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Luxuria: Chapter 12


   a pleasant ache between my thighs and faint scratch marks, well, basically everywhere. I’d had the filthiest dreams I’d ever had now that my imagination had received the knotting expansion pack, but none of that mattered, not really. Not when Allerick wasn’t here. Hadn’t been here all night.

He’d fucked me senseless, gently held me in the bath, been kind to me at dinner when I was feeling all overwhelmed with the flower thing, and then… just left? Gone to sleep in his own room?

What the fuck was that about? The breakfast I’d eaten earlier turned to lead in my stomach.

I slammed my hairbrush down a little harder than necessary on the vanity and Affra plucked it out of my hand with a knowing sigh, taking over.

″Are you married, Affra?” I asked, suddenly realizing I didn’t know.

″My husband died many moons ago,” she replied, shushing me before I could apologize. “Old age comes for all of us. We met when I was young and had stars in my eyes, and he ensnared me with his confidence. He was fifteen years older than me, and I thought he was so wise.”

She wheezed a laugh, shaking her head at herself.

″We have two children—daughters—neither of whom are cut out for life at the palace. Not all Shades are as fiercely militant as the king or Captain Soren. Many just like to live in the outer edges of the realm and tend animals, live peaceful, quiet lives. Before I was married, I lived a life of almost silent contemplation at the Itrodaris.”

″Itrodaris,” I repeated slowly, getting my mouth around the foreign word.

The Itrodaris,” Affra corrected. “It’s the home of knowledge and learning for the whole realm, and houses the largest book collection that Shades possess. Though the palace’s library is none too shabby,” she added, grinning just enough to show a flash of fang.

″What did you do there?” I asked, feeling incredibly self-conscious of the fact that she was spending her morning brushing my hair. Was Affra a professor or something? As a scholar, I’d mostly taken a ‘Cs get degrees’ approach to my education, and my lack of suitability for the role I’d found myself in had never felt more stark.

″I was a translator,” Affra replied, her claws scraping ever so slightly at my scalp as she began braiding my hair down one side. “I’ve always had an interest in languages, both the ones of this realm and of the humans.”

″Would you rather be doing that now?” I hedged, hoping the question didn’t come across as patronizing.

Affra patted my shoulder reassuringly before returning her attention to my hair. “Not at all, Queen Ophelia. When I left the Itrodaris to marry, I was content to go, knowing that I would never live there again. It was a demanding life that required total devotion—if I returned there now, it would be at the expense of my relationship with my daughters.”

It eased my mind somewhat to know that I wasn’t dragging Affra away from a job she’d really rather be doing in order to fiddle with my hair and do my laundry, though my inferiority complex was rapidly developing a complex of its own. Intellectually, I knew I hadn’t been put in this role for my brains, but I still wanted to feel like I was bringing something to the table aside from the required genes.

″Do you visit your daughters often?”

Affra gave me a funny smile in the reflection of the mirror. “We can’t shadow walk within the palace, but once we’re beyond the gates, it is easy. All properties have a pitch black “entry room” near the gate so they can be accessed by shadow travel day or night. I visit my children most days, usually when you’re in the garden with Levana.”

″Oh. Wow, that’s convenient. In the human realm, it can take days to travel somewhere to visit family if they’ve moved far away.”

Days?″ Affra repeated incredulously. “I’d have never continued to work at the palace if it would take me days away from my children.”

That was a lovely thought that unfortunately transported me to memories of my own parents, who weren’t super high up in the Hunter hierarchy and had zero compunctions about leaving us for days if they were given orders. The Council would send them out to follow leads and chase Shades, working around their regular nine-to-five office jobs since the Shades only came out at night, and Astrid and I were mostly latchkey kids, left to fend for ourselves.

It hadn’t been until they kicked me out and spent most of my time around regular humans that I’d even known enough to be resentful about it. Every Hunter kid I knew had the same experience, it never really occurred to me that it didn’t have to be that way.

