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What Hunts Inside the Shadows - Harper L. Woods
I shook it off, trying to shove away the pity I felt for a life like that. His tragic backstory didn’t make up for what he’d done to me, and what he clearly intended to continue to do.
I would not be a prisoner in my own life again, even if I had to kill him to gain my freedom.
Even knowing what he was now, even seeing him in all his glory, there were still traces of the man I’d fallen in love with. There were still notes of the human within the God, and I wondered if it would ever not hurt to look at him.
“You cannot hate me without hating yourself, Little One. Think of that the next time you want to blame me for this bond. I didn’t choose you anymore than you chose me.” His words lashed against me, harsh and hurtful and all the things I knew myself to be when I was angry. “I am just not spiteful enough to throw you away on principle.”
I swallowed, staring at the injuries he’d sustained for me and uncomfortable with the feelings of gratitude that knowledge left me with. “You shouldn’t have—”
“You are my mate. I will always protect you, min asteren. No matter what the cost,” he murmured, his deep eyes gleaming as he stared down at me. I sank my teeth into my bottom lip, unsure of what to say in the face of the weight of his confession.
Things would be easier if he were just a monster.
“I will always choose you, min asteren,” he said, his brow creasing as he stared at me in something akin to confusion. “Your body is just the packaging that gives the other half of my soul a home. I have failed as your mate if you do not already know that.”
“You may find this difficult to believe, my star, but I did not react so negatively because you wouldn’t allow me to fuck you,” he said, giving me time for that to sink in. “I can say it one hundred times over and never convince you it’s the truth, but I would live centuries without knowing the pleasure of your body if you so much as asked that of me. What angered me was the way you shut me out of your heart, and the way you pushed me away when I got too close to you once again. I can be content without your body so long as I have you. Do not deprive me of the mate I have waited centuries to know; not now that I’ve finally been able to truly know you.”
There was so much warmth in his gaze despite that pain, I would never be able to question whether or not he loved me. Never again. This was the kind of love stories were made of, the kind that poets wrote sonnets about. The kind little girls dreamed of finding when they lay in their beds at night and tried to imagine the man who would one day become their husband.
“Oh, sweet girl. What do you know of freedom?” Adelphia asked, her voice sad as she regarded me from my side. Her gaze was a heavy weight on my profile, stealing the breath from my lungs.
“I have fought my entire life to maintain even a small measure of it—”
“There can be nothing small when it comes to freedom,” she said, glancing down at the shackles on my wrist with a grimace. “You either have it or you don’t, and you were a prisoner in this world before you were even born, purely because you lack a cock. No matter how many times you snuck out in the night, you were always a prisoner—just a rebellious one.”
I was not made for war. I was made for peace and a cuddly blanket in a comfortable chair in a library with a book in my hand. And I was so tired of the fucking cold.
Why was it that women were always so quick to judge other women? Why was it the woman we vilified, even when presented with the truth that the woman had been a victim of the same deception?
Women needed to be better, to do better, because at the end of the day, every one of our actions could see us condemned—while men were free to fuck and murder, to steal and lie, and it was all just brushed off as another day under the sun.
I hated snakes, so of course by the force of her nature my mate had to treat them like pets. Her gentle care as she watched the basilisk swallow her enemies whole both delighted me and horrified me. Why did it have to be snakes? She couldn’t have had an affinity for puppies?
I’d never been something good. I’d never had someone look at me as if I was the sun shining on a dark day. Our bond was her way of pulling back from whatever was inside of her, and I would never let go.
What Lies Beyond the Veil - Harper L. Woods
Everyone who had any sense hated being so close to the Veil and what it represented. Crafted from the magic of the ancient witches who'd made the ultimate sacrifice to protect us from the nightmares beyond, it was like the thinnest of fabrics blowing in the wind, shimmering with the light of a thousand stars trapped within it. Somehow transparent, and yet not, the mist of the waters beyond provided us with the illusion of being alone in this world.
