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Luxuria: Chapter 4

Ophelia

    shuffling sound, and it was interrupting my delightful sleep. I wanted to open my eyes and investigate, but my alarm hadn’t gone off yet and I had moral objections to even pretending to wake up before my alarm forced me to.

I rolled over with a groan, silky sheets sliding over my legs as I moved.

Silky sheets.

Not microfiber ones that had seen better days.

My eyes flew open as it hit me where I was. In the Queen’s Chambers in a goddamn palace in the shadow realm. Newly married, and alone in my bed.

I pulled the gray silk sheet up as I slowly worked my way into a sitting position, leaning back against the cushions while Affra quietly set a tray of food and what looked like a steaming pot of tea on the small cafe table next to the wall.

″Good morning, your majesty,” she said, bowing low. “I apologize if I woke you.”

″No apology necessary,” I yawned. “I don’t suppose we can drop the ‘your majesty’ stuff?”

She chuckled quietly. “How about ‘Queen Ophelia’? Is that more to your taste?”

″It feels arrogant to say ‘yes,’ but I have gone my whole life feeling like someone should call me a queen, so I’m going to roll with it,” I sighed, flopping back against the pillows.

″You’re not what I expected for a Hunter queen,” Affra remarked mildly.

″That’s what my husband said,” I quipped. Ugh, my husband. Fuck that guy.

He’d just stood me up! On our wedding night. Even if consummating our marriage hadn’t been a necessity for validating the treaty, being stood up by my own husband on my wedding night was a kick in the teeth. We may not have chosen each other, but I had hoped we could at least be civil. I’d been attempting civility, and was the one who had to leave my home and everything I knew behind.

Because I’d been quietly shuffled out of the Hunters, they hadn’t paid for my college education the way they did for regular Hunter youths. I’d been drowning in student debt from the marketing degree I’d gotten from SU, and my coordinator job had barely made a dent in it, yet it still left me barely able to afford rent in a shitty apartment with three other people that maybe got five minutes of sunlight on a good day.

When Astrid had called me a week ago with the Council’s offer—including wiping out my debt—it had seemed like such an exciting adventure and a chance to fulfill the fantasies that had long haunted my dreams that I gave little thought to agreeing. Maybe even a chance to win back a little approval from the people who’d taken it away all those years ago, like my parents and my sister. I’d spent more time with Astrid in the past week getting things ready than I had in years, and it was weird to realize that I was missing her already.

My parents, not so much.

They’d found my sketchbook when I was sixteen and still in the training that all Hunter children had to go through. After some truly terrifying yelling from my dad and distraught sobs from my mom, they’d reported me to the Council who’d declared me unfit to continue training and shipped me off to a human boarding school until I was old enough to be responsible for myself. It had been a lonely existence, trying to fit in amongst regular humans who had no idea what kind of creatures emerged in the darkness.

Once you know what the things that go bump in the night are, it’s hard to pretend otherwise.

I’d gotten a little better at pretending like I wasn’t miserable and alone in a world where I didn’t quite fit in the past couple of years, but I’d naively hoped this would be the opportunity I’d been longing for my entire life.

″Bacon, your majesty?” Affra asked quietly, standing back to show me the tray she’d arranged on the table and dragging me out of my thoughts. I gave her a tight smile as I climbed out of bed in the sexy little getup I’d idiotically worn to seduce my husband, hastily grabbing the robe I’d discarded last night and shrugging it on. A crate of fresh fruit and vegetables sat in the corner where my things had been left, and I picked through it, selecting an apple for my breakfast.

There was only so much meat I could stomach. I was glad Astrid had thought to pack vegetables for me, while also wondering how she even knew to do that. She probably had inside information—at age twenty-six, Astrid was shaping up to be the youngest member of the Hunters Council ever if she secured a spot at the next election. Aside from the fact that she’d received the full extent of Hunter training, she’d probably been given extra instruction to prepare her for leadership.

Not that she’d seemed overly excited about the prospect while I’d been staying with her. Astrid had changed the subject instantly every time I’d mentioned her future on the Hunters Council.

″Shall I take that to the kitchens?” Affra suggested while peering into the crate of healthy goodness, wrinkling her nose slightly. Despite semi-loving being called a queen, it was beyond weird to be waited on, but I didn’t want to offend her by dismissing her. “The cook can learn how to prepare them for you.”

I took a seat at the small table. “I don’t mind going to the kitchens and preparing them myself. Will I take all my meals here?” Alone?

″Dinner is served in the dining hall each evening,” Affra replied, her voice softening slightly. Had she been expecting the king here this morning? Or at least some mussed sheets or evidence of his presence?