Affra carefully bundled my hair up, pulling the raven pin out of the drawer without asking and securing it in my hair. I didn’t mind, I was too lost in my own thoughts to care about my hairstyle anyway. Once she was finished, I quickly did my makeup and pulled on a plum-colored dress and flats, a bit bored of the endless array of silky jewel-toned dresses the Hunters Council had provided for me but not game to pull on leggings and an oversized shirt either. Especially not when half the Shades at court had looked at me like I was some kind of heaven-sent miracle over that flower yesterday.

Affra opened the door for me, and I shot her a grateful smile before exiting to find Levana waiting for me in the corridor.

Not Allerick.

Which was totally fine and to be expected, since he was the king and all and probably had important kingly shit to be doing. We’d consummated our union as per the treaty’s requirements, I doubted I’d ever see him in my bedroom again.

″Good morning,” I greeted Levana, pasting my most unbothered expression on my face.

I was totally bothered.

″Good morning, Queen Ophelia.” Levana inclined her head lower than usual, and when she looked up at me it was with a weird expression on her face.

″Oh no, you’re not going to be all awkward about that flower, are you?” I groaned, walking through the corridors towards the kitchen for no real reason at all.

″It was a miracle. You are a miracle,” Levana replied with unsettling certainty.

″Levana, you know better than anyone that I’m not. You watch me wander around aimlessly all day, doing nothing productive. I’m definitely not out there turning flowers gold.”

I gave her a withering look over my shoulder and she looked down to hide her smile. “I suppose we will need to agree to disagree on this. Are we doing something different today, Queen Ophelia?” Levana asked. I didn’t miss the hint of hopefulness in her voice—she was probably as bored as I was of wandering around the gardens and occasionally stopping in at the kitchen. Even if she did angry-flirt with Calix the entire time we were there.

″I don’t have any plans for anything different,” I replied, giving her an apologetic smile. It wasn’t like Allerick had suggested an alternative activity for me. He hadn’t said much of anything really, not with words.

The dull pain between my thighs seemed to almost pulse in response. Things had certainly changed between us since yesterday morning, but to what extent, I wasn’t really sure.

Was it just sex? More than sex? Did he actually like me as a person, or was he just acting on the intense physical attraction between us?

Was it just the novelty of fucking a Hunter?

I’d always craved monster sex, maybe he’d always craved Hunter sex. In which case, did I even have a right to be upset about it or would that make me a massive hypocrite?

″Queen Ophelia?” Levana asked gently.

I blinked, finding myself standing still in the middle of the corridor. “I’m sorry, I must have zoned out. Maybe we could explore some different corridors today? Mix it up a little?”

″Of course,” Levana agreed, though she still looked a little hesitant.

Instead of heading inwards to the center of the spiral where the courtyard and kitchens were, or out to the main entry hall which led to the dining area and out to the gardens beyond, I picked a different direction and committed, wandering through hall after hall even though they all looked much the same. A couple of times, I thought I might be in one of the halls Allerick had half-dragged me through after our ceremony, and I wondered if I’d end up back at the temple ruins we’d been married in.

Just when I thought that’s where we were headed, I rounded the corner and found myself at a dead end. The end of this corridor was wide open, and I was already turning away from it before Levana could warn me away.

″Wait,” a reedy feminine voice called out. “Don’t run off. Come in here and take tea with me.”

My eyes snapped to Levana’s, panicking slightly as I tried to decide how best to handle this in a queenly way. Could I say no? It seemed un-queenly to say no.

Orabelle,” Levana mouthed, shooing me back towards the open door with wide eyes.

Orabelle. Allerick’s mother.

Fuckity fuck, I couldn’t exactly ignore her.

Schooling my features into what I hoped was a sort of dignified expression, I held my head high and did my best version of a ladylike glide into Orabelle’s room.

The abundance of black and gray flowers that covered almost every surface immediately caught my attention. The design aesthetic for the rest of the palace could best be described as ‘spartan,’ which was probably why I enjoyed spending time in the gardens so much. The only other place I’d seen flowers in vases was at our wedding ceremony.

