the morning in my hastily made bed in my still obnoxiously bright room, I felt like I hadn’t slept at all. My neck hurt from my nap in the bathtub, and when I made it back into the main room, the light bothered me too much to sleep properly. Even in my human apartment, I’d only ever slept with a nightlight on, not grocery store-level blinders overhead. No wonder all the Councilors were so grumpy all the time.
I still didn’t really have a plan. Seeing Allerick had solidified the decisions I’d already made and given me some serious peace of mind—my husband actually loved me—but we had the makings of a strategy rather than an actual strategy at best.
Basically, we were depending entirely on my sister, who made a name for herself as the youngest Shade-killer in history, to seriously go to bat for the Shades.
Oh my god, this was a terrible plan.
I was sleep-deprived and they’d fed me some kind of trendy mushroom salad for dinner, and I wasn’t thinking straight. That was the only explanation for why I ever thought this was an idea worth suggesting to Allerick.
As much as I wanted to curl up in a ball and sleep some more, I forced myself to get up and quickly dashed to the bathroom to double check I’d put it all back to rights after hastily disassembling my cocoon of darkness in the middle of the night. Happy it looked orderly, I made the bed with extra care before anyone could show up to bring me breakfast. Please let it be bagels and donut holes and no more healthy food, I thought to myself, pulling out a simple black pencil skirt and a fitted black knit sweater that seemed appropriately dignified and business-like for today. I wasn’t the lost little lamb I’d been just twenty-four hours ago—I was going to go to bat for my realm, whatever that looked like, and I wanted the Hunters to take me seriously.
Don’t do anything rash, I reminded myself, shoving down the revulsion I now felt whenever I thought of the Councilors who’d dictated so much of mine and my family’s life. I’d seen the underbelly of the beast that was the Hunters Council, and I’d never be able to unsee it.
All these years, I’d downplayed their rejection of me as a necessary evil, taking all the blame onto myself for being weird and different, but that guilt hadn’t been mine to bear. Being weird and different didn’t give them the right to be cruel to me, and it had never been about just me anyway.
I washed my face, lamenting my lack of makeup when I saw how dark the shadows under my eyes were, and slipped on my flats, getting the room perfectly in order in case Moriah showed up here to pretend we were friends again. I was a hot mess on the inside, but I didn’t want the enemy seeing that on the outside.
God, I wanted nothing more than to drag the blankets off the bed and hole up in my bathtub fort again, hoping my husband would take the ridiculously large risk of seeing me. Well, no. Not really. I didn’t actually want him to put himself in danger, but seeing him had soothed all the aches in my soul that had been paining me since the moment I left. Before that, even. All the insecurities and vulnerabilities I’d felt not knowing whether I actually meant anything to him were gone.
Allerick was honorable, and he never said things he didn’t mean. He loved me and he wanted me to rule by his side, and I would never doubt his sincerity again. Was it a perfect relationship? Absolutely not. We had a lot to learn about each other, and that would take time, but it was a solid foundation on which to build something that could last.
″Ophelia,” Moriah called in a singsong voice that made me want to hit something. “Join us in the meeting room, would you? A few of us are having breakfast while we wait for the others to arrive. There’s coffee,” she trilled in what she probably thought was an inviting voice.
Taking a deep steadying breath, I made my way to the door and pulled it open, enjoying the surprise on Moriah’s face when she saw me fully dressed and waiting for her.
″Then what are we waiting for?”
I sipped on my coffee in the corner, watching the Hunters Council’s Metaphorical Circle Jerk in action.
″There were no reported sightings last night,” Moriah was saying, scrolling through her phone. “Globally. It seems the Shades went to ground.”
″Or to shadows, as it were,” one of the older ones guffawed.
″King Allerick runs a tight ship,” Moriah remarked, looking to me for confirmation. So much for my plan to remain unnoticed in the corner.
″He’d hardly be the king if he didn’t,” I pointed out, taking another sip of my coffee.
″Well, except for that Shade who was more than happy to break the treaty at our suggestion,” Moriah said, her voice deceptively mild. I called her a few unsavory names in my head. “But even kings have weaknesses. Things that can be… leveraged.”
