Ophelia Monroe had faced down dragons, zombies, and evil queens in her eighteen years—in fact, she had done all of that in the last few months—but in retrospect, none of those things seemed as terrifying as walking in High Fae boots.
“Are they really meant to be this shape?” she asked Brina, the meadow nymph who was helping her dress. Brina had been spawned in the palace gardens of Dominion, and her long hair was the same soft pink of the grass there. She looked up from where she was valiantly trying to squeeze Ophelia’s foot into the torturous contraption of silver mesh with a ridiculously high, spiky heel, her pale lilac eyes widening.
“But, Your Majesty, this is what all the High Fae are wearing this season!”
Ophelia arched her brows and muttered that she hadn’t seen Corrin hobbling around in anything like this. Her fellow ruler wore whatever he wanted, which was usually short tunics or shirts of a light, silky material and well-cut pants that fit him just right… Ophelia jumped as her reverie was cut short by a loud barrage of knocks on the bedroom door. Brina leaped up to answer it.
“I can get it, Brina,” Ophelia called, even though she realized as soon as she tried to stand that walking was not really an option with just one of these blasted boots on. Still, she tried. She had been High Queen for only a few months, and having other people do things for her made her uncomfortable.
The door opened and a small explosion of purple ruffles erupted into the room, words already tumbling out before the whirlwind skidded to a stop. “Ophelia, why are you not ready yet? Everyone is here. I want to give you your present, but Luis said I had to wait for the party, but I told him it’s a ball, not a party just like Cinderella, and look at my dress, isn’t it so pretty?”
The blur stopped moving for a second to hold out her tiered skirts for Ophelia’s approval. The beaming face of Amelia, more commonly known as Cricket, made Ophelia’s heart swell with love. Her little sister was a force of nature, a fizzing ball of energy, joy, and chaos. “Come and give me a hug, and then I’ll try to hurry up, but I don’t think I’m going to look as beautiful as you,” Ophelia said, opening her arms for Cricket to jump into them for a quick, fierce embrace. Then the little girl stood back and regarded her solemnly.
“Ophelia. This is the Queen’s Ball. You are the Queen. And it’s your eighteenth birthday. How can anyone look more beautiful than you? Duh.” Cricket shook her head in world-weary dismay. “Anyway, just look at you!” Cricket pointed at the full-length mirror, and Ophelia obediently turned to regard her reflection.
She had to admit, she’d looked worse. Her gown was made of a soft, satiny, dove-gray material that flowed like liquid silver over her body and complimented her lean, athletic build. Brina had applied silver eyeshadow to Ophelia’s eyelids and a light dusting of metallic powder to her cheeks, highlighting her gray eyes and smooth brown skin. Her light-brown hair, which she usually kept pulled back in a messy ponytail, was carefully braided and pinned up in an elaborate pattern, with a simple silver circlet holding it in place.
Normally, she would have worn the Bone Crown to such a formal event, but she shared the Artifact with Corrin, and he had needed it today to perform the Royal Rites for the pixies out in the Wildling Moors. Even though she knew the rites were an important duty of the monarch, part of Ophelia selfishly wished that Corrin hadn’t had to go today. She hadn’t realized how much she would miss his steady presence.
“Why are you making that weird face?”
Ophelia laughed and put her hand on Cricket’s shoulder. “I was just wishing that Corrin was here. I’m a little nervous about tonight.”
Cricket rolled her eyes. “Ophelia, seriously. It’s your ball. And we’re all here: Dad and Luis and me and Abuela Lucia and Grandpa Alvin and Nana Rose and Papa John and Lane and, and, everyone! And Corrin will be back too. Don’t worry!” She picked up a bottle of perfume and sprayed it enthusiastically on herself and Ophelia, making them both cough. Luckily, it was a light fragrance, or they would be choking everyone they met, thought Ophelia. Still, the enthusiastic gesture did its job—it reminded Ophelia that she wasn’t in this alone.
Speaking of which… She reached out through her telepathic link to contact Sun in the Black Sky, her bonded dragon. She could feel his presence in her mind immediately, powerful and reassuring even at a distance. Are they back yet, Sunny? she asked, receiving an impatient huff in reply.
Not since the last time you asked, approximately five minutes ago, said his gruff voice in her head. I flew out to the land bridge to check for them, but there is no sign yet, he added.
Ophelia smiled. Sunny liked to appear tough, but since he became soulmates with Shadow on the River—the dragon bonded to Corrin—he’d gotten much worse at hiding his softer side.
Cricket tugged impatiently on Ophelia’s arm. “Uh, you are going to wear two boots, right?” she said and laughed, pointing at Ophelia’s lopsided stance.
“Yes, you little rascal, if I can just get the other one on!” With much help from Brina and some hindrance from Cricket, she finally managed to tug the other boot into place. Gingerly, she stood up and teetered a few feet, about as gracefully as a newborn deer. A drunk newborn deer. Brina and Cricket exchanged a glance.
“Perhaps, Your Majesty, you would like me to escort you to the ballroom?” Brina offered, extending her arm. Ophelia took it gratefully. Together they descended a wide marble staircase to the entrance hall outside the Throne Room. Ophelia could see a crowd gathering through the tall double doors, which were flung open to admit guests: large groups of High Fae, most of them dressed in the metallic shades that were currently fashionable, their hair teased into elaborate spikes and whorls that reminded Ophelia of punks back on Earth; smaller knots of nymphs, including her old friend Garander, his massive bison-like form taking up most of the space before the buffet table; and scattered Unseelie, generally more reserved, bearing the wings, tails, or other features of various species. Pixies hovered above everyone’s heads, their bright wings and high-pitched squeaks making Cricket clap her hands in excitement, and water sprites frolicked and splashed in the large fountain on one side of the room.
Ophelia took a deep breath and stood up as straight and steady as she could in her uncomfortable boots. Corrin or no Corrin, these were her guests—more than that, her subjects—who had gathered to honor her. It was her duty to greet them and make them feel welcome. Just then, Cricket let out an ear-piercing shriek and darted into the crowd, returning with their father, Jason, and older brother, Luis. Ophelia’s shoulders dropped in relief to see their familiar faces. Her father wrapped her in a warm embrace, and when he stepped back, she saw that his eyes were shining with tears.
“Are you okay, Dad?” she asked anxiously.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart. I didn’t mean to alarm you. It’s just that you look so beautiful. I wish your mother could have been here to see it. She’d have been so proud of the woman you have become.”
Ophelia swallowed, overcome—a feeling that grew more intense when he handed her a black velvet box. “I think she would have wanted you to have this.”
Ophelia opened the case to reveal a silver chain with five hearts suspended from it: her mother’s favorite necklace. “One for each of us,” she whispered, her own eyes filling up as she remembered her mother saying the phrase. Jason fastened the chain around Ophelia’s neck. The weight of the hearts against her collarbone felt like an embrace, a physical reminder that her family was always with her, no matter what.
“Thank you,” she said softly, leaning over to kiss her father’s cheek.
Luis stepped up next. “Now, I had no idea what to buy a High Queen who’s turning eighteen, but I did remember how much you like to listen to music when you go for a run, so…” He watched as