″It’s difficult for me to get outside these days, so my son ensures the outside is brought to me,” Orabelle rasped. “Come. Sit with me, daughter.”

Surprised by the title, I wound through the vegetation to the partially obscured armchairs where Orabelle was seated. My first thought was how frail she was. I thought Affra looked small and old, but Orabelle looked like a strong breeze could knock her over. Despite that, she was still incredibly intimidating. Like a dowager empress, regally surveying her domain.

″Hello,” I said awkwardly, clasping my hands in front of me and inclining my head the way Shades did as a sign of respect.

″You’re the queen,” Orabelle said sharply. “The only Shade who outranks you is my son, uncrowned as you are. And if he demands you bow to him, then you send him to me for a refresher lesson on how husbands ought to treat their wives. Sit down, will you? I don’t like being towered over.”

I dropped into the seat opposite her instantly.

″Has Allerick been demanding you bow to him? I haven’t seen as much of him as I usually do since the treaty was signed. He has to spend all his time dealing with idiots who’d prefer risking their lives every time they need to feed rather than work alongside the Hunters.”

″Um, no. No, he’s never asked me to bow to him,” I replied, clearing my throat. He had asked me to call him ‘your majesty’ back at our wedding, but he’d clearly been trying to antagonize me. I hadn’t actually called him by just his first name yet to his face, but I doubted he’d care if I did.

″Well that’s something,” Orabelle grumbled. “Didn’t introduce you to his mother though, did he? Little shit.”

A laugh bubbled out of me before I could keep it in, and I could have sworn Orabelle looked a little smug.

″How are you finding your new role then, Ophelia?” she asked, not bothering with any of the ceremony which I appreciated.

″Great. The Shades have been very accommodating, the palace is beautiful, and I feel very fortunate that I get to live here and experience this place—”

″By the goddesses, you’re bored out of your delicate human skull,” Orabelle interjected. “Levana! Is no one lining up meetings with the queen? Requesting her presence at events?”

Levana was half-hidden behind an enormous pot plant, looking more scared of Orabelle than I’d ever seen her look of anything. “The king made it clear that Queen Ophelia was to be given time to adjust to her life and role here first.”

“What a load of nonsense,” Orabelle scoffed. “You come here, as brave as can be in the face of such change and I doubt you got a particularly warm reception, and now you’ve brought color back into our realm. You should have Shades lining up outside your receiving room to meet with you.”

I glanced at Levana, trying to ascertain whether I had a receiving room or not, but she was determinedly looking anywhere else. I couldn’t really be mad at her—Allerick was the king, she had to follow his orders. I was only pretending to be queen.

″Levana, bring me that wooden box on my dresser,” Orabelle commanded, infinitely more regal than me. Levana jumped into action, reappearing a moment later with an aged black wooden box and lowering it carefully towards Orabelle’s lap. She huffed in impatience, encouraging Levana to get on with it before producing a key from a necklace she was wearing. “Come closer, daughter.”

Ignoring the happy skip of my heart at the title, I stood and made my way over to Orabelle, kneeling next to her as she opened the creaky box. My eyes almost bugged out of my skull at what I saw inside.

It was a necklace. A colorful necklace. Amethysts the size of pebbles were set in oval-shaped gold links, connected by intricate gold and emerald flat links, and the necklace was held together by a simple old-fashioned ring clasp. Despite the beautiful condition of it, there was no doubt that it was old. The links between the amethysts were cut in a curved pattern that reminded me of some kind of ancient culture—Greek or Egyptian or something. Had Hunters from ancient civilizations visited the realm of shadows and left things here? Surely not.

″These items don’t lose their color?” I asked, keeping my voice quiet because something about the necklace commanded my respect.

″No, just things of this realm. Allerick has always scoffed at the notion, but I believe that this was once a realm of color and life, and something happened to take it all away.”

Like a meteor or something?

Orabelle was looking at me like she thought I might have answers, which was kind of flattering because no one in my entire life had ever looked to me as a source of knowledge.