Me, I thought wryly. Allerick had taken a huge risk to come here last night to see me. I was absolutely a weakness, and one I didn’t want them exploiting.
″Perhaps we shouldn’t have thrown the Shade we were working with under the bus. What was her name? Something starting with M,” Bradley mused.
″Too volatile,” Moriah disagreed. “Allerick is honorable, I suppose. For a Shade. That makes him easier to manage. But what is his Achilles’ heel, Ophelia? You must have noticed something in the time you spent there.”
All eyes in the room turned to me, and I had to say something.
″Shades die without feeding. That is an enormous weakness. Being responsible for the lives of all of his subjects, ensuring they can feed, that is a weakness.”
″Ophelia is right—well done, Ophelia,” Bradley said, giving me a fatherly sort of look that made my skin crawl. “What we need from you is not the king’s weaknesses, but the Shades’ weaknesses. How do they feed? How can we limit their entry point to this realm through portals only? That’s the solution. If we control the exit and entry points, we control them. We control this realm. Shades can be escorted to feedings— with a silver dagger pointed at their throat the whole time—we could come to some sort of agreement with human authorities for the necessary victims. Call it a corrective program or something, make it very secretive and elite.”
Barbaric and total nonsense. There was no way to restrict where the Shades went once they were through the barriers of their own realm. Once they were in the in-between, they could basically go where they liked as I understood it.
″If the silver daggers can affect them in their noncorporeal forms, then I think it’s time we start investigating other uses for silver to see if they’re effective. Collars perhaps,” someone else suggested.
″We need to take out the king,” another said, banging his fist on the table hard enough to make me jump. “I say we bring back Meridia—she’s volatile but it would only be temporary. We can’t implement a new order with the old power structure in place. Ophelia can be trained to fight—she’s the only one who they’ll trust enough to let close to him.”
I was going to puke up my lukewarm black coffee all over this table.
Okay, that wasn’t part of the plan. The plan had been vague and abstract at best, and now it was out the window completely. Worse still, I hadn’t seen or heard any indication that Astrid was here, and there were no guarantees that she’d come at all.
But I wasn’t about to sit here and say nothing while they suggested murdering my husband. While they suggested that I murder my husband.
″I won’t hurt him. I would never hurt him. Allerick is my mate,” I said calmly, standing up and sweeping my gaze over the table of arguing Councilors. I didn’t feel strong or confident or impressive—my legs were shaking beneath my skirt and my heart was pounding so loud I swore everyone could hear it.
″Your what?” Moriah asked, stiffly polite.
″He is my mate. We are bound. That’s what this means.” I pointed at the healing bite mark on my throat. “Our people were once intertwined, did you know that? Hunters lived in the shadow realm and it was full of color and we loved each other—”
Moriah stood, bracing her palms on the table and glaring at me. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Ophelia. Love,” she scoffed. “We were once called the Hunted, the Shades would chase our ancestors between realms until they captured and bit them. Do you think it’s a good thing that we had no choice? That our people were snatched away from our lives to go breed monsters?”
Okay. Okay, I hadn’t known about that part.
″Maybe hundreds of years ago, that was how it went. And that’s wrong, I’m not going to argue otherwise. But I’m telling you that things have changed now. We could be living in harmony with Shades, not just this temporary truce, but a true peace—”
″Did he talk about breeding you?” Moriah asked flatly. “Did he frighten you? Chase you? Hunt you until you gave in? They are beasts, Ophelia. You should be on your knees in gratitude for our ancestors who took us away from that world.”
I leveled my best glare on her because fuck that. She didn’t get to talk about my relationship like that. She didn’t get to pass judgment over something she didn’t understand, or taint what were beautiful memories of my time with my husband.
″He did both. And I begged for them,” I replied, holding eye contact until she looked away.
″Allerick—” My voice broke on his name, the ache of missing him growing overwhelming. But talking about him made me feel closer to him, even the strange pull to him in my chest felt more stable. “I love him. I love him, and I care for the Shades I came to know. If you wage war against them, I will fight back.”
