The door of the Lachis’ka’s solar creaked open, revealing the grinning face of Talasyn’s lady-in-waiting. Yes, the damnable teenager was actually grinning, the effect not dissimilar to a prettily dressed shark.
“Her Grace is ready for you, Your Majesty,” Jie saucily told him before taking her leave in a flurry of rustling skirts and unabashed snickering.
Alaric breathed out an irritated sigh at the girl’s antics. She was Dominion nobility—female nobility, at that—and thus she wasn’t particularly inclined to act deferential in his presence.
He slowly made his way to Talasyn’s closed bedroom door, part of him still unwilling to believe that this was nothing more than an outlandish fever-dream. He knocked to be polite, and then walked in.
Like her solar, her chambers were disconcertingly feminine, all done up in soft orange and pale pink and rosy peach, starry tapestries hung on the walls and iridescent silk panels draped over the canopy bed. It didn’t strike him as the kind of decor that Talasyn would have chosen for herself; she would prefer bolder colors, perhaps, and furnishings that could be treated with less care.
The curtains had been drawn against the brilliant seven-mooned evening, but the shadows were edged in gold by perfumed candles on the nightstand, providing Alaric with enough light to see the figure on the mattress. His breath hitched as all thought, all wondering, fled from his mind.
Talasyn was clad in a nightdress sewn from the sheerest, flimsiest mesh fabric that Alaric had ever seen. Every inch of the long-sleeved bodice clung to her slim torso, accentuating her narrow waist and the slight flare of her hips, and, gods, it was as if she was wearing nothing, her olive skin clearly visible through the transparent material, obscured only in certain places by an intricate patchwork of embroidered lace. Hibiscus blossoms dripping from leafy vines curled along her wrists and her ribcage and down her thighs; herons were stitched in mid-flight over her chest and the spurs of her hips, as if in some valiant last-ditch attempt at modesty. Her face had been scrubbed clean and her chestnut hair was gathered into a loose braid draped over one shoulder, trailing past her right breast. She was kneeling on the bed, her hands clasped together in her lap. She looked like a summer’s eve and like an offering all at once. She looked . . .
. . . very, very grumpy.
“Do not,” she snarled, “say anything.” Her cheeks were flushed with embarrassment but it only added to the gorgeous sight so appealingly arranged before him.
“I wasn’t going to,” Alaric forced out through gritted teeth. He cautiously stepped further into the room and her gaze flickered over his white linen shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and his loose black trousers. He wondered what kind of man she saw, suddenly self-conscious of his features. The nose that was too prominent, the mouth that was too wide, the graceless asymmetry of cheekbones and chin and jaw.
Desperate to do something, anything, that didn’t involve gawking at her, he glanced around her chambers in a futile search for somewhere to sleep. There was a chaise longue, but it would barely accommodate three-quarters of his height and half his width. The floor it is, then, he thought with resignation. “Shall I just grab some extra bedding?”
“What?” Talasyn asked.
Alaric turned to her. She was staring at him, and he experienced a moment of déjà vu—the night of the banquet, the altercation in his room, her hands on his chest, how she’d forgotten his question.
And then he remembered his father sneering, The Lightweaver will never return this bizarre infatuation that you have for her.
“Extra bedding,” Alaric repeated tersely.
“Oh,” Talasyn said. “No, there are no extras; you’re not sleeping on the floor. Someone will come in the morning to wake us. They’ll talk if you aren’t in bed with me. We can share for the night. It’s no trouble.”
I beg to differ, he almost snapped, but at that precise moment she moved, unfolding herself from her kneeling pose and scooting over to one side of the mattress, leaning back against the ornately carved headboard. He was treated to the stretch of her long, long legs, with their toned calves and their dainty ankles, and any protests that he might have had vanished into the aether.
Feeling very far away from his body, Alaric joined Talasyn on the bed, mimicking her position. His shoulder bumped against hers with a rush of heat and static and he quickly widened the space between them, the eiderdown mattress bobbing at the shift in weight.