I snatched up the bacon a little more aggressively than necessary, nibbling on one end and dreaming of cutlery as bacon grease clung to my fingers. “And in the meantime? Am I expected anywhere during the day?”

Affra hesitated, pausing as she straightened the sheets on the bed. “Not that I’m aware of.”

On the one hand, I wasn’t qualified to lead a flock of pigeons, let alone a realm of Shades, so that tracked. On the other, what was I supposed to do with my time? I wasn’t even a real queen, not really. Our marriage wasn’t yet valid, and I hadn’t been crowned.

Was that the point of him staying away last night? Did he not want this treaty?

That didn’t seem right, not after what he’d said at dinner about the Shades standing to gain more from the treaty than the Hunters did.

Maybe he just doesn’t want you.

Considering this was an arranged marriage, that thought hurt more than it had any right to.

I finished my breakfast, tasting nothing, before excusing myself to the bathroom to wash up. By the time I emerged, Affra was waiting next to the vanity with a brush in hand, ready to do my hair. It felt a little excessive since I had nowhere to go and no one to see, but I sat down at the vanity regardless. She took her time brushing out my hair, humming thoughtfully as she separated the strands with her claws before running the brush through it. I briefly worried she was going to scalp me by accident, but on closer inspection, Shade claws were like black fingernails except longer and sharper, and they still had soft pads under their fingers, so I didn’t think I was at serious risk of losing either a chunk of hair or skin by accident.

Not that I’d had the opportunity to touch my husband’s hair to compare, but mine seemed softer than their almost leathery hair appeared, and Affra seemed as interested in me as I was in all of them.

Besides, it was colorful. I was a natural brunette with an addiction to red hair dye, and never had I been more grateful for my vain ways. Auburn hair in the shadow realm was badass.

Affra reached past me, tugging open one of the many drawers on the elaborate vanity and procuring a surprisingly large black box. Too big to be jewelry, that was for sure.

Maybe my husband didn’t like me, but I wasn’t about to say no to presents.

″A gift from the Crown Prince,” Affra murmured, carefully opening it with her claws and presenting it to me.

″Prince Damen?” I asked in surprise. A welcome-to-the-family gift then. I tried not to be disappointed.

Though on closer examination… maybe it was less a welcome than a threat. Or at the very least a reminder. Inside the box was the most enormous, elaborate hair pin I’d ever seen.

It was a black metal raven—the symbol of the Hunters—with its wings outstretched, head proudly tilted up, beak protruding. The silvery pin was long and thick enough to double as a weapon, with a curved hook at one end to slide it in.

Right through the raven’s outstretched wings.

The symbolism was not lost on me.

″You are the Queen of Shades now,” Affra reminded me in a soft voice. “A queen of monsters, and a part of this world.”

Was I? I’d certainly be making a statement with this. Forsaking my kind even if I’d never been truly a part of that group, but it was a risk when our marriage was even entirely valid yet.

A test. This must be a test.

″I’ll wear it,” I said, blowing out a breath. I knew what I was leaving behind when I handed over the keys to my old apartment and changed into my wedding dress in a communal bathroom at the Council headquarters.

Just like I’d always dreamed of when I was a little girl, I thought sarcastically. Who didn’t want to spend their wedding day traveling through a terrifyingly dark portal all alone in a dress that was a tripping hazard, whilst wheeling their suitcase behind them? Bride Goals.

Affra hummed in approval, her claws scraping my scalp gently as she twisted and piled my hair into a bun, leaving a few strands at the front loose. Once it was up, she held the huge raven behind it, securing it with the ominous-looking pin which she held carefully by the loop.

The pointed pin was shinier than the raven, but I knew it wouldn’t be silver. Silver was the one material that could kill Shades, and while they seemed to make jewelry out of it, I’d already been checked for weapons on arrival.

I took a moment to put on light makeup before carefully doing winged eyeliner as sharp as the pin stabbing the raven on the back of my head. Affra seemed at a loss when it came to my clothes, which made sense since they just whipped up some shadows to cover the important bits.

How convenient would it be to never need to do laundry? I was jealous.

Not wanting to stick out any more than I already did, I ignored all the colored dresses and pulled out a floor-length black dress that wrapped tightly around my waist but had drapey sleeves and a flowing skirt. It wasn’t quite clothes-made-of-shadows, but it was the closest I had.

Despite it being a lot more formal and fancy than the clothes I’d worn in the human realm, I kind of liked the way they made me feel. I was dressing for the job I was underqualified for.

Affra gave me a nod of approval, clearing up my breakfast dishes while I slipped my feet into simple black flats. I was dressed. I was presentable. I’d eaten.