″Well, if you have nothing else to do, then you can stay and take tea with me,” Orabelle announced, reaching for a silver bell next to her that I hadn’t spotted and ringing it. “I will tell you about the time my idiot son was chased back into the shadow realm as a youth when he tried to feed from a shaman.”

“So,” I began when Levana and I were back in the corridor and safely far enough away from Orabelle’s room that we could talk.

Levana made a strangled noise, giving me a look of disbelief.

″What?” I asked.

″We just had tea with Orabelle.”

″That’s… a big deal then, is it?” I hedged.

″Orabelle is the oldest Shade in the realm. Which is probably not old by human standards, but, well, you know,” she finished awkwardly.

Shades didn’t get to live until old age because Hunters killed them all.

I hesitated for a moment, not wanting to offend anyone. “She looks really old.”

Levana snorted, and I was glad she didn’t appear to be offended even though I’d totally failed in my attempt at tactfulness.

″Orabelle pretty famously refuses to feed properly from the stores. She wants to keep them stocked for the young. It’s been a… well, a point of contention, between her and his majesty, the king.”

Levana looked a little uncomfortable with that admission, and I knew she didn’t like to talk badly about Allerick, or to even give off the impression that she was.

″Thank you for telling me,” I told her sincerely, giving her what I hoped was a reassuring smile. “That’s awful that Orabelle doesn’t feel that she can take what she needs. Is there no way to collect more from the human realm for the stores?”

″Not safely,” Levana admitted. “Especially with the treaty limiting where we can go and putting us under closer scrutiny from the Hunters.”

I frowned to myself, wondering if there was something more that could be done. Could treaties be amended? Constitution-style? Could you tack some shit you forgot to include on the end?

″Do you mind if we head to the kitchens? I need more substantial food than tea and jerky,” I asked absently, trying to decide if the Hunters would be amenable to negotiations or not.

Honestly, I was trying hard not to think too closely about the tea and jerky combination that would haunt my nightmares.

Levana’s expression turned smug. “Of course, Queen Ophelia. I can’t wait to see the look on Calix’s face when I tell him where I spent my morning.”

″Is there something there?” I asked with a laugh as we made our way through the palace. “Between you and Calix?”

″No,” Levana replied, far too quickly. “Shoot, I can’t lie to the queen. Please don’t throw me in the Pit. Yes, there was a thing, but it was just a one-night thing.”

I laughed again before I could help myself. “You don’t need to tell me about your relationships just because I’m the queen. I’m asking as a friend, and you can choose to tell me about it if you want to.”

″Oh.” Levana looked as though she wasn’t sure whether or not to believe me, but that was okay. She’d realize we were besties soon enough. “Calix and I were both drunk at a party in the forest a few months ago and apparently both lost our senses for long enough to think sleeping together was a good idea. Apparently, I made an impression on him,” she added wryly.

″I can believe that,” I assured her with a grin. “He looks at you as though you’re all he sees.”

Levana scoffed, though she fidgeted with her claws a little bashfully. “He’s grumpy and irritating, and it will never happen again.”

I hummed noncommittally at those famous last words as we made our way through the halls, my mind drifting back to that necklace Orabelle showed me. It really did look like an old human relic, and yet it was here, when Shades couldn’t physically transport things from the human realm to theirs.

Maybe there used to be some kind of trade agreement between Shades and Hunters? The Hunters on the Council had known to come here in order to negotiate the terms of the treaty, maybe that knowledge had never been lost but rather hidden, only available to the select few considered important enough to know about it.

″Queen Ophelia,” Levana murmured, suddenly coming to a halt. There was something in her voice that had me looking around, vaguely alarmed. She was technically my bodyguard after all.

″What is it?” I asked, following her gaze to one of the lights on the wall.

″The orb. Don’t you see it?”

″Yes?” I replied hesitantly.

Levana’s lips twitched. “The color. Don’t you think it’s glowing a warmer color than usual?”