At first, this new position seemed more tenable because her distracting face wasn’t in his line of sight. Much to his chagrin, he soon realized that he had an unparalleled view down her legs. They were slender and they went on for miles beneath the scattered lace dustings of leaves and hibiscus blossoms. He wondered what those legs would look like when fully bared. How they would feel wrapped around his waist.
“No more talking.” Talasyn extinguished the candles and lay down, drawing the covers up to her chin, hiding those incredible legs from view, much to his—relief? Or was it disappointment? “I have lessons tomorrow, once you’ve gone back to Kesath. I need to sleep.”
Fine by me, Alaric thought. He stretched out on the mattress beside her, careful to maintain distance between their bodies.
It took what felt like an eternity of staring up at the tapestries hung over the bed for him to admit that drifting off was impossible.
“What sort of lessons?” he heard himself ask.
“I said no more talking.”
“You also said that you needed to sleep. Unless you possess the previously unheard-of ability to carry on a normal conversation while you’re sleeping—”
Talasyn sat up. Alaric supposed that it was battle instinct, more than anything, that made him do the same. If he had remained supine it would have been far too easy for her to reach over and stab him in the throat.
But then she tugged at the sheer bodice of her nightdress, in an obvious attempt to get its delicate appliqués to lend more modesty, and he was seized by a wave of the same sympathy that she had been steadily unearthing in him ever since they met, much to his alarm.
“If you’re uncomfortable wearing”—he waved vaguely at the barely-there silk that hugged her form while trying to keep his gaze chastely on her face as much as possible—“things like that, why not tell your lady-in-waiting?”
“Jie is very sweet,” Talasyn said slowly, “but she’s also very chatty and she has certain fixed notions of what married life is like. If I were to do anything that ran contrary to those notions, even the blacksmith’s washerwoman three cities over would have heard about it by tomorrow afternoon. Sometimes it’s just easier to take the path of least resistance.”
I wish that you could take it with me, just the once, Alaric thought. Out loud, he continued, “With all due respect to her giggly young ladyship, she has no idea what our married life is like.”
“Not even the tiniest bit,” Talasyn agreed. “Anyway, this is hardly the most onerous of the things I have done for the sake of everyone else.”
She unleashed that last bit pointedly enough that her meaning—their marriage—was clear.
“Are your lessons as the Lachis’ka onerous?” he asked, quirking an eyebrow at her. “Or is it just telling me about them that you find so dreadful a task?”
“If you really must know, my lessons concern politics,” she snapped. The belligerence in her expression deepened. “The Zahiya-lachis’s brand of politics, anyway.”
“You disagree with Queen Urduja’s methods? They’re efficient.” Some of his residual annoyance leaked into his next words. “You have certainly been content to go along with whatever she commands thus far.”
Talasyn twisted the section of duvet on her lap between her fingers, as though imagining it was his neck. “And what are you implying by that?”
“You know exactly what I’m implying,” Alaric bit out, and it was as though some dam had broken, the thread of tension strung through him since the Belian amphitheater finally stretched taut enough to snap. Come on, darling, some darkly wicked, impulsive part of him thought, one last fight before I leave you. “You wear dresses you hate, you don’t commune with your magic’s nexus point because Her Starlit Majesty forbids it, you behave according to her specifications, you let this court keep secrets from you, you stay in this palace like a songbird in a gilded cage. Even before that, you ignored your yearning to be with your family because it was what Ideth Vela asked. Do you know, Lachis’ka,” he concluded with a sneer at her rapidly paling face, “it occurs to me that you’re the sort of person who needs to be told what to do. You’re too afraid to do anything for yourself.”
