The Shadows Between Us – Tricia Levenseller

They’ve never found the body of the first and only boy who broke my heart. And they never will. I buried Hektor Galanis in a hole so deep, even the devils of the earth couldn’t reach him. My dream was of him, of the day he told me it had been fun but he was done. Some other girl had caught his fancy. I don’t even remember her name. At the time, all I could think of was the fact that I’d given everything to Hektor: my first kiss, my love, my body. And when I told him I loved him, all he had to say was “Thanks, but I think it’s time we moved on.” He had other things to say, too. When I sank my knife into his chest, words came spilling out of him almost as fast as the blood. He couldn’t make sense of it. I couldn’t, either. I barely remembered grabbing the knife Father had given to me for my fifteenth birthday, three months previous, with its jeweled handle and silver sheen, but I do remember that Hektor’s blood matched the inlaid rubies. I also remember what finally helped my head catch up with my pounding heart: the last word out of Hektor’s lips. Alessandra.

His last word was my name. His last thought was of me. I won. That knowledge settles within me now just as it did three years ago. That sense of rightness, of peace. I lift my arms into the air, stretching like a cat, before rolling over in bed. A pair of brown eyes is only inches from my own. “Devils, Myron, why are you staring at me?” I ask. He presses a kiss to my bare shoulder. “Because you’re beautiful.

” Myron lies on his side, his head propped up on a closed fist. My bedsheets cover him from the waist down. It’s a wonder he fits in my bed, he’s so tall. Floppy curls sprawl across his forehead, and he flicks back his head to clear his vision. The scent of sandalwood and sweat wafts over me. With a hand, I keep the sheets held up over my chest as I rise to a sitting position. “Last night was fun, but you should go. I have much to do today.” Myron stares at my chest, and I roll my eyes. “Perhaps again later?” I ask.

He looks up at me, before his eyes flit meaningfully to my chest once more. No, wait. Not my chest. To the hand holding the sheets in place and the extra weight I now feel there. There’s a diamond on my finger. It’s beautiful, cut in an egg shape and buried in gold. It winks in the morning light as I tilt my hand from side to side. The ring is by far the most expensive trinket he’s ever given me. “Alessandra Stathos, I love you. Will you marry me?” Laughter fills the room, and Myron flinches at it.

I quickly place my free hand over my lips. “What are you thinking?” I say a moment later. “Of course not.” I stare down at the gorgeous ring once more. With this gift, Myron has outlived his usefulness. For some reason, my lovers cease to give me expensive presents once I turn down their proposals. Alas. “But we’re so happy together,” he says. “I will cherish you every day. Give you everything you deserve.

I will treat you like a princess.” If only he knew I have my sights set a bit higher than that. “It’s a very kind offer, but I’m not ready to settle down just yet.” “But—I’ve shared your bed,” he splutters. Yes, he and three other boys this month. “And now it’s time for you to leave it.” I move to rise from the bed when the door to my chambers bursts open. Myron freezes with his hand outstretched toward me, and my father, Sergios Stathos, Lord Masis, looks down at what he can see of our naked bodies. “Leave,” he bites out in a deathly quiet voice. My father is shorter than my five and a half feet, but he’s built like a bull with a thick neck, wide shoulders, and keen eyes that pierce to the soul.

Myron tries to take the sheets with him, but I’ve got them firmly clamped around myself. When he fails to wrest them from me, he reaches down to grab his pants. “Leave now,” Father specifies. “But—” “Listen or I will have you whipped!” Myron stands. Barely. He hunches as though he can hide his tall frame. He makes it halfway to the door before turning. “My ring?” “Surely you want me to keep it? So I can remember our time together?” Myron’s face twists. He has one foot pointed toward the door and the other toward me. Father growls.

Myron takes off at a run, nearly tripping over my father’s boots as he bolts over the threshold. Once he’s gone, Father turns to me. “You make it difficult for me to find you a suitable match when you’re caught with a new bedfellow every night.” “Don’t be ridiculous, Father. That was Myron’s fifth stay.” “Alessandra! You must stop this. It is time for you to grow up. To settle down.” “Has Chrysantha found a husband, then?” Father knows very well the law forbids me to marry until my older sister does. There is an order to things.

