I were in the human realm under the cover of darkness, my physical form dissipated but the tether in my chest strengthened. It was a trade-off I was happy to make.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t knock on doors in this form, though we could pass through them which was going to be an uncomfortable surprise for Ophelia’s sister, and my wife if she was here, but I got the distinct sensation she wasn’t.
′Let me go first,′ Soren said, as close to an order as he’d ever given me. ‘If the sister reacts poorly and throws a silver dagger, better me than you.’
′I beg to differ,′ I replied, rushing past him and sliding through the door panel while Soren protested furiously behind me. What kind of king would I be if I used my subjects as shields? Not a worthy one, that much was certain.
Astrid’s home was dimly lit by lamps, as though she’d left it shadowy on purpose. She had, I realized as Astrid made a noise of surprise, startling on the couch where she’d been watching the door. Soren appeared next to me, as tense as a bow as he scanned her for any sign of weapons.
Astrid held up her empty hands, though she was visibly shaking. “I’m not armed. I am fucking pissed though, what took you so long?”
I hesitantly gestured at the night sky outside.
″I’ve kept my house pitch black all day waiting for you assholes to show up,” she snapped. “The Council have my sister. They are insisting she stay at headquarters to debrief, whatever that means. Something isn’t right. I think they wanted the treaty to be broken. The Council won’t let me visit Ophelia, and any of your kind would be killed on sight.”
It was more than tempting to take the risk anyway. I didn’t like that Ophelia was alone there. What were they planning to do with her? Were they treating her well? Was she safe? Was she scared? I should have never left her side.
Astrid made a noise of discontent. “This isn’t going to work. You’re going to have to take me back to your realm so we can communicate.”
′I don’t trust her,′ Soren said immediately.
′How surprising,′ I replied wryly. ‘She’s a bigger threat to us here than in our realm.’
At least in our realm, we had a means of defending ourselves. Here, we were sitting ducks, reliant on our speed alone to avoid whatever silver weapons she had on her person, and I had absolutely no doubt there were many. That Astrid didn’t look any happier about it than I felt helped a little.
′We could do what Meridia probably did and stop in the in-between,′ Soren countered. ‘We still have the visual advantage that way.’
′I won’t put her at such a disadvantage,′ I replied immediately. Being alone in pitch black darkness with two Shades would be terrifying for Astrid. ′We can talk right next to the portal, then immediately return her here.′
′Fine, but I want it noted that I don’t like this idea,′ Soren grumbled, floating forward with his arms extended while I followed, gesturing for Astrid to turn the lamp off. She gulped audibly, and I could admit that this experience was likely far more frightening for her than it was for us.
With a steadying breath that reminded me so much of her sister it hurt, Astrid flicked off the lamp and plunged the room into darkness that both Soren and I could see perfectly in. He could have just held her hand, so I wasn’t entirely sure why he wrapped both arms around her shoulders, but I didn’t question. Astrid shuddered in his embrace as I gripped Soren’s shoulder and began leading us back through the darkness to the beacon of the portal. The moment our forms solidified in the in-between, Soren picked Astrid clear off the ground, carrying her the rest of the way until we emerged under the night sky of the shadow realm, the orb above the portal illuminating us.
″You can put me down now,” Astrid said in a strained voice, blinking up at Soren in alarm. Her scent was a little sour, but not nearly as terrified as she probably should have been, given the circumstances. Soren lowered her to the ground slowly, never taking his eyes off her before taking a step back.
″My wife,” I prompted, breaking their staring contest. “Why has the Hunters Council taken her?”
Astrid blinked at me. “It’s so strange to hear you speak. And you look so different here…” She shook her head slightly as if to clear it. “My guess is they’ve taken her to grill her for information. The impression I got is that many Councilors hoped the treaty wouldn’t hold. Maybe even actively planned for it to fail.”
″We already knew they didn’t expect it to hold, they think we’re beasts,” Soren growled, staring intently at Astrid. “However, we were confident enough in our own people that it wasn’t a concern for us. Unfortunately, one of our own was idiotic enough to fall for whatever the Hunters offered her.”
″You should have known the Hunters would try to tear you apart from within,” she shot back, glaring at him.
It was an unusual experience, as king, to be so thoroughly ignored.
″Even if we had accounted for that, one Shade making a play for the throne shouldn’t burn all the progress between our kinds to the ground,” Soren countered. “The Hunters’ expectations are unreasonable.”
″They are,” Astrid agreed quietly. “I don’t think that’s an accident. They wanted the treaty to fail. Probably to make you as desperate as you are now.”
I was desperate to assure peace and safety for my people, but I was more desperate to get Ophelia back. If we had to go back to feeding the way we had before, constantly watching our backs and risking our lives, we could. In fact, we would, rather than concede any more freedom to the Hunters. But before any of that could happen, I wanted Ophelia back at my side where she belonged.
″I know the room where Ophelia will be staying,” Astrid continued. “It’s in the center of the Council building, which is brightly lit at all times and the lights are controlled from the center of the building.”