Her brown eyes flashed. She bared her teeth at him in the moonlight. “You dare say these things to me,” she snarled, “when you’ve lived your whole life under your father’s thumb? Studying and training to be the perfect heir, swallowing all the lies he and your grandfather spouted about the true cause of the Cataclysm—”
“They aren’t lies,” Alaric hissed. “It’s Sardovia that lied to you—”
“Oh, I’m sure! If Gaheris says so, then it must be true.” She lifted her chin. “Did you even decide to treat with Nenavar for a marriage alliance by yourself, or did you have to ask his permission? Shall I send him a token of my gratitude?”
Alaric stiffened as the barb hit home. He made to turn away from Talasyn, perhaps to even scramble out of the bed, but her hand clamped around his bare wrist and he was frozen in place.
“You wouldn’t let me sleep, so let’s talk,” she growled. “Let’s talk about how you castigate me for doing what my family tells me to do when I have never participated in the invasion of entire nation-states at their behest!”
His temper spiked, but he tried his best to keep his tone calm. “I do not expect you to understand my father’s vision—”
“Gaheris’s vision,” she mocked. “You accused me of parroting my grandmother’s words, the night of the duel without bounds, but you’re just as bad, if not even worse! You’re a parrot and a puppet on a string and a dog on a leash—”
Alaric’s self-control slipped. He inched his face closer to hers. “I’m not the only one who married the enemy at the behest of a superior, Lachis’ka.”
She surged closer to him as well, a vicious triumph blazing in her eyes. “So you admit that Gaheris is your superior. What are you, then? Night Emperor in name alone?”
Alaric couldn’t believe that he’d let such a sentiment slip. He had always prided himself on his ability to play word games with the best of them, but Talasyn rendered his mind blank whenever she wasn’t driving him out of it entirely.
In this moment, it was the way that their faces were a heartbeat apart. It was her accursed nightdress. It was the burning of her fingertips around his wrist.
“We’re done discussing this,” he said curtly.
She bristled. “You are my consort. You don’t get to order me around.”
“You are my empress,” he shot back. “You answer to me.”
“As long as we are in the Nenavar Dominion, where husbands obey their wives, it’s my word that’s your law! How sad for you, to have two masters.”
“Lachis’ka.” Blinding fury guided him further over her side of the bed. The tip of his nose grazed hers. “Shut up.”
“Or what?” the insufferable woman shouted, right in his face. “What will you do, Your Majesty?”
Alaric lunged forward, without having any idea as to what would happen when he got there. He moved with instinct, with the dark rage of the Shadowforged set free at long last. In the mood that he was in, he thought that he just might go for Talasyn’s jugular—
—but, instead, he kissed her.
Although Talasyn had known that there would be consequences to letting her temper get the better of her yet again, she had let it happen, because it felt good to have a justifiable target for all of her anxious fury. She had wanted Alaric to be the flint that she struck against; she would have said anything to make it so. She had gladly tempted fate, come what may.
Yes, she had known what she was doing.
She just hadn’t been prepared for the consequences to be—this.
His lips on hers. Again.
It was nothing like the chaste peck that she’d given him at the altar or the swift yet gentle way in which he had reciprocated. This was the Belian ruins once more, blistering, all-consuming. She was still clinging to his wrist for some reason, but her free hand whipped up to slap him—
Only for her palm to meet the side of his face without any real vehemence, her fingers curling at his clean-shaven jaw. His own hand curved at her neck, his thumb pressing into her clavicle as he licked at the seam of her lips, just like before. And, just like before, she opened her mouth to him, and a low, primal sound rumbled in his throat as he hungrily pushed forward.
Talasyn felt as though she was burning up, her heart a wild thing, and she was falling, she was melting back onto eiderdown and silk sheets. Alaric followed her, their lips still connected, his enormous frame pinning her to the mattress as she looped her arms around his neck.
Some tiny corner of her brain was busily trying to figure out how an incendiary argument could have ended with him shoving his tongue down her throat, but all attempt at rationality soon vanished amidst the clamor of sensations as he palmed her right breast. As the hard length of him ground against her stomach. All while he kissed her as though he were channeling every last bit of frustration left over from the Hurricane Wars.