Father treads over to the bed. “The Shadow King has dismissed a number of single women from the palace, Chrysantha among them. I’d hoped your sister would catch his eye, rare beauty that she is.” Oh, yes. Chrysantha is a rare beauty. And she’s as dumb as a rock. “But it was not to be,” Father concludes. “Myron’s free,” I offer. Father levels a glare at me. “She will not wed Myron.

Chrysantha will be a duchess. I’ve already made arrangements with the Duke of Pholios. He’s an aging man who wants a pretty girl on his arm. It’s done. That means it’s your turn.” Finally. “You’ve suddenly taken an interest in my future, have you?” I ask, just to be difficult. “I’ve always had your best interests in mind.” A complete untruth. The only time Father bothers to think of me is when he catches me doing something he thinks I shouldn’t.

Chrysantha has been his focus my entire life. Father continues, “I’m going to approach the Earl of Oricos to discuss the match of you and his son, who will inherit one day. Soon, I should think, given Aterxes’s ailing health. That should make you happy.” “It doesn’t.” “You’re certainly not going to remain my problem forever.” “So touching, Father, but I’ve got my sights set on another man.” “And just whom would that be?” I stand, pulling the sheet up with me, before tucking it under my arms. “The Shadow King, of course.” Father guffaws.

“I think not. With your reputation, it’ll be a miracle if I can get any nobleman’s son to have you.” “My reputation is known by none, save those whom it directly concerns.” “Men do not keep the exploits of the bedroom to themselves.” I smile. “They do when it’s me.” “What is that supposed to mean?” “I’m not stupid, Father. I have something on every man who has seen the inside of this room. Myron has an unfortunate gambling problem. He lost a family heirloom in a game of cards.

Blamed the missing pendant on a servant and got him whipped and fired. His father wouldn’t be happy to hear of it. And Damon? I happen to know he’s part of a group of smugglers importing illegal weapons into the city. He’d be sent to prison if anyone knew the truth. And let’s not forget Nestor, who’s quite fond of the opium dens. I could go on naming all my lovers, but I think you get the idea.” Though his face doesn’t change, Father’s shoulders lose some of their tension. “Such winning gentlemen you keep around, darling.” “The point is, Father, I know what I’m doing. And I’m going to keep doing whatever I wish, because I am the master of myself.

And you? You’re going to send me to the palace with the next wave of women to see the king, because if there’s anything I’m good at, it’s getting men to propose to me.” I flash the diamond on my finger in his direction. Father’s eyes narrow. “How long have you been planning this?” “Years.” “You said nothing when I sent Chrysantha to the palace.” “Father, Chrysantha couldn’t catch the attention of a rabid dog. Besides, beauty isn’t enough to catch the eye of the Shadow King. He has beauties paraded in front of him all year long. “Send me. I will get us all a palace,” I finish.

The room is quiet for a full minute. “You’ll need new dresses,” Father says at last, “and I won’t get your sister’s bride-price for weeks yet. That won’t be enough time.” I pull the ring from my finger and stare down at it lovingly. Why does he think I’ve taken so many lovers? They’re fun, to be sure, but most important, they’re going to finance my stay at the palace. I hold up the ring where my father can see it. “There’s plenty more where this came from.” SEWING HAS ALWAYS BEEN a hobby of mine, but it is impossible for me to make all the new clothing required for my upcoming plans in such a short amount of time. Working with my favorite seamstress, I design and commission ten new day outfits, five evening gowns, and three appropriately indecent nightgowns (although those I make myself—Eudora doesn’t need to know how I intend to spend my nights). Father takes no part in the planning, as he is much too busy with his accountant, worrying over the estate.

He’s bankrupt and desperately trying to hide it. It’s not his fault. Father’s quite competent, but the land just isn’t producing as it once was. Disease swept through a few years ago and killed most of the livestock. Every year, the crops grow thinner. A well has already gone dry, and more and more tenants are leaving. The Masis estate is dying, and Father needs to acquire decent bride-prices for my sister and me in order to keep his lands running. Though I’m aware of the situation, I haven’t bothered to worry about it. My lovers all feel the need to give me nice things. Very expensive things.