Now what?

Not that I was missing where I used to work with the cubicle right in the center of the floor as far away from the windows as possible, but at least I’d had some kind of purpose.

Even if that purpose had been counting down the minutes until I could leave, so I could get back to my tiny room with the mold on the ceiling and binge watch old episodes of Kitchen Nightmares.

″I’m going to go out and explore,” I told Affra with as much confidence as I could muster. Queen shit, right there. She nodded absently, pausing to give me a quick bow.

So… I could explore, then? At least I wasn’t a prisoner in my rooms.

The corridor was silent as I pushed it open, the door opposite mine firmly shut. Was that Allerick’s room? Was he inside, still asleep? As tempted as I was to barge in and demand answers, I had a severe case of Wounded Pride that I needed to deal with before I attempted that.

Instead, I turned right, walking down the brightly lit corridor like I was totally at ease being there. I wasn’t afraid necessarily, just not as confident as I’d like to be. That feeling only increased when I passed through a stone archway flanked by two guards, and one immediately fell into step behind me.

I paused, turning to look at her, and she bowed quickly, keeping her eyes trained at the floor.

″Hello.”

She glanced nervously up at me with dark blue glowing eyes. Strange to see a Shade nervous, though I guessed I was the unknown in these walls, not them.

″Er, hello. Your majesty,” she tacked on quickly, flicking her short black hair out of her face. Like everyone else I’d seen, she was draped in a cloak of shadows, and I wondered if they wore any armor underneath them.

″That is… very unnecessary,” I assured her. “Just Ophelia is fine.”

″Queen Ophelia,” she replied instantly. “My name is Levana. I’ve been assigned to accompany you today.”

″Anywhere in particular?” I asked drily, unable to keep the snark out of my voice. Would it be too much for my husband to swing by and mention any of this to me?

And fuck my brains out so I could tick off some legal requirements and a few bucket list items?

″Um, well nowhere in particular,” Levana answered after a small pause. She seemed uncomfortable, so I didn’t push it—it wasn’t her fault that Allerick was a dick, or that the Council of Shades had negotiated a Hunter wife for their king and apparently hadn’t planned beyond the wedding.

With a heavy sigh that I hoped Levana hadn’t heard because I didn’t want to come off like a brat, I continued aimlessly wandering down the corridors with her following a few feet behind me. Despite the weirdness of being watched, it was comforting to know that if I got lost, at least Levana would be able to guide me back to my room. It wasn’t that the palace was particularly large, but it was confusing. The corridors were all well lit with that strange silvery light, and there were no windows to be found.

There was a faint gust of wind that caught in the fabric of my dress, and I followed that direction in search of fresh air, eventually coming out in a covered walkway that curved into a spiral, going down, down, down to the bottom to a dark, circular courtyard. The whole palace was a spiral, I realized, leaning out over the balcony and looking at the blackened stone levels above me. The circular shape hadn’t been obvious from the portal I’d landed in outside the walls, but I could see it now I was inside.

The dark gray sky above swirled like a churning sea, so much more active than the sky at home. There were no clouds, and last night when I’d arrived there had been no moon or stars, but despite that it was still strangely beautiful. In the daylight—or whatever passed as daylight here—it looked sort of like smoke trapped under glass, moving around above us. It would be strange not to see sunlight, but I could get used to this too.

I turned my attention down to the courtyard below. It wasn’t an overly manicured, landscaped space, and I found that I liked the wild darkness of it. And it was dark. Flowers and trees grew from the gray dirt, all in shades of gray and black, almost shadow-like in substance.

It was one thing to see the inside of the palace all in grayscale, but seeing colorless flowers was a little unsettling.

I glanced back at Levana, contemplating asking her about it, but she was staring determinedly ahead, semi-pretending I didn’t exist. Huh. Who knew I’d miss my surface-level drinking buddy friendships from back home. At least people spoke to me there.

With a nervous gulp, I continued down the curving hallway, pausing in front of enormous black double doors decorated with an engraving of a book on each side. I looked behind me, my hands resting on the handle.

″The library,” Levana offered quietly.

Since they lived like it was still the 1800s here, getting into reading again seemed like a good option. I pushed open the enormous doors with some effort, wondering why I’d stopped reading when I’d enjoyed it so much as a teenager. Adulthood had made me lazy.

The library wasn’t nearly as well lit as the other parts of the palace I’d seen, and I couldn’t quite suppress my loud gulp as I edged my way inside. Maybe it was to protect the books? They looked pretty ancient. Black candelabras illuminated the main throughway, but the rows of books that fanned out either side of the main aisle vanished into shadow, and I wasn’t quite game for that just yet. I stuck close to the main walkway as I paused at the first row, making sure I was standing in the light as I perused the leather spines at the beginning of the row.

