Lled was cold this time of the year. He thought he'd had enough of being cold when he was in N'aaden, but Teles had assured him that the winters in Capital City were mild compared to up the land they had fled from.

Despite his apprehension about the weather, he found that he too was eager to go. He'd been desiring to travel to Lled since he was a young teen. He absently wondered how he would adapt to society there; the people were so paranoid of cubi; he would be one of a few handful in an entire kingdom. How many Lledans would he have to kill in order to ensure that he and Anne were left alone?

"Lord Oakthorn? My lady? Is everything to your satisfaction? May I assist you in any other way?"

He gave the waitress an absent wave. Anne vocalized her appreciation and asked for a glass of water.

"You still answer to Oakthorn?" she asked when the waitress was out of earshot.

"There's a transition period, Terran," he answered. "Right now, they still assume that we're friends. If you want them to ask, you'll have to kiss me or wear something sleeveless that allows them to see your leash holder marks."

Anne tugged on the lace sleeve of her left arm. She was still getting used to being marked. She had initially explained to him how on her society on Earth tattoos were generally the province of the working class, certainly not for someone who claimed to be a Virginian lawyer. Then she had confessed that her bigger concern was the reaction she got when other people saw it. No one's leash holder marks had ever extended past the top of their arms. It was plain to any who saw it that her mark even extended further up her shoulder. Her self-conscious compromise between the weather and unnecessary scrutiny was the lace sleeves. "Isn't there an announcement of some sorts? Do you have newspapers?"

Zephyr shrugged. "Yes, but typically news of new matings and bindings is related in the local taverns."

"Are you going to let people call you Lord Zephyr now?"

"Thanos," he said. "My birth name and my Jove-given name still have the ability to summon me if I personally give it to someone. Thanos is a name I can freely give."

"Thanos," she repeated.

A shiver ran down his spine as the two syllables left her lips, but he knew it was because the Lady Terra had spoken them, not an ordinary person.

"It suits you."

"I should hope so," he murmured.

Anne scowled and took a lick of her own dessert that left a bit of cream on the corner of her mouth. She moved to wipe it off, but Zephyr grabbed her wrist, leaned forward and brushed it away his lips and tongue. She giggled and turned her head, allowing their lips to meet in a most pleasant kiss. Her cold tongue tasted like the dark chocolate raspberry with chewy chocolate cake that she favored.

A woman squeaked. Zephyr broke away from the kiss to glance at the waitress. With a tentative smile, she set the water down and scurried away.

"Well, she knows now," he said. And he leaned forward for another kiss.

I decided to go ahead and post this first chapter because I know I'm done with it. I won't be updating as frequently as I updated Hand of Grace and they'll probably be much shorter updates. There are several kinks that I have to work out with the plot but I realized that I needed to start being pressured by audience in order to create good work. I dunno if i mentioned this or not, but when I first started posting Hand of Grace, the crew was supposed to make it to Lled by the second half of the book. I'm hoping that the magic of my alpha reader and an audience will make these creative juices flow. I have about two dozen cool scenes mapped out that I'm excited to show you guys. Eventually that is. They need a lot more meat on their bones. I also had a discussion with my alpha reader a few days ago about Lledan societal quirks that she's super curious to see. Okay, I realize that I'm basically writing my own movie trailer rather than actually explaining anything.

So in this section, I hope you saw some lovely parallalism in Teles' life and the two stories. Teles is again going to retain his rather unique position except this time he'll be struggling to understand someone who is radically different from him, whereas he and Zephyr shared a lot of similarities. I started off with a rekindling of the bromance rather than the scene with Anne to emphasize how important Teles is to Zephyr's emotional well-being. And parallalism. I do like it. Anne is starting to get hit with bits and pieces of reality. She's not a nervous person, but she's starting to rely on Zephyr to make her feel better. You also see an ever so slight clash between her former life on Earth and her current life on Gaia in her reaction to her leash holder marks. And Zephyr, his gentility should be evaluated against the calculating manner in which he considered how many Lledans he'd have to kill. So yeah, this was a super short opening chapter, but there's a lot I packed in there. There are a couple hints as to the future problems that will be presented in this story.

What do you think? Everything look okay?

Oh and I'm sure you want an estimate: I'm guessing an update every two to four weeks. Hopefully sooner than later.