Even when we were very much not. Even when we'd never been alone.
There was blood on me, yet again. I was quickly becoming far too accustomed to the red stains on my skin, and the monster in me wasn’t as horrified by it as I would have thought.
I’d never forget the look on his face, the absolute rage on my behalf. My family had loved me, but they’d never promised vengeance for me. No one had ever cared the way he did.
That terrified me.
“Why fight the inevitable? We both know where this is leading.”
“With me brokenhearted and abandoned when you find something prettier?” I asked, the words escaping before I could rethink them. I hated the vulnerability they showed, the weakness it was to admit that he had the power to hurt me.
No one deserved to have that ability over me.
I was a liability to him, and yet, I couldn’t bring myself to sneak off in the night.
The thought of what he would do when he hunted me down once again was enough to keep me by his side, wondering how my savior had somehow become a morally gray man with no boundaries and a distinct lack of understanding how an actual courtship worked.
You didn’t just decide a woman was yours to protect after a few days spent together.
“No, Little One. I’m going to love you,” he said, touching his forehead to mine. His dark eyes glimmered, tiny specks of light shining in the obsidian, like the stars that had become my namesake. “Until you forget what it is to hurt and then long after that. Until the scars you wear like armor have faded from memory, and only we remain.”
"You will not be pressured to become something you do not want to be. Not here,” she said, the sadness in her voice bringing a pang inside me. To exist somewhere that I could be more than just a body to fuck or breed was still unfathomable to me, when that was all I’d been raised to believe was my future.
“I would think someone like you would understand what it is to be beaten down by someone more powerful than you,” she said, in reference to my scars she’d seen in confidence. “What would you do to get retribution against the man who wronged you?”
I paused, considering all that I’d suffered at Lord Byron’s hand, and his command as an extension, mulling over the need for revenge I’d felt once. There’d been a time when I wanted nothing more than to watch him suffer for everything he’d done to me.
Now the idea of it just made me tired.
“Nothing,” I answered, shocked at the revelation. “I’m free. That’s all the revenge I need.”
I stared into his eyes as a deep chill took over his features. Something ancient peered out from behind the dark eyes I’d gotten so familiar with over our weeks together. “Stop looking for answers you aren’t yet ready for, my star,” he warned
“I waited for you for centuries,” he said, his fingers pressing my hand into his chest more firmly when I shook my head and tried to pull back.
“No,” I said, the protest loud in my desperation to not hear what he had to say.
“I felt you live and die for countless lives, felt every one of your life cycles end and grieved the woman I never got to meet. I know you, because you are the other half of me.” Those foreign blue eyes bled to black as he stared at me, and his magic hummed between us. “You are my mate, Estrella, and nothing will come between us now that I have you at my side.”
The Wolf and the Woodsman - Ava Reid
I’ve long given up on any of them loving me, but I still ache at how easy it is for them to hand me over. I’m a good hunter, one of the best in the village, even if I can’t forge my own arrowheads. I spent years doing Virág’s drudgery, even if I muttered curses the whole time, and I killed and cleaned half the food on their feast tables.
None of it matters. Without a lick of magic to my name, the only thing I’m good for is a sacrifice.
Here the trees do not abide by the laws of the gods, to change with the seasons or to grow straight up, slender branches straining toward the sky. We pass trees in their full spring display, lush with verdant leaves and needle-thin white flowers, and then trees that are rotting and dead, blackened all the way down to the roots, as if they’ve been struck by vengeful lightning. We pass trees that have grown twisted around each other, two wooden lovers locked in eternal embrace, and then others still that bend backward toward the ground, as if their branches are aching toward the Under-World, instead.
I remember how the fire roared to life in front of the captain, so sudden and sure. Any wolf-girl would have marveled at such a fire, easily as impressive as the work of our best fire-makers. We would have called it power, magic. They called it piety. But what is the difference, if both fires burn just as bright?