It’s been a fun game. Learning their secrets. Seducing them. Getting them to shower me with gifts. But to be honest? I’m bored with it. I have a new game in mind. I’m going to woo the king. I suspect it won’t be longer than a month before he’s helplessly in love with me. And when he proposes, I will say yes for the first time. For once the marriage is official and consummated? I will kill the Shadow King and take his kingdom for myself.

Only this time, I won’t have to bury the body. I’ll find a convenient scapegoat and leave the Shadow King for someone to discover. The world will need to know that I’m the last royal left. Their queen. CHAPTER 2 Father exits the carriage first and holds out his arm to me. I grasp it with one gloved hand, hold up my heavy overskirt in the other, and descend the steps. The palace is a grand structure painted entirely in black. It’s positively gothic in appearance, with winged creatures resting atop the columns. Round towers sweep up the sides, roofed with shingles, a recent architectural style. The entire length of the palace is built near the top of a mountain, with most of the city winding its way downward.

The Shadow King is a grand conqueror, spreading his influence slowly across all the world, just like his father before him. Since the surrounding kingdoms try to retaliate from time to time, a well-protected city is vital, and the grand palace is said to be impregnable. Guards patrol the grounds with rifles slung over their shoulders, a further deterrent to our enemies. “I’m not sure black was the best color choice for your attire,” Father says as he leads me up the steps to the main entrance. “Everyone knows the king’s favorite color is green.” “Every single girl in attendance will be wearing green. The point is to stand out, Father. Not blend in.” “I think you might have erred in excess.” I think not.

With the king’s conquering of Pegai, some of the ladies at court tried the Pegain style of loose pants with jeweled hems below a fitted top. After a while, the style faded away. It was too different for most ladies to adapt to. I’ve designed a combination of the Pegain style and our heavy-skirted Naxosian style. I wear close-fitted pants beneath a floor-length overskirt, which parts in the middle to show off the pants. Heeled boots raise me an extra inch off the floor. The overskirt is short-sleeved, but I wear gloves so long they overlap the sleeves. My top is tied in the back beneath the overskirt, the neckline just short of my collarbone. Modest and yet not matronly. A black rose pendant rests on a choker around my neck.

Matching earrings dangle from my lobes, and my hair is half up in a loose twist. “I assume you have a plan for once you’re introduced to the king?” Father asks. “He will receive each lady one by one up to the dais. He barely even looked at Chrysantha when it was her turn. The Shadow King never descends the steps to interact with the partygoers. He doesn’t even ask anyone to dance.” “Of course I have a plan,” I respond. One doesn’t go into battle unprepared. “Are you going to tell me this plan?” “It doesn’t involve you. You don’t need to know.

” The muscles in his arm bunch slightly. “But I could weigh in. Help you. You’re not the only one who wants you to succeed.” I pause at the top of the steps. “Have you ever seduced a man before?” Father’s cheeks redden. “Of course not!” “Then I don’t see why I should need you to weigh in on anything. Rest assured, Father, if there’s any way in which you could prove useful, I will tell you. For now, I can handle things.” We continue on at a leisurely pace.

The doorman nods a greeting at us as we pass him by, and Father leads me toward the ballroom. But we can’t come within a hundred feet of it, because a line of green extends nearly all the way back to the far wall. Nigh a hundred girls chitter with their families and one another, all waiting for an introduction with the king. I’m certain they can’t all be eligible for marriage. Many look like younger sisters of the older ladies in line. Still, should the king show any interest in the younger ladies, I’m certain their fathers will make them available. Father tries to take me to the end of that line, and though it appears to be moving at a somewhat quick pace, that simply won’t do. “No, we’re not waiting in line,” I say. “That’s the only way to get an introduction with the king.” “Let’s go into the ballroom first.