She whimpered into his mouth when his hand glided over her breast in a rough caress. Her nipple peaked under his touch through silk and lace, and he muttered an unintelligible oath against her lips. His voice was so gravelly that it added to the growing warmth between her legs.
So this is what it feels like, she thought in a daze.
To have someone roll her nipple between his fingers, teasing, caressing, unspooling delight all the way down to her core. To have someone ply her with open-mouthed kisses, fierce and relentless, the hard length in his trousers rocking against her belly.
But this wasn’t just someone. This was Alaric, her husband, her enemy, her dark mirror, and the Lightweave in her veins soared in triumph, recognizing him for what he was, calling out to his shadows, and everything was golden, was eclipse, was forever, was theirs alone.
More. She raked her nails down his back. Touch me everywhere, let me know how it feels, let me have this, I want, I need—
Alaric broke the kiss, dragging his lips from her mouth to the slope of her neck. Talasyn’s eyes fluttered open—when had she closed them?—and her spine arched as he sucked and nipped at the column of her throat, his hips rolling against hers. He was so long and broad. He covered her utterly, and maybe she could belong to this, if nothing else. His teeth scraped at a particularly sensitive spot on her neck and she shivered, her fingers tracing the shell of his ear. Her frenzied gaze slid to the Dominion insignia woven into the silk canopy—the coiled dragon rearing up, claws out, wings outstretched, ruby eyes gleaming, surrounded by a field of stars and moons.
The sight jolted her back to reality. Made her aware of the world again.
She couldn’t do this.
They couldn’t do this.
It would only end in ruin.
“Wait,” she gasped out.
He immediately stopped what he was doing, raising his head to peer down at her, cradling the side of her face in one large palm, the pad of his thumb rubbing along her cheekbone as he waited, as she’d asked him to. His eyes were liquid silver in the muddle of moonbeams and stardust, seeing her for what she was, seeing her as what he’d turned her into, this disheveled, undone mess of a girl.
She meant to tell him that they had to stop. Truly, she meant to. But she couldn’t bring herself to say the words. She felt feverish and unsatisfied, the heat at the apex of her thighs pulsing with an unbearable ache, an emptiness. Her hand rose up to clutch at his shirtfront.
“Alaric,” she whispered.
He went tense at the sound of his name. His eyes darkened.
And then, with a growl, he fell upon her.
Or maybe she pulled him in. She had no idea who’d moved first. She knew only that the winter of her soul burst into springtime flowers the moment that he captured her lips in another shattering kiss. A kiss that seemed to beg the same things that her entire being was crying out for.
Just feel this.
There’s only us.
Leaving her panting for breath, just as he was, he switched to her neck again, nibbling and sucking almost hard enough to bruise, inhaling the amber-and-rose perfume called dragon’s blood that had been dabbed on her pulse point. He mumbled “Tala” into her skin over and over, the vibrations rippling through her in tremors like tiny earthquakes, and a bittersweet tear dripped from the corner of her eye because talliyezarin was a weed on the Great Steppe but tala was the Nenavarene word for star, and there was no way that he could have known that, but she could pretend. She wrapped one leg around his lean hip and his kisses to her throat turned feverish and he rucked her gossamer skirt up her thighs and suddenly—
Suddenly his hand was between her legs, touching her through her underthings.
“Gods above.” Alaric pressed a fierce, smoldering kiss to her lips. “You’re soaked, beautiful girl,” he groaned into her mouth. “My wet little wife.”
Talasyn wasn’t embarrassed by the dampness that she knew he could feel, although she probably should have been. What she was embarrassed by was the flush of pleasure that warmed her all over at his endearment. She sank her teeth into his plush bottom lip, taking advantage of his surprise to flip him over. He let out a soft grunt as his head hit the pillow, gazing up at her with silver-rimmed pupils blown wide.