″If you fight us, you will be imprisoned for your own safety,” Bradley said with a pitying look.
The lights flickered for a moment, startling the Councilors and myself. Please be Astrid. I may be on the verge of imprisonment because I lack impulse control.
″What’s going on?” Moriah asked sharply, right as the lights went out completely and the Councilors began shouting in alarm. I looked around as my eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, apprehensive but not afraid. Not when the pull in my chest seemed to be growing comfortingly stronger.
Was he here? In the middle of the day? Surely not.
The door behind me swung open with a bang and my sister stormed in with a flashlight pointed at the ground, barely illuminating her, and a veritable army at her back, spilling into the hallway behind her. It took me a moment to realize that it wasn’t just a group of humans—of Hunters—but Shades as well. No wonder she’d cut the lights. I could barely see them—Astrid was being careful to keep the light directed away from them—but there was no mistaking the dark mass of movement behind her.
How convenient for us that the Council rooms were mostly windowless bunkers. Without artificial light, there was no keeping the Shades out.
″I think the fuck not,” Astrid announced, looking like an avenging warrior as she glared at the Council. “You don’t get to kidnap the Queen of Shades without consequences.”
″Astrid,” Moriah hissed. “Have you lost your fucking mind? Stand down. Who are these people? Any Hunters in this group will be banished for life for this treason.”
″We’re already banished,” one of them scoffed.
″Astrid, stand down,″ Moriah insisted.
I snorted quietly at Astrid’s blunt refusal. She had zero diplomatic finesse, but she was an excellent warrior. I hoped she’d return to the shadow realm with us and stay on our side. I hoped all of these banished Hunters were coming back with us, and that they were kind and open-minded and ready for an adventure.
′Astrid Bishop is a force to be reckoned with,′ Allerick said, his voice drifting quietly into my head.
I nodded in agreement as I positioned myself in front of him, knowing immediately which floating dark form was his. I hadn’t seen any weapons from the Councilors here, but I wasn’t taking any chances with my husband. If they wanted to throw a knife at him, it’d have to go through me first.
′Ophelia,′ he warned, immediately seeing what I was doing. I wasn’t sure how his mindspeak thing worked, but I assumed by how little he was saying and how vague he was being that the other Shades in the room could hear him, and he wasn’t going to tell me off in front of an audience.
All I wanted was to feel his warm leathery skin beneath my palms, his huff of amused breath over my hair when I said something he didn’t expect, I wanted all of him. I wanted to be as far away from here as possible.
But that was Ophelia-the-Failed-Hunter talking. I was Ophelia, Queen of Shades now. Snuggles with my husband would have to wait.
″Enough,” I said calmly, cutting off Moriah’s bitching as she cussed out Astrid. “I say this as Queen of Shades with the full support of my husband, and I suggest you all listen because I’m not going to repeat myself. You know as well as I do that fear is a necessity. Fear is part of the balance, and to remove it would be shortsighted in the extreme, but you think you know best? Fine. The Shades will no longer enter the human realm at all.”
″That’s not what we meant—” Moriah began. Idly, I wondered if Soren was shitting ghost bricks behind me.
″Too goddamn bad,” I snapped, really hoping I wasn’t making a colossal mistake here. “You think you hold all the power here, but you don’t. You’re not going to use the Shades as instruments of torture, and you have no right to decide which humans are worthy or unworthy of experiencing fear. My husband and I have extended an invitation to all Hunters who were set aside like me. All who were deemed too compassionate, or whose morals were considered questionable because they didn’t relish the idea of killing Shades. Let them come to the shadow realm and find a home in a place where they are appreciated and cared for, not like here where you just set us aside because we don’t fit the prescribed mold you’ve made for us.”
′You think they’ll generate enough for us all to feed from the stores?′ someone asked, and I realized with a jolt that it wasn’t just Allerick I could hear. Apparently the bitemark had linked me in to the whole Shade mindspeak network.
′Yes,′ a voice that was unmistakably Soren’s clipped. ‘I’ve seen myself how much the king siphoned after feeding from Queen Ophelia.’