″So there’s no way I can possibly get to her,” I muttered, pacing back and forth in front of the portal. The limitations of my form in the human realm had never seemed so pronounced.
Astrid gave me a long searching look, and I was struck again by the differences between her and her sister despite their similar features. Ophelia looked at faces like she was trying to find answers, Astrid looked at faces like she was trying to find weaknesses.
″I can handle the lights, but it’ll take out the whole building and everyone will be on high alert.”
″I don’t like it,” Soren said with a grimace. “It would potentially put Ophelia at higher risk.”
″Lia was devastated when she came through the portal,” Astrid said flatly, staring at me. “Heartbroken, even.”
″I didn’t send her away, if that’s what you think. I didn’t ask her to leave. I didn’t want her to leave.”
″Then why did she leave?”
By the goddesses, this was the most uncomfortable conversation I’d ever had in my life.
″Because I didn’t tell your sister that she was the first woman I loved, the only woman I’d ever love, and I’ll die with the regret of not making my feelings for her clear when I had the chance.”
″Oh.” Astrid blinked while Soren awkwardly looked everywhere except at me. “I guess men are kind of the same in every realm.”
I gave her a droll look, hoping she wasn’t seriously comparing me to Hunters. “Is Ophelia completely unreachable where she is? You can’t get to her even for a brief conversation?”
Soren visibly exhaled at the change in subject while Astrid frowned. “One of the Councilors, Moriah, has taken charge of Ophelia’s ‘care’, and she’s a rabid guard dog and hates me, so no. But if Ophelia is organized, maybe you can—”
″Absolutely not,” Soren interjected. “It’s far too dangerous.”
″I won’t be kept from my wife,” I warned him in a low voice. “Have Damen on standby in my room, ready to take the crown if I don’t return.”
″Allerick,” Soren whispered, stumbling back as though I’d struck him.
″Tell me what I need to do,” I commanded Astrid, putting my life in the hands of one of the Hunters’ most accomplished assassins.
I waited until it was midnight before I approached the portal alone. Soren was tasked with guarding Damen in case of an emergency transfer of power, much to his chagrin.
I’d never been to the human realm alone. Since birth, I’d been deemed to be too vital to travel by myself, and most Shades went to feed in pairs for safety, anyway. The guards watched nervously as I approached, already releasing a stream of shadows into the obsidian so I could pass. Astrid had drawn me an elaborate map of the Council Headquarters—a surprising sign of trust to hand over such information—and while I’d memorized it, the moment I was in the in-between, I knew I didn’t need it. The tether in my chest flared brightly, encouraging me forwards, guiding me to where Ophelia was. My guiding star. My mate.
This would only work if she was waiting for me—if she wanted to see me—and I had to believe she did otherwise I didn’t know what I was going to do. Kidnap her, probably. She would either love that idea or hate it.
I walked through the nothingness, feeling the shape of the building take form above me, lit up as brightly as possible. Even in this half-form—both corporeal and not—the light burned, my body encouraging me to turn away and go back to safety. But the tether in my chest held true, and I closed my eyes against the blinding light and let my instincts guide me forward. As the sense of urgency slowly eased, I squinted at the space I’d found myself in. A spot of darkness in the middle of a sea of light.
Relief flooded me. There was nothing more natural than reaching for that sliver of darkness that my queen had carved out for me. I allowed myself to materialize into it, finding myself floating half inside a pedestal bathtub.
Ophelia had created a cave of sorts inside the bath, using the rail that ran around the top of it to hold the curtain as a structure which she’d layered what looked like every blanket she could find on top of.
And lying in the bathtub, curled up in a ball with her mouth half open, was my beautiful wife. I was loath to wake her, but every second I was here was a risk for both of us. If I managed to find my way here, one of Meridia’s loyal Shades might too. I didn’t want Ophelia in darkness any longer than she had to be.
I ran my claws through her hair and down the sides of her face, hoping I could gently wake her without terrifying her. Especially when she had that damned silver pin in her hair.
′My Ophelia,′ I said, my voice silent to her ears. ‘My love. Wake up and please don’t stab me. I’m bringing you home, I hope you can forgive me for it.’
Her brown eyes opened with a start, and she sucked in a startled breath as she stared right at me, her eyes adjusting to the darkness. The pin remained loosely in her hand, and I made a note to get Ophelia some weapons training when we were back home. If she returned home.
I backed up, holding my hands in the air so she hopefully knew I meant her no harm. Hopefully she recognized me, though it was asking a lot when all Shades appeared much the same in this realm.
Could she feel me through the tether in her chest the way I could feel her?
″Say something,” she whispered. “Allerick, speak again.”
I reeled back in surprise, half drifting into the curtain before moving forward again into the safety of the dark cocoon she’d made for us. ‘You can… hear me?’
″Yes!” she whisper-shouted, eyes wide. “How is this possible?”
I rubbed my hand over my chest, and Ophelia mirrored the gesture before her fingers drifted up to the bite mark on her neck. We’d barely scratched the surface of whatever this bond between us was, and I hoped we had our whole lives together to figure it out.