“If you ever”—she straddled him fully, biting back a whimper of shuddery delight as she ground down on his hardness—“call me that again—”
“Isn’t it the truth?” His hands wrapped around her waist, holding her in place as he thrust. Just once, but it was enough for a hoarse shout to roll off her tongue at the abrupt, unexpected friction against her core that had her eyes fluttering shut. And then he was rolling her over, she was spread flat on the bed once more, held down by him, by his mouth on hers and his knee between her thighs. “Aren’t you beautiful?” he broke the kiss long enough to ask, before swallowing her protest with his lips. “Aren’t you so small in my arms?” As if to emphasize his point, he ran a hand down her body until the mound of his palm was past her navel, showing her how he could span her midsection like this, the tips of his fingers grazing the undersides of her breasts. “Aren’t you wet?” he asked huskily, that same hand sliding lower still, back to where she needed to be touched so badly that it was painful. “Aren’t you my wife?” he rasped in her ear.
“Bastard.” She contemplated kneeing him in the groin, but somehow her legs spread wider, granting his wandering touches more access. Her right hand slipped under his shirt, tracing the chiseled musculature of his abdomen. “You only think I’m beautiful when I’m all done up. You said so yourself.”
Alaric winced against her skin. She felt his shoulders tense, then fall with something like surrender. “I lied,” he said, and it was another wall—so laboriously constructed—being demolished. He sprinkled kisses on her brow, her cheeks, and the tip of her nose. Feather-light kisses, filled with a tender reverence that made her soul sing. “You’re always beautiful. Even when you want to string my guts up like paper lanterns.”
He kissed her on the mouth again and she let him, and she kissed him back, her free hand tangling in his hair as her hips canted toward his wrist, searching for more friction. “Move your fingers,” she grumped, digging her nails into his scalp.
He nuzzled at the tip of her nose. “I knew that you would be bossy.” He sighed in contentment, and in the dark it felt as though he was smiling against her lips, but before she could be certain, he complied with her curt instructions and slowly glided his fingertips over the increasingly dampening silk that covered her.
Talasyn would have wept with relief that the pressure building up within her was finally being taken care of, if she hadn’t moaned first. Encouraged by the sound, Alaric strewed hot kisses along the line of her jaw, matching the rhythm of his mouth with that of his fingers rubbing silk into wet skin. Her body strained into his as she instinctively hungered for more closeness, her head thrown back, her throat exposed to his greedy mouth.
The evidence of his desire rocked against her hip. And there was quite a lot of evidence from the feel of it, hot and heavy in his trousers. Wicked curiosity blazed through her and she reached down, working him loose, wrapping her fist around him.
He made a strangled little noise in the back of his throat, as if he were dying. He buried his face in the pillow by her head, panting roughly against her cheek as his hand crept beneath the band of her undergarments, the tips of his fingers gliding along her wetness.
It was a touch that rippled throughout her entire being. She rose and curled like the tide, melting against him, melting all over him. She bit into the round of his shoulder to stifle her whines, completely taken aback by how exquisite it felt to be touched down there by someone else. He chuckled, raspy and deep, and a burst of annoyance caused her to pull back slightly so that she could glare at him even as she tightened her grip on his cock. “That sounded entirely too smug for someone so hard, husband.”
His eyes flashed silver in the moonlight and he crushed his lips to hers again. “I’m not being smug,” he muttered into her mouth. “I will give you anything you ask, as long as you never stop touching me. As long as you come for me.”
And slowly, ever so slowly, he pushed one finger inside her.
Talasyn cried out—from pain or from pleasure, she could no longer tell. The lines were blurred. The wires were crossed. She rode Alaric’s hand, mindlessly chasing the feeling, her own fist working around him, matching the pace that he set. He was smooth and thick in the circle of her palm, as solid as a rock, growing harder still as his kisses to her face and neck turned half-crazed.
She was almost there. She didn’t know what would happen, what it would mean if she came undone like this with him. What would happen after. “Alaric, I’m—” she tried to say and broke off, not recognizing the needy, breathless stranger who spoke in her voice.