″If I have to fill them myself for the time being, so be it,” I whispered towards the group of Shades, a little more aggressively than I intended. I’d fuck my husband every second of every day rather than put a single one of them at risk.
″Astrid has explained to us how you’ve lied to us,” one of the Hunters standing behind my sister said. “Two of us even went to see the shadow realm for ourselves after she knocked down our door in the middle of the night. We’ve been made to feel our whole lives like there’s something wrong with us when the attraction we have towards Shades is entirely normal.”
″It is not normal,” Bradley snapped, sounding vaguely panicked. Good.
″You better go with them, Astrid,” Moriah snarled at my sister. “Because you’re dead to us.”
″Happily,” Astrid shot back, which I’m pretty confident was a lie but I was selfishly glad she was coming back with us anyway.
″When you’re ready to beg for our forgiveness, we’ll be waiting,” I said mildly, backing up a few steps. Astrid flicked off the flashlight, and we melted into the darkness, into the in-between, with Allerick’s arm securely banded around me. There were gasps of surprise around us, and I guessed that enough Shades had accompanied us to comfortably guide the Hunters through without the use of a portal to assist us.
I felt Allerick gain solid form in the darkness and I turned into his chest, shaking a little as I pressed my face into his skin, inhaling the scent of him.
Despite our brief reconnection last night, there were still a lot of things we had to say, but none of them were things I felt comfortable saying in front of all these other people, so I clung tight to Allerick and hoped he understood how much I missed him. He clung to me right back.
I blinked at the sudden light as we emerged in the shadow realm, surprised to find the action made tears I hadn’t even realized were welling fall down my cheeks.
″My Ophelia,” Allerick murmured, his thumb sweeping away a stray tear with heartbreaking care. “Come. Let’s go to our room, the rest of this can wait.”
″But all these people, and Astrid—”
″I’m fine,” my sister said sharply, arms wrapped tightly around her middle. She was standing further back from the crowd, but Soren was watching her like a hawk, which was sort of reassuring for me because I knew he’d look after her, though probably not very reassuring for Astrid. “I’ll stay with the Hunters,” she insisted.
″Set them up at Elverston House,” Allerick instructed Levana and Soren, already pulling me away from the crowd. “It’s on the outskirts of the palace grounds, they’ll have privacy there until they’re more comfortable around us,” he added for my benefit.
That sounded good. Everyone would need time to adjust to this new arrangement. I glanced around a little anxiously, wondering if any of the Shades were mad about what I’d said to the Hunters Council, what I’d promised, but palace guards were all waving to me and assuring me it was good to have me back.
They might have even been a little… excited?
I supposed my presence here had brought color back to the realm, maybe the idea of having more of me wasn’t the worst prospect for them. Especially if they could feed without having to constantly go to the human realm.
Eventually, I was sure that Shades would return to the human realm, with the Hunters’ blessing. The Hunters would realize they were being idiots and upsetting the natural balance of things, but until then I’d keep those stores topped up if it was the last thing I did.
″They adore you,” Allerick said quietly.
″I adore them,” I replied, barely containing my grin. “Well, most of them. Meridia—”
″Is imprisoned, probably for life,” Allerick interjected. “There will be a public trial in a few days, but I can’t see it going her way. Damen is leading a group of Shades to uncover who her allies were and what role they played.”
″Do you think the Hunters who came back with us will be safe here?”
Allerick shot me a disbelieving look. “I will make sure of it. This is a new beginning for us, for this realm. I will do everything in my power to preserve it.”
He must have gotten impatient with my short legs as we weren’t even in the entry hall before he’d lifted me into his arms and was striding through the corridors like the hounds of hell were on his tail. There was an intensity to him that I’d never seen before—he was a Shade on a mission, mouth turned down and shadows rising off him like smoke.
I leaned my head against his shoulder and stared at him like a creeper, memorizing the planes of his face, the curve of his horns, the glow of his ice-blue eyes. He was even more beautiful than I remembered, and I knew no drawing I could have done in the human realm would have done him justice if I’d never seen him again.
Just the thought made my chest ache.
