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Luxuria: Chapter 19

Allerick

   I ever had in my life through the spiraling corridors, down, down down to the securest area below the courtyard that only a select few approved Shades could reach.

My shadows reached for the obsidian lock, pressing into the stone to demand entry, and the heavy door swung open with a quiet click.

Regret was weighing heavily on me. There had been protests and displays of discontent with the treaty for weeks—I’d been leaving the palace to deal with them most days. Diplomatically, as the Council and I had agreed. I’d treated my subjects like the intelligent, reasonable beings I believed they were and explained the advantages that a peace treaty brought us, and for the most part it had worked. Yes, Shades still chafed at the restrictions, at the concept of Hunters knowing where we were feeding and when, but they understood that the safety and security it brought us, especially the most vulnerable among us, were worth the limitations.

Perhaps I’d been too focused on getting back to the palace to meet Ophelia for lunch each day. I should have come down harder on the dissenters, made more of an effort to find out who was feeding them these paranoid worst-case scenarios to rile them up and made an example out of them instead.

Marriage had made me soft.

″Who would do this?” I muttered, mostly to myself. “It’s so reckless. What is there to gain other than causing chaos?”

″Maybe the chaos is the point,” the youngest Councilor, Teague, murmured as he joined me in the small room. Soren positioned himself as close to me as possible, knowing that I needed extra protection to make myself vulnerable in this way.

Above us were five obsidian stones embedded in the stone ceiling—one in the center, and four surrounding. They were sister stones to each of the five portals, and the most-frequently used and largest palace portal was in the center.

I could sift through the signatures left by the blood required to use the portal and narrow it down based on timing, though it was an imprecise science and I didn’t have every Shade’s signature memorized. If it was someone unfamiliar to me, I’d need to go hunt them down.

″Allerick,” Damen said, his voice unusually serious as he weaved through the old Councilors huddled in the corner of the room. “I don’t think you should be here.”

″I’m the only one who can do this.”

This power to identify each Shade in the realm belonged to the monarch alone. It was lucky that I’d put the crown on before leaving my rooms, as I needed the blooded obsidian that marked me as ruler for the connection to work.

″I know, I know, but I’m worried about Ophelia,” Damen replied.

″Levana is with her, as are plenty of other guards.” I frowned, wondering if all the guards stationed around the courtyard were enough for three Hunters. In the human realm, we were defenseless, but here we had the advantage by a long shot. “I would have never left her alone if I thought she was at risk.”

″What? I don’t think they’re going to hurt her. I think they’re going to convince her to leave.”

I scoffed, turning my attention away from him to focus on the threads of magical signatures and converting time zones in my head. “Ophelia wouldn’t leave, this is her home. I left her in charge of the Councilors. I expect they’ll want to hang around until we can provide some answers.”

″You hope that,” Damen corrected quietly. He was right, I did hope that. I hoped that the Hunters would not be so unforgiving as to throw the entire treaty out over one infraction. If I could figure out who was responsible for this and make an example of punishing them, surely that would be enough to undo the damage?

I had to believe it was. I had to believe that all the work we’d done in securing this arrangement to keep my kind safe wasn’t for nothing.

With a long exhale to try clear my head, I closed my eyes and raised my arms, drawing the faint traces of shadow signatures into me, portal by portal. Immediately, I narrowed it down to those who were in the human realm at the time, which still gave me twenty or so options.

Some I recognized. Scouts who worked for me, a couple of members of the court. I rattled off their names, listening as Teague scratched them down on paper. They were options and we’d be foolish to rule them out, and yet…

″What aren’t you saying?” Damen asked quietly, always more astute at reading me than anyone else.

″Meridia was in the human realm at that time,” I sighed, hating the way Soren tensed beside me. For all her many flaws, Soren loved his sister and had always tried to save her from her worst impulses.

″It was probably an accident,” Soren muttered. “It had to be an accident. Maybe she’d gone too long between feedings and lost control in an area she shouldn’t have.”

It was a bullshit explanation and we both knew it, but it hadn’t escaped my attention that his immediate reaction was to assume she was guilty. Had things with her been more serious than I’d initially realized? I knew she didn’t like Ophelia, but I’d stupidly attributed that to jealousy.

″Go find her and we’ll see,” Damen ordered Soren, stepping up in a way he rarely did.

I felt Soren depart, but stayed focused on my task as Damen took his spot, guarding my back while I was vulnerable, memorizing the signatures I was unfamiliar with so I could track them down.