” “You’ll be lost in a sea of people in there. That’s not going to catch his attention.” I blow out a breath through my nose before turning to face Father. “If you cannot do as you’re told, then you can leave. Remember, Father, all your tutelage with Chrysantha did nothing. Your way doesn’t work. I am in charge of this plan, and I will execute it as I see fit. It simply won’t do to have us quarreling once we enter the party, so make a decision now.” Father’s lips press into a thin line. He doesn’t like being told what to do, least of all by me, his youngest child.

Perhaps if Mother were still alive, he’d be more gentle and kind, but illness took her when I was eleven. Finally, Father nods and holds out his free hand in front of us, inviting me to lead the way. I do. The upbeat music of an orchestra wafts out a set of open doors farther down the way. They appear to be used primarily for exiting the party, however. I watch girls with handkerchiefs pressed to their noses to muffle their sniveling and angry mothers chastising them for it scamper into the hallway, making hasty retreats. Has the king been openly rejecting the women who come to get an introduction? I smile at the thought of his forwardness. That’s exactly the sort of thing I would do in his position. Father and I push past a few more nobles leaving before we’re finally caught in the thick of the party. Couples glide together on the dance floor.

Gentlemen drink wine from goblets, and mothers gossip to one another from the sidelines. Groups of girls giggle behind fans or shawls as they stare up at the dais. At the Shadow King. I’ve never laid eyes on the man before, and now I’m free to observe him as long as I like while momentarily hidden among the other guests. His name, it would seem, is well deserved and in line with the rumors I’ve heard. Tendrils of shadow halo his entire outline. They swirl as though alive, caressing his skin and dissolving into nothing before reappearing again. It’s fascinating to watch. They say the Shadow King has some sort of power, but no one knows what it is. Some say he can command the shadows to do his bidding, that he can use them to kill—choke the life out of his enemies.

Others say they’re a shield. That no blade can pierce his skin. And even others say that the shadows speak to him, whispering the thoughts of those all around. I certainly hope that last one isn’t true. Knowing what I have in store for him after our wedding night simply won’t do. Once I adjust to the outline of shadow, I’m able to take in other features. His hair is as black as the shadows around him. The sides are cropped short, but the hair up top has some volume to it, parted to the side. A strong brow shades his eyes. The lines of his jaw are so sharp they could cut glass, and a healthy dose of stubble covers them.

With a straight nose and full lips— He’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, even when his features are set somewhere between boredom and irritation. Seducing the king will prove to be a most enjoyable task, indeed. We match, I note, as I take in his clothing. While all the dresses around us vary from mint to teal to olive, we are both decked in head-to-toe black. The king wears sleek dress pants. A black undershirt, tie, waistcoat, and overcoat. Brilliant silver buttons don his jacket. A chain dangles from the shoulder to a pocket above his left breast, holding a watch, no doubt. Black leather gloves cover his hands, which rest on the arms of his chair. A sheathed rapier leans against his throne, one for style, not use, I’m sure.

Though he doesn’t bother with a crown, there is no doubt as to the man’s status. “He’s so striking,” I say at last. And young. I know he was only crowned about a year ago, but he can’t be much older than I am. “Remember, if you approach him, you’re not permitted within five feet of him.” Yes, I know the law. No one is allowed to touch the king. To do so is punishable by death. Oh, he is a delightful mystery that I can’t wait to solve. “Dance with me, Father.

” Having learned his lesson, Father places a hand at my waist and leads me into a slow-moving Naxosian dance without question. We turn along the outskirts of the dance floor, but I order Father to lead us closer to the center. To our left, two gentlemen dance together. The taller one twirls the shorter one in perfect form. To our right, a man and woman scoot indecently close to each other, and I silently cheer them on. The rebel in me loves to throw dirt in the face of decorum. After a minute passes, I spot a few men looking over the heads of their dance partners to catch a glimpse of me. My black attire is doing its job splendidly. But mostly, I think it’s the fact that my pant-clad legs are a rarity in the room. Most men aren’t used to the style.

And I’ve opted for tight-fitted ones that show my curves to their best effect. “People are staring,” Father says. “That’s the point, isn’t it?”

.

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