Allerick strode directly past the guards, carrying me into his room and kicking the door shut behind him. I attempted to wriggle down to the ground, but Allerick’s chest rumbled in warning as he carried me over to the bed, sitting on the edge with me on his lap.
″Are you going to carry me everywhere now?” I teased, hoping he would relax a little.
″I’m contemplating it,” he replied hoarsely, arranging me in his lap so I was straddling him and running his hands over every inch of me that he could reach. “You left, Ophelia.”
My heart hurt at the pain in his voice.
″I’ll never leave again,” I promised before giving him a warning look. “Though we need to work on our communication skills.”
Allerick hummed in agreement. “I owe you an apology, little queen. When you were out there in front of the Hunters from the Council, arguing for them to be reasonable and negotiate, I realized how confident and dedicated to my people—our people—you are. I’d already decided the night before to request your coronation. I was with the Councilors before the Hunters showed up to order it done.”
″You were?” I asked, feeling my eyebrows shoot up. “That’s really sweet, though I would have much preferred to wake up next to you.”
″You will,” he promised, grip on me tightening slightly. “Every morning for the rest of your life.”
Swoosh went my belly.
″We’ll work out together what you want your role to look like. How you want your days to go. Whether or not you want children…”
″I do,” I replied firmly. “But not quite yet. I’d like you to myself a little longer, is that okay?”
″More than okay,” he promised, struggling to repress the purr that had started up at the mention of babies. I ran my hands softly over his body, disturbing the shadows, grateful that he was here and mine and I could touch him all I wanted.
″Can I try something?” I asked, face heating in anticipation even though we’d done a lot filthier than what I was about to suggest.
I leaned forward, deciding to tell him with actions rather than words, and closing the small distance between us to brush my lips softly against his. It definitely wasn’t like kissing a human—his lips were less pillowy, more firm and leather-smooth like the rest of him—but I didn’t mind. I took my time, exploring the similarities and differences between us, relishing the way that Allerick let me lead. It would probably never happen again, but it was fun to be the one in control for a while.
I pulled back, intending to check in with Allerick that he was okay with this, but he chased me, careful to keep his teeth safely covered. Well, I guess he’s okay with it then.
Testing the waters, I flicked my tongue at the seam of his mouth, teasing and requesting entry at the same time.
″My teeth—” he growled, both in warning and frustration.
″I’ll be careful,” I interjected before pressing my lips to his again, encouraging him to open for me. With a sigh like he couldn’t deny me anything, he parted his lips, his longer, thicker tongue snaking out to tangle with mine before I could get anywhere near his teeth.
Welp, these panties were done for. There was a quiet, subtle drip on the stone floor that may or not have been the slick that was beginning to gush out of me.
″I want to try something else,” I mumbled against his lips, barely able to drag myself away.
Taking that as permission to experiment since his tongue was back at work exploring mine and I couldn’t ask any follow up questions, I slowly slid my hands up over Allerick’s neck, taking a moment to toy with his hair before doing something I’d always fantasized about doing.
Grabbing him by the horns. Literally.
Allerick groaned as I wrapped my fingers as much as I could around the base of them, massaging slightly to determine if he had any sensation there or not. Judging by the raspy grunts of desire intermingled with the purr rumbling steadily out of his chest, I guessed he did.
I was contemplating how best to steer his head down to my aching pussy when Allerick’s hands disappeared underneath my skirt, claws digging into the globes of my ass as he pulled back, panting heavily.
″That was very enjoyable. Especially the kissing. We should do that more often,” Allerick rasped, leaning into my touch as I rubbed his horns. “Preferably while my knot is—”
″Mm, maybe I should keep your mouth busy in other ways. You could tell me all the ways you intend to make up for not crowning me immediately and trusting my obviously excellent judgment,” I teased, because I had to make jokes about the whole coronation thing or I’d have a panic attack.
″Oh, I intend to make my intentions for you very clear from this moment forth, my love,” he growled. Was it possible to have a love kink? My body had a very visceral response every time he dropped the L-word. “But I have other plans for our mouths right now.”
I smiled against his lips, tightening my grip on his horns and reassuring myself that he was here with me. “Yes, your majesty.”
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