Another week, another part of The Zodiac Heir. This one will need a few rounds of revisions. I'm not 100% happy with the way the dialog is/isn't flowing in places, but I've captured the gist of the chapter and happy to share as a first draft. Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments and please, please, please share.
Chapter 5 (Part 11) of The Zodiac Heir
"Why does the King want me dead?"
"He's my trusted guardian?" Sarah's voice strangled in her throat.
Finding herself face to face with a lion could do that to a person and no concussion, real or otherwise would change that fact.
Sarah shot another look at the big cat lounging on a pile of hay in the otherwise empty cellar. Lounging, no other word could be used to describe the graceful ease with which the creature rested his massive head on his paws. His tail flicked lazily, the slow swish hypnotic as if it could make Sarah forget the rows of vicious teeth that could tear open her carotid at any time.
Sarah's gaze clashed with that of the big cat and she shivered. There was something eerily familiar in his eyes. His face was framed by the most magnificent mane the colour of spun gold.
He looked deadly. And majestic. And deadly.
As if the lion could taste her reluctant awe, his head tilted and Sarah had the uncomfortable feeling that he saw way too much. As if there was more than animal instinct ruling the massive body.
Don't be ridiculous.
"You remember Leo from the bar?"
Sarah tore her gaze from the creature. "He is... This is... He's human?"
A deep growl reverberated off the cellar's wall, raising tiny hairs all over her body.
Jud shot the cat a warning look. "Nothing human about him. He's Zodiac."
"My fault." Sarah kept the lion in her line of vision. He had lost his lazy edge and was now all poised muscles and forward energy. "A-Are you sure this is a good idea?" she whispered.
Jud curved a hand around her cheek. "You trust me."
"Compared to him?"
Out of the corner of her eye she thought she saw the large cat's muzzle twitch.
"You're safe with Leo," Jud said. "He's my friend."
"Your last friend tried to kill me."
"Scorpions have no conscience. Leo does."
Sarah eyed the lion suspiciously. "That won't make much difference if your father asked him to kill me."
"Leo is loyal to me first, to my father second."
"Yet your father is the King."
"And just like every father, mine doesn't always get what he wants."
The unwavering certainty in Jud's voice stabbed Sarah right where her chest had felt hollow all her life.
"I wouldn't know," she said. "I don't have a father. Pardon me, if I don't take your word for it."
Jud let his hand drop back to his side and stepped back, taking his warmth with him. "Then I must prove the truth to you." He slipped out into night before another word could be spoken, leaving her alone with the beast at her back.
Sarah rubbed her arms and turned, jumping when the lion chose that exact moment to scrunch up his nose and expose his gleaming, white canine teeth in a massive yawn. Sarah inched further away eyeing the dancing shadows that the flames from the fireplace in the cottage's main room threw onto the wall. Maybe she should give that harebrained idea of hitting her head against stone another consideration.
The lion flicked his tail and darkness descended as the heavy oak door slid shut with a quiet click that belied its age. Strangling a whimper in her throat Sarah backed up.
"Very well." Her whisper sounded loud in the darkness. "They say it's better not to see the end coming."
The sound next to her ear dislodged a scream that bounced back as a manifold echo, until she felt the whole cellar was screeching with the voices of the damned.
"Apologies," said the lion, when the racket died down. "I needed to shift."
A lantern flickered to life and Sarah saw the giant of a man she remembered from the bar. His back was turned, broad shoulders tapering down to a narrow waist. Light caught and danced over skin that seemed infused with gold.
"I assumed you were more comfortable with another—" he looked back at her. "Human."
"Marginally," she said, holding onto the wall, as she watched the mountains of muscles in his massive shoulders clutch and shift while he finished buttoning his trousers, and reached for his shirt.
He shot her a grin. "You insult me so politely." He opened the oak door and gestured her through.
She stopped at the threshold. "Shouldn't we stay here, where it's safer?"
"If Maverick—the Scorpion—knew the location of this cottage, no room would be safe."
"Then why hide in the cellar in the first place?" she asked.
"To show you the beast. Make you grateful for the man."
"You've got to be kidding me."
Sarah stared at him.
"I'm manipulative, not uncivilised," he said with a wink, pouring water into what looked like an old-fashioned kettle. "Might as well get comfortable while we wait for your husband to return."
Sarah shook her head. "He's not my husband."
"Why is everyone so obsessed with our mating?"
"Jud didn't tell you?"
"He told me I'm his Gemini, his other half." Sarah sank onto a chair and watched Leo potter about in the kitchen. For all his size he was unusually well coordinated. "I'm not even Zodiac."
"It puzzles the mind," he agreed.
"Yet he is not willing to let me go."
"He can't." The kettle started hissing and Leo poured two cups, the porcelain looking unbearably fragile in his giant palm. "For him, there's only you and once you're mated he will be the only one for you."
"You sound certain."
Leo handed her a cup. "I am. A Zodiac mating is different to a human marriage. A melding of hearts as irrevocable as it is eternal. You will be bound to each other forever."
"What if one of us dies?" she asked.
"The other will follow. Immediately. Willingly."
A shiver raced down Sarah's spine as understanding dawned. "What if I die before the mating?"
Leo looked at her.
Sarah swallowed. "Is this why I'm running for my life?"
"It is one of the reasons," Leo confirmed, his eyeshine gaze kind.
"What are the others?"
"You should ask Jud that."
"He's not here. Don't you think I deserve to know?"
"It doesn't make a difference what I think you deserve, little human. This is about the future of our lands. Our world."
"A world I will live in."
"If you survive," he said.
She flinched, but didn't back down. She grabbed his hand, stunning them both. "Please, tell me, Leo. Tell your future Queen. Why does the King want me dead?"