It didn’t look like I was going to find any YA fantasy here, but I supposed that wasn’t a very queenly thing to read anyway. If I even was a real queen who was going to do real queen shit. Whatever. Maybe I’d brush up on some geography just in case. I’d been taught about the shadow realm a little before I was booted out for being a horny perversion of a Hunter, and I was curious to see how the maps we had lined up with the actual maps the monsters kept of their own realm.

How did we have maps at all? I wondered to myself. There had been diplomatic visits between Councils to both realms during treaty negotiations, but as far as I knew, I was the only one who’d ever lived here. Maybe we’d stolen them.

After checking a few more shelves and getting bored with the entirely nonfiction selection, I headed back out into the corridor with a still silent Levana on my heels. More Shades had appeared while I’d been in the library, hustling about the palace on their business. They didn’t hide their outright stares as they passed, though most tipped their chin respectfully and seemed pleased when I returned the gesture. A few looked at me with the same abject terror as the server last night, and I tried to make myself look as nonthreatening as possible.

If only I had an instruction guide.

Or, you know, a husband who was the fucking king who could help me out. Whatever.

″Where are the kitchens?” I asked Levana, still heading down the curved corridor that led to the courtyard.

″Bottom level,” Levana replied, looking startled by the question. I supposed visiting the kitchens wasn’t a very royal thing to do, but I didn’t want to get scurvy so they’d all just have to deal with my peasant-y ways.

A few more awkward head nods later and I was letting myself through swinging double doors to a somewhat medieval-looking kitchen.

″What do you want?” a gruff voice barked, glaring at me over a large stone island with a meat cleaver in his hand, a whole carcass laid out in front of him that I decided not to look too closely at.

″This is the queen,″ Levana hissed from behind me. “Watch your tongue.”

″She can be the queen outside this room, I’m the king in this kitchen,” he grumbled, shooting Levana an irritable glare. I smiled despite myself.

″That sounds fair,” I cut in, not wanting Levana to get upset on my behalf. “In here, I’m just Ophelia. What shall I call you, sir?”

″Not ‘sir,’ that’s for certain,” he scoffed. I imagined that if he could roll his glowing dark orange eyes, he would. “My name is Calix.”

″Call him ‘vermin’ for his attitude,” Levana muttered irritably, flicking her hair off her face in irritation.

″Careful now,” I laughed. “The King of the Kitchen may exile you for your cheek.”

It was difficult to tell, but I thought I saw Calix’s face flicker with amusement. His voice reminded me of a grouchy old fisherman, but on closer inspection, he didn’t look aged the way Affra did. His hair was pure black and tied up in a messy knot at the base of his neck, highlighting the twistiness of his black horns, and his muscular forearms spoke of strength and youth.

″You’re here about that, I take it,” he said, pointing the cleaver somewhat threateningly at my crate of vegetables.

″I am. I don’t suppose there’s somewhere cold I could store them if I cooked them in advance?” I asked, looking around the kitchen.

″We have ice pits to keep food cold,” Calix replied, tipping his chin towards a door on the back wall. “You’re not going to demand I prepare them for you?”

″By the night, if the king heard you speak to her like that…” Levana said on an exasperated exhale.

I doubted very much the king would care.

″Not at all. I’m sure you’re busy enough without needing to make special meals for me. I’ll prepare some vegetables in advance and store them in the ice pit,” I said decisively. If nothing else, it was something to fill my time. I’d never had enough free hours in the day to get good at cooking, and now I had nothing but free hours apparently.

With a narrowed-eyed glare, Calix slid a chopping board and knife across the island towards me. The entire kitchen was designed around cooking meat, but I figured I could cook a pot of vegetable stew easily enough, maybe even freeze it in small portions to eat over time. I’d work my way up to something fancier.

With the horrific sounds of Calix butchering meat in the background, I started the monotonous process of washing and chopping vegetables while Levana leaned against the wall, silently watching.

I could thank my Hunter education for this, at least. When we were young, we were forced to participate in our own form of Scouts to prepare us for a life of monster hunting. I hadn’t ever particularly enjoyed camping, but I remembered how to make a camp oven stew and the supplies I had access to were pretty similar here.

″Should I help you?” Levana asked, looking torn between guarding the door and swooping in to take over.

″Is this not very new-queen behavior?” I teased.

″Oh, it’s fine—” Levana began, but Calix’s barked laugh cut her off.