As much as I wanted to reach for her and spirit her away, I didn’t want to startle her by snatching her away even though that had been my initial plan, assuming that we weren’t able to communicate. I was racking my brain for the right words to say to convince her to come back when Ophelia gave me a long look and burst into tears.
Fuck, fuck, fuck. I hadn’t accounted for tears. How was I supposed to make the tears stop? My queen should never have cause to cry over anything.
″Do you hate me? I’m sorry I left, I thought you didn’t want me. Maybe you don’t want me. Are you here to tell me you don’t want me? But you said you were bringing me back. If you’re bringing me back to imprison me for being a traitorous queen who ran away, I understand, but I need to tell you all the things they have planned first.” She hiccuped slightly, visibly trying to pull herself together as she roughly rubbed her cheeks with her sleeve.
Unable to stand the distance between us any longer, I drifted forward and cupped her face, hating the fact that I could barely feel her under my hands.
′I love you, Ophelia. I hope you can forgive me for not telling you sooner. I have come here to bring you home, where you belong. You are my queen. The Queen of Shades.′
Her eyes started watering all over again, and I panicked that the idea of coming home with me was not as appealing as I’d assumed it would be.
″I love you, Allerick. I want nothing more than to return home with you.” Her tears slid through my fingers as I held her face, creating the faintest sensation against my palms. “But I can’t, not yet. They’re planning something, and I need to be here to… I don’t know. Stop them? Or at least tell you what they’re doing so you can stop them?”
′I won’t leave you here. It’s not safe, Ophelia.′
She was already shaking her head quietly. “You want me to come home and be your queen?”
′My crowned queen. My equal in all things. I want you at my side.′
″And in your bed?” Ophelia asked wryly.
′I want to be knotted to you every second of every day, but I would be selfish to deprive our people of your compassionate leadership. You are kind, empathetic, and loyal. You were born to be a queen, and you have already made me a better king.′
Ophelia blinked, her eyes shining with unshed tears. Fuck, wasn’t crying bad? Had my words distressed her? Maybe she didn’t want to be queen?
″No one has ever believed in me like that, and I don’t want to let you down. I don’t want to let them down, so you need to let me protect our people,” Ophelia whispered with a sad smile, her fingers slipping right through mine when she tried to press her hand against mine. “You would never walk away if you knew the Hunters were planning something and you thought you might be able to stop it. Don’t ask it of me.”
My urge to protect her warred with my desire to give her what she wanted, to show Ophelia with actions that when I told her I loved her and wanted her as my equal, I meant it.
′What are they planning?′ I asked, resigned.
Ophelia’s voice dropped even lower, her eyes flicking nervously towards the door. “They want to trap you into an agreement where they choose exactly where and when you feed. What humans experience fear. They want to play god,” she muttered, looking outraged by the idea.
It was a chilling one. I had no doubt they’d keep us on the brink of starvation whilst using us to terrorize the humans they deemed unworthy. The Hunters had already done such an effective job at decimating our numbers, my chest grew tight at the realization that we might have no choice but to acquiesce or they’d wipe us out entirely.
But was signing us up to an eternity of slavery really a better alternative?
No. No, I couldn’t do that to my people.
″Did Astrid send you here?” Ophelia asked, a renewed sense of urgency in her voice.
′Yes. She’s waiting in the shadow realm for you to return.′
″Is that… wise?” my wife asked, looking vaguely horrified at the thought.
′Levana is watching over her,′ I assured her.
″I am not comforted,” Ophelia muttered. “But you need to bring Astrid back. There are others like me—‘outcasts’ are how the Council referred to us. Astrid had to contact them when they were searching for a bride for you. If they were willing to live in the shadow realm…”
′It’s a big ‘if’,′ I said softly, forcing the swell of hope in my chest down.
″I hope you haven’t treated Astrid badly. We’ll need her powers of persuasion,” Ophelia said wryly. Goddesses, this was a long shot. “There’s another meeting tomorrow at midday.”
Was it too much to ask that they’d have their meetings in the middle of the night in a pitch-black room? How was I supposed to be there for my wife when the fucking light kept me away from her?
″Tell me what to say,” Ophelia whispered, the fear evident in her voice. “I don’t know what I’m doing, Allerick. I don’t know how to do this, and I don’t want to make promises I can’t keep.”
′You are the queen, your promises will be kept,′ I replied fiercely, wishing more than anything that I could scoop her into my arms and hold her. ‘When I told you to proceed as you saw fit, I meant it, Ophelia. I trust your judgment.’
″Oh. Oh. I thought you meant to proceed with packing my stuff how I saw fit. You could have been a little clearer,” she added, giving me a pointed look.
′You are my mate, that bite mark on your neck tells the world that. You will never have cause to doubt how I feel for you again,′ I promised. I glanced at the door, my enhanced senses picking up movement from the hall. ‘They’re coming to check on you.’
″Go,” Ophelia whispered, attempting to push me back, her hands slipping right through my chest. “Talk to Astrid.”
′I will. I love you. Be safe for me, my little queen.′
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