″We all know it was Meridia,” Damen said gently. “We shouldn’t waste time here trying to find a tentative alternative because we hope for Soren’s sake that it wasn’t her.”

I ignored him to continue what I was doing, devoting my attention entirely to my task. While it seemed likely that it was in fact Meridia at fault, I wanted to be confident that I’d done my research so I could find the others if I needed to.

The moment I had them in my mind, I released the shadows back to the portals above me, blinking my eyes against the light. Damen was already staring intently at me with an unsettling degree of intensity.

″You’re acting strange,” I told him honestly.

″You always tell me to be more involved. I’m being involved,” Damen replied as though it was obvious. “Besides, you need me here to handle things so you can be with Ophelia.”

“I will meet Ophelia for lunch as I always do, possibly with the representatives from the Hunters Council if she’s kept them here. Perhaps I’ll invite them to her coronation to try and get the treaty back on stable ground. Come, let’s see if we can catch up with Soren, so we can provide the Hunters with a suitable resolution.”

″Her coronation? I think you’re being too optimistic. This was a declaration of war, Allerick,” Damen said, his voice unusually solemn. “You and the Councilors have tried to reason with the idiots who refuse to understand what we stood to gain from the treaty, but this act was a direct rebellion against your rule. I know as well as you do that it’s hard to come down strongly on Meridia, we watched her grow up and she’s Soren’s sister, but this cannot stand.”

I wasn’t accustomed to taking advice from Damen—he was within his rights to give it, he just never did. And he wasn’t wrong. The Shade who’d tried to poison Ophelia had been thrown in the Pit, but all the other rebels and dissenters had walked free, partly to keep relations between them and us stable. I looked to the Councilors who were huddled in the corner, watching us carefully.

If Meridia was responsible, then I intend to banish her to the Pit,” I announced, watching their reactions. The Pit was a hole filled with perpetual brightness that no one could shadow walk out of. It was our worst prison, and only used for the worst of infractions. “In breaking the treaty, every Shade has been put at risk. It is a heavy crime worth of a heavy punishment. Speak freely, Councilors.”

Raina stepped forward, looking a decade older than she had the last time I’d seen her. “None of us relish the idea of punishing our own, especially when it may look like we’re valuing the truce with the Hunters more than our own people…”

″We are,” I said bluntly. “But it is for our own people that we value the truce.”

″Indeed,” Maddox said solemnly. “You have our support, King Allerick.”

″Good. Let’s find Soren and get this over with.”


Damen and I followed a series of messages from various guards until we found ourselves materializing in the dark entry room on the outskirts of Soren and Meridia’s mother’s country home. They held a family seat in this region, Illtal, but it wasn’t the most prestigious of areas, and it looked like the house was rarely used judging by the crumbling state of the stone facade and the overgrown vegetation.

There had been unrest in this region about the treaty before. I should have known.

We made our way to the front garden and for a moment, there was no sound at all except for the rustling leaves and quiet chirping of birds, and I was beginning to think we’d been given the wrong information. Then glass shattered loudly from inside, and I knew with a heavy heart that we hadn’t. That Meridia was inside with Soren, and it wasn’t going well.

″Come on,” I grumbled, rushing for the front door with Damen on my heels. I yanked it open, darting to the left as a glass vase flew at my head, narrowly avoiding Damen.

″Settle down, Meridia,” I growled. The situation would be worse if Soren hadn’t already partially restrained her with his shadows, but Meridia was strong and had almost shaken them off while throwing everything within reach at her brother. Fortunately, none of it appeared to be made of silver.

″I’m sorry,” Soren panted. “She tried to run the moment I got here.”

″Not exactly the actions of an innocent Shade,” I said mildly, my own shadows creeping along the floor too fast for Meridia to register, winding around her ankles to keep her in place before wrapping around her middle, pinning her arms at her sides. The candelabra she’d just swiped fell from her grasp, hitting the floor with a thud.

″I am innocent!” she hissed, writhing to get free of my binds before frowning down at them in confusion. She hadn’t expected me to be able to restrain her so easily, that much was obvious, but I was at full strength after feeding on my wife’s lust and I felt fucking invincible.

Even if I hadn’t fed, I felt like nothing could have stopped me at this moment. Meridia was a threat to my people, a threat to my wife, and I couldn’t let that stand.