″Not particularly queenly, no. We all assumed you’d be a stuck up Hunter bitch who’d expect us to wait on you hand and foot and remind us of all the Shades you’d killed.”

Calix!″ Levana hissed.

I nearly sliced off my finger. “No, no, I would never… I have never…”

″Yeah, I think we’re seeing that,” Calix said, his gruff voice sounding thoughtful. “Unless you’re a very good actress, there’s nothing lethal about you. You’re squeamish over meat.”

″It’s very, uh, squelchy sounding,” I replied, my stomach churning slightly. It seemed in poor taste to point out that Shade-killing in the human world didn’t involve any kind of flesh since they were in ghost-mode while they were there.

″I’m thoroughly trained in combat and field medicine, and even I struggle with the gore in here,” Levana said with a tentative smile. “Calix revels in making everyone around him uncomfortable.”

″I don’t care to make others comfortable—it’s not the same thing,” Calix countered, shooting Levana a vicious grin.

Were they flirting? It seemed kind of flirty. The kind of flirting you did when someone pissed you off most of the time but you still had sex dreams about them and woke up hating yourself a little bit.

Calix set a small cast iron pot on the counter for me, and I pretended like the concept of cooking on an open flame wasn’t terrifying as I filled it with chopped vegetables and set it on the grate.

″Did you cook the food for the feast last night?” I asked Calix, propping my hip against the counter while I waited. “It was very good.”

I could have sworn he preened a little. “I did. Barely slept for days getting it all ready.”

″And you’re here so early? Are there others that work here?”

″They’ll be along later,” Calix said dismissively. “Gave them the morning off to recover after all the feast preparations. Doing breakfast and lunch just for the royal family is plenty easy enough on my own.”

″Oh? How many is that?” I asked, super cool and casual. Calix grinned at me, and Levana let out a strange cough that may have been an attempt to cover up a laugh.

Okay, so my stealth interrogation skills needed work.

″To think we were worried,” Calix chuckled. “The royal family consists of you, King Allerick, Prince Damen, and King Allerick’s mother, Orabelle.”

″Was she at the feast last night?” I asked, giving up the pretense that I was being anything but nosy.

″No,” Levana answered. “Orabelle is very… frail. She doesn’t leave her rooms.”

″Still got a sharp mind though,” Calix added. “I’m sure you’ll meet her soon enough.”

″Are you really?” I asked, arching an eyebrow at him. I was hanging out in the kitchen on my first day as queen, after all.

Calix grinned, moving to the sink to clean his carving knife. “Maybe not soon, but eventually. The king’s other siblings choose not to live at court, just Prince Damen.”

Curious. Why didn’t they want to live here? Allerick had appeared to treat Damen well—the prince certainly hadn’t been shy about teasing his older brother, and I hadn’t got the impression at all that Allerick would threaten him.

I’d probably just learned more about my husband in an hour in the kitchen than I would have in weeks if he was going to keep ignoring me, I thought wryly.

″Are you going to want that with your dinner?” Calix asked, already clearing his work bench to start on another carcass while I carefully took the vegetables off the heat.

I shook my head, setting the pot down and leaning back as I took the lid off. “I’ll eat what everyone else eats at dinner, I can just come here and have my, er, more human food without everyone watching me.”

″I’ll send it up with your breakfast and lunch,” Calix replied easily.

″That’s very kind, thank you.”

He frowned at me like I’d just offended him and all of his ancestors. “I just don’t want you in my kitchen every day.”

Levana snorted. “I don’t want to accompany the queen to your kitchen every day, so if you could send it up, that would work better for everyone.”

They glared at each other from across the kitchen, and while I had firmly set my monster fucking eyes on the asshole I was married to, the sexual tension in the room made me want to fan my face.

I was definitely going to draw this later. Not Levana and Calix specifically, because I was hoping we’d sort of made friends and it’d be weird to draw kinky pictures of my friends without their knowledge, but I’d draw something inspired by this ‘if only you weren’t so irritating, I’d fuck you into next week’ energy.

Okay, maybe ‘friends’ was overstating things, but I was feeling marginally less alone after my time in the kitchen. Calix was gruff and rude, but he treated me like I was just a regular person, which was nice. Levana seemed less nervous and wary of me than she had before we got here, which was a huge plus because if she was assigned to shadow me, I wanted her to be comfortable at least.

If I couldn’t have friendship, I’d settle for companionship. And maybe on my trips back to the human realm, the Hunters who’d written me off as worthless all those years ago would finally have time for me again, and I’d have friends there as well.

Stay positive, Ophelia. You’re going to make the best goddamn lemonade out of these lemons.


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