I frowned, squinting at it. The orbs all around the castle set off a silvery light that really emphasized how colorless this place was, but Levana was right, the stones it was illuminating seemed to be a warmer shade than usual. I lifted my arm, finding my skin slightly less pallid than I was accustomed to under these lights.

″Huh. That’s cool.”

Cool?” Levana repeated incredulously. “It’s another miracle, thanks to you.”

I waved it off, uncomfortable with the reverence in her tone, and Levana quieted as we approached the kitchen. The moment we walked through the door and her eyes found Calix’s, she had her best uncaring mask on, even though I was pretty sure she’d given him an appreciative once over before he turned around.

″Ah, what brings my two favorite females to my kitchen?” Calix asked, his sweet words belied by the thwack of his cleaver as he whacked it into the gray carcass I was pretending wasn’t there.

″Sarcasm doesn’t suit you,” Levana clipped.

″Denial doesn’t suit you,” he muttered. Ooh, shots fired. I gave Levana a pointed look as her lips thinned, arms crossed defensively over her chest. “I sent someone to ask where you wanted your lunch, Queen Ophelia, but they couldn’t locate you.”

″My apologies, we were in Orabelle’s room for tea.”

Calix paused, the cleaver hovering in midair. “First, you don’t need to apologize to me, you’re the queen. Second, Orabelle’s a cantankerous old wretch who doesn’t socialize with anyone, how’d you manage that?”

″The pot calling the kettle cantankerous,” Levana mumbled while I made my way through the kitchen to the shelf Calix had set aside for me and grabbing the canned peaches as well as the can opener I’d swiped from my sister’s place. I didn’t usually have much of a sweet tooth, but the tea and jerky had done me in.

″Was Orabelle nice to you, or did she make threats and warn you to treat her baby boy well?” Calix asked, ignoring Levana’s muttered remark.

It was downright weird to think of Allerick as having ever been an infant. He was so huge and serious all the time, I sort of envisioned him emerging into the world fully grown.

″I think she liked me,” I replied, opening the can of peaches and pouring them into a bowl so I looked slightly more dignified while I ate them.

″It’s a trap,” Calix deadpanned, giving my bowl a disapproving look while I fished out one of the forks I’d taken from Astrid’s kitchen.

″It’s not a trap,” Levana shot back, sidling up next to me and peering into the bowl. “It’s so bright. You really think this tastes better than jerky?”

″What are you trying to say about my jerky?” Calix cut in, glaring between us.

″Your jerky is fine,” I assured him, stabbing a peach. “It’s just that jerky and tea is a very weird combination for a human. Want to try?” I asked, holding the fork out to Levana.

She eyed it warily, plucking the piece of fruit between her claws and sliding it off the fork. “I suppose you’ve tried all of Calix’s cooking without complaint.”

″Yeah, and my cooking isn’t orange,” Calix said emphatically, watching Levana with alarmed eyes as she brought the peach to her mouth. As though orange was the weird food color and not all the black and gray mystery meat.

Levana nibbled tentatively on the peach, and I held my breath, waiting for the moment where she realized how glorious sugar was, but it never came. She darted for the enormous barrel bin, tossing the remaining fruit in the trash and leaning over it to gag dramatically, spitting out the miniscule amount she’d eaten.

″Levana!” Calix shouted, embedding his cleaver in the butcher’s block as he ran over to check on her. “Are you ill? Do you need a healer?”

″It’s disgusting,″ Levana said dramatically.

″I’ll get you some beef as a palate cleanser.” Calix was already running across the kitchen like Levana eating a piece of meat was a Code Red situation.

I silently handed her a glass of water, raising an eyebrow at her.

″I’m sorry, Queen Ophelia, but your human food is repulsive,” Levana said solemnly, sipping the water gratefully. “It has a sickly flavor, and the texture is too soft to be natural.”

″More peaches for me,” I replied, shaking my head as I smiled and pulling the bowl towards me. Whatever trade agreement may have existed between Hunters and Shades in the past definitely hadn’t included fruit.


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