″The truth this time,” I commanded, a length of my shadows solidifying as it wrapped around her neck. It wasn’t tight enough to do any damage, but served as a reminder of what I could do, if I wanted to.

″Don’t threaten me with a good time, your majesty,” Meridia purred, switching tact immediately and pasting a disturbingly sultry look on her face.

″For fuck’s sake, Meridia, enough,” Soren spat. “Have you not humiliated yourself enough?”

″You are the humiliating one here,” she shot back, glaring at her brother. “You could have been anything, anyone, and you chose to be the king’s lap dog. You are an embarrassment to our entire family line.”

″Yes, I’m sure the entire family will be embarrassed of Soren when you are rotting in the Pit,” Damen snorted. Soren’s jaw tightened slightly, but I could see the resignation in his gaze.

″Did you feed on a human directly outside the Hunters Council building, yes or no?” I asked impatiently, flexing the length of shadow rope around her neck.

Meridia tilted her chin up stubbornly. “Yes.”

Why?” all three of us pressed.

″They suggested it. They also informed me that they weren’t going to say anything to you for another twenty-four hours, the fucking traitors,” she muttered, like she was the leader who’d been betrayed here.

″You’re working with them,” I said flatly, a hollow sensation forming in my chest. Had the Hunters been toying with me all along? Had the treaty been a ruse right from the beginning?

″Some of them. Some of the Hunters are visionaries like me. I don’t care if you throw me in the Pit. In fact, you should. See how long it takes for my supporters to come and get me out. I’ll reward the one who successfully does it richly when I am queen. With the help of the Hunters, the rebellion against your rule has already begun.” She looked awfully smug for someone who was bound and outnumbered.

I made a show of looking around the room. “Where are those supporters now? Hiding amongst the broken glass on the floor?”

Meridia’s gaze darkened. “They will come for me.”

″Perhaps,” I acknowledged. “They’ll find themselves in there with you when they do. Let’s go, I have work to do. You may have ruined everything, but I’m going to fix it. I will not let this treaty fall apart because of you.”

Meridia had said some Hunters, not all. Maybe there was still a chance we could make this work. Maybe the Hunters Council would be

″A treaty makes us look weak,″ Meridia spat, fighting fruitlessly against the bonds holding her in place. “You should have married me. We could have been great together.”

I snorted. “You’d have killed me in my sleep the first opportunity you got, you power-hungry psychopath.”

I flicked out another whip to wrap around her mouth before she could respond. I didn’t need to listen to any more of her poison before dragging her out behind me to the dark entry room outside the property, Soren and Damen flanking me. While there would undoubtedly need to be a trial, I just wanted her secured in the Pit for the meantime until the Council and I could discuss her fate, then I wanted to get back to my wife.

What was Ophelia thinking right now? Had I left her with the very Hunters who’d been working with Meridia?

Surely not. They hadn’t followed the timeline Meridia had agreed with them on, that probably meant they weren’t her co-conspirators.

Regardless, seeing those Hunters here, in our domain, had rattled Ophelia, though she didn’t like me to know when she was upset about something. I was confident she’d be talking to the Hunters representatives now, calming the situation as she had a knack for doing, and hopefully making them more amenable to overlooking this infraction and dealing with their own dissenters. After they’d gone, I’d ask Affra to draw her a relaxing bath. Forcing down the rage that had been dominating my mind since the Hunters had shown up, I searched for the tether that connected me to Ophelia.

Strange.

Where was she? The tether between us felt strained. Unnaturally so. I’d traveled further than usual today to track Meridia down, that was probably it. Maybe this connection between us didn’t like for us to be so physically apart. didn’t like it.

The next time I traveled in my lands, I would be taking my wife with me. Ideally with a crown on her head and a baby in her belly. That visual had my heart flopping strangely sideways in my chest.

″How did she even communicate with them?” Damen muttered to himself as we shadow walked.

″Like this, I imagine,” I replied grimly. “My guess is a one-sided conversation happened in the human realm and then she walked the Hunters into the in-between so she could engage. There would be no record of that in the portals.”

I dragged Meridia through the darkness, emerging at the entry room a few hundred feet away from the Pit. It was the one spot of darkness that allowed us to transport to and from the prison, but aside from that it was a blinding beacon of light that could be seen for miles.

Meridia winced at the overwhelming light while I hid my own discomfort, marching her along the brightly lit path that led to the circular pit with crisscross silver bars over the top to stop anyone climbing out, though the guards who patrolled the outer ring would catch them if they did.