His cold, superior tone rankles me, especially after all the prattling about the blackness of his soul. “Do you call a hawk evil when it snatches up a mouse to eat? Do you call a fire evil when it burns your logs to ash? Do you call the night sky evil when it drinks down the day? Of course not. They are surviving, like the rest of us.”
I’m surprised by the ferocity in my voice, and by how much I sound like Virág.
“I don’t think the hawk is evil,” Gáspár says after a moment. “But I’m not a mouse.”
And thank Isten you aren’t,” I say. “Mice don’t have the luxury of passing moral judgment on every living thing they come across. Mice just get eaten.”
I step closer to him, toeing the abyss. I could slit his throat; there’s no blade or mantle to stop me. Maybe they’d throw a feast in my honor if I came back to Keszi with a Woodsman’s head.
My hand curls around the hilt of my knife. “Would you let me destroy you, then?”
“It would be just as well,” Gáspár says miserably. “I should be struck dead, for wanting you the way I do.”
I’m so enraged that I don’t care how much I hurt him. But Gáspár only looks at me steadily, black eye unflinching.
“You swore an oath to my father too,” he says.
“Yes, and it’s my greatest shame,” I snap, cheeks flushing.
“And don’t you think it shames me equally?” I see his chest swell; for a moment I think he will close the space between us. “But you understood, as I do, that survival is not a battle that you win only once. You must fight it again every day. And so you take your small losses so that you can live to fight tomorrow. You know that my father is a slower, gentler poison.”
I feel like a blacksmith, everything I know laid out in pieces in front of me, and somehow I must forge a weapon from them. But any blade that I make will be double-edged. I cannot help Katalin without hurting my father. I cannot save the pagans without damning the Yehuli. And the only thing I know that might be strong enough to stop Nándor is a hundred miles away in Kaleva, just an orange flyspeck on the gray horizon.
I swallow. “And will you follow me further into the cold?”
Gáspár’s chin lifts, eye going to the star-wild sky and then back to me again. He swallows, the bronze skin of his throat shuddering in the frosted light.
“Yes,” he says finally.
Something warm spreads itself through my body, deeper in my marrow and blood. It is not as quick and bright as joy, the sudden burst of flint touching tinder; it is more like an old tree set alight in the summer, fire crawling through the gnarls and whorls of all that black wood.
“You’ve killed any part of me that was a devout and loyal Woodsman,” he says. There is pain threaded through his voice; I imagine the Prinkepatrios fading from his mind, like a moon paring away in the black sky. His hand shifts from my breast, closing into a fist over my heart. “This is all that’s left now.”
Once I would have been eager to abandon Régország entirely, if I’d ever had the chance and the will to leave it. But those kinds of bitter perversities seem behind me now. I have felt my father’s arms circle me and heard the temple filling with Yehuli prayer; I have had a man hold me through the cold and promise to follow me wherever I go. It weighs me down, that love, fettering me to this terrible destiny.
I meet Gáspár’s eye, glittering wet in the meager sunlight, and I can see all my painful, ruinous love reflected back. There is another world in which we might have stayed in the cradle of tree roots forever, our words rising in cold whispers but our hands and mouths warm.
Someday an archivist will shelve a book about the siege of Király Szek in the palace library, and it will document the lives lost, the ground gained, the treaties signed, and the maps redrawn. But it will not say anything about this: a wolf-girl and a Woodsman holding each other in the blood-drenched aftermath, and the clouds cleaving open above them, letting out a gutted light.
The Worst Woman in London - Julia Bennet
Money, land, and influence; all he'd ever wanted. What else existed for a man like him? A gentleman inherited his wealth and, sometimes, as in James's case, certain unspoken conditions needed to be met. Miriam did nothing wrong by expecting him to make choices of which she approved, and he ought not to feel ashamed for doing his duty in that regard.
Yet lately he found it difficult to meet his own gaze in the mirror.