But he seemed to understand. “I’ve got you,” he promised hoarsely. His free hand tucked a loose strand of her hair behind her ear. “Let go, Tala. I’m here.”
She was distantly aware of herself, muffling a sob into his neck, twisting against the sheets, straining closer, closer, until there was no more space between their bodies and it was everything, it was a reprieve from loneliness, it was delight upon delight, Sky Above the Sky.
And she careened into it, and off the edge. The night disintegrated into shards of white heat. She fell into release with a ragged moan, her toes curling at the long, glorious spasms that consumed her in rolling waves.
Alaric kissed her through it all, swallowing her drawn-out sighs, rocking his finger gently inside her until it became too much and she squirmed, and he pulled back his hand.
But that was the only part of him that she would allow to leave her. The hard length of him twitched eagerly in her half-limp palm and, with some effort, mustered through the delicious, lazy, slow fog that had enveloped her, she pumped her wrist in experimental strokes. His breathing shallowed and he thrust into her fist haphazardly and then, with a groan, he was coming, too, she could feel it, warm and wet on her palm, dripping down her fingers in her dazed afterglow.
He collapsed on top of her. Alaric—always so stiff, so inscrutable, so carefully controlled—went slack above her, his mouth moving against her collarbone, torn between prayers and kisses. She couldn’t understand what he was mumbling into her skin and she didn’t care—there were no words for this. His dark hair was tickling her chin, so she raised her other hand to stroke it flat, her fingers curling into the softness of it, holding him against her as they both caught their breath.
Talasyn came back to herself with all the languidness of a feather wafting to the ground. She blinked to clear the haze from her eyes, staring up at the ceiling. Her gaze fixed on the tapestries above the bed, the sewn stars and the glimmering moons, the dragon of Nenavar . . .
Nenavar. Sardovia. Kesath.
It all came crashing down on her again, all at once.
What were they doing?
She was going to get everyone killed.
Large arms reached around her waist, trying to bring her closer, but she stiffened at his embrace. The embrace of the Night Emperor.
Talasyn drew her hand back from Alaric’s hair to push at the wide slab of his shoulder. “Get off of me.”
He lifted his mouth from her clavicle. At first, he didn’t seem to understand. He squinted at her as though searching for answers, his brow creasing in bewilderment—hurt, almost. She remained still beneath him, turning her head to the side so she wouldn’t have to meet his eyes.
Then the common sense that had overtaken her must have returned to him, too. He rolled off her in an instant, scrambling as far from her as was possible without actually falling off the bed.
She couldn’t deny that something in her broke when he moved away.
Talasyn dove under the covers, pulling them up over her chin. She dared another glance at Alaric, his chest heaving, his lips wet and swollen, his black hair sticking up at odd angles from where she’d run her fingers through. An embarrassed flush colored his moon-kissed complexion as he reached down to rearrange his trousers. He looked as upset as she felt. The perfect pleasure of only a few moments ago had faded, leaving in its wake only a jumble of horrible thoughts, scattered and disjointed.
The man she had just done—that—with loathed her, and she was supposed to loathe him in turn. He was an unwilling political ally whom she would someday betray. He was her enemy. He was a monster.
And yet, her fingers were still sticky with his spend.
“You’re leaving tomorrow,” she said. And, in the act of speaking, she burst whatever bubble they’d been trapped in for the past month. She ripped away all the illusions they’d labored under; she knew that the moment she saw the resignation creep over his face.
But it was a miracle how steady her voice was, how it didn’t falter in the slightest. Talasyn supposed that she could be grateful for small mercies. “We shouldn’t have done this,” she told him.
He opened his mouth, dark irises flashing silver. Would he argue with her? Did she want him to?
But he seemed to think better of it. He gave a short nod.
She stole out of bed, heading to her bathroom so she could clean up. “I changed my mind,” she announced. “You’re sleeping on the floor.”
Without waiting for his response, she slammed the bathroom door shut behind her. Closing it between them, a shield from further mistakes.