″Your majesty!” one of them said in alarm, stumbling over themselves in their rush to get to me, bowing as they went.

″This traitor needs to be securely held until a public trial can be organized.” A public trial that was very much a formality, because I was not letting this traitorous cowardly excuse for a Shade out in my realm ever again. “She has already claimed that she is expecting outside assistance to free her, I want your most diligent Shades watching her at all times.”

″Of course, your majesty,” the guard agreed, taking the binds that I severed from myself and gifted to him to control.

″Let me escort her,” Soren said hoarsely, stepping out from behind me, his hard gaze trained on his sister.

″I want to make sure that she gets to the cell myself,” I growled. I didn’t think Soren had any lingering compassion for his sister after the stunt she pulled, but I wasn’t about to take any unnecessary risks.

″You may need to rethink that idea,” Damen remarked mildly. I turned to see what he was talking about and finding Levana jogging down the pathway from the entry room, her gaze trained at the floor.

″Where is Ophelia?” I asked sharply.

″I’m sorry, your majesty. She left with the Hunters,” Levana replied quietly.

The ground dropped out from underneath me, my breath seizing in my lungs. No. No, that wasn’t possible. She wouldn’t leave.

Why?”

″The Hunters were very adamant that the treaty was void, and she wasn’t sure if you’d want her to stay without it,” Levana hedged, looking immensely uncomfortable with this conversation. I imagined there was more to it—Ophelia saw Levana as a friend and had probably spoken freely with her—but I was glad Levana appeared to be concerned for my wife’s wellbeing first and foremost.

″King or not, brother or not,” Damen said in a voice barely above a whisper, leaning in close to my ear. “You are a fucking idiot if you don’t fight for her.”

He clapped me hard on the shoulder, the disapproval clear on his face. Had Damen not told me to make more of an effort with Ophelia? That showing her kindness between the sheets wasn’t enough?

I pulled myself out of his grip, striding towards the entry room and letting the shadows carry me back to the portal outside the palace without a second look behind me. Meridia was Damen and Soren’s problem now.

There was no evidence of her or the Hunters who’d visited anywhere. The chaos of the morning had vanished like it had never been, just the regular guards standing stoically in place.

Gone. She was actually gone. My heart was tearing into two inside my chest, ripping brutally in different directions. My breath sawed out of me, louder and raspier than normal. Maybe I was dying. Maybe Ophelia had condemned me to death when she walked out of my life. She’d been my sunshine, and she’d taken it with her.

I deserved it. Damen was right. I should have done more. Should have reassured her somehow, communicated with her in a way that didn’t involve burying my cock inside her.

Unless she’d wanted to go. Maybe I really was just an experiment for her. An exercise in monster fucking that she’d wanted to get out of her system.

I walked through the palace in a daze, my feet taking me to her door automatically. Except it wasn’t her door because she’d gone. Walked out of my life as though what we’d shared was nothing.

The door creaked as I pushed it open, stepping inside the lifeless space. It still smelled like Ophelia, like us, and I flexed my hands at my side, forcing myself not to go rip the bedding off and store it somewhere no one else would find.

Thank the goddesses Affra wasn’t here to witness my rapid descent into madness.

I paced around the room, noting the bag she’d left behind before making myself look in the one drawer I wanted to look in but dreaded all at the same time.

Blowing out a breath, I slowly pulled open the top drawer of the dresser. There was no rattle of drawing supplies like there had been last time, but my heart jumped when I found one piece of paper in the middle of the drawer. Just one.

I lifted it carefully, holding it up to the light to make out what I was seeing. Ophelia’s normal pictures showed two figures in the center surrounded by lots of white space, but not this one. She’d drawn to almost the very outer edges of the page, and it was darker than usual, so it took me a moment to realize that it was a close-up depiction rather than a full body one.

It was us. She’d drawn herself with her cheek resting against my chest, my chin atop her head. Our eyes were closed, but there was a small smile playing at her mouth, and my hand was gripping her upper arm possessively, claws snagging the material of her dress. She’d drawn us cuddling. Surely this meant I was more to her than just an assigned husband she was conveniently attracted to?

How could she possibly think I wouldn’t want her here? The shadow realm was her home, her kingdom. She was my everything.

Why hadn’t I just told her all of that before?

″Your majesty,” Affra said quietly, standing in the doorway to Ophelia’s room. I turned to face her, clutching the drawing close. “I translated the book. I have some news about you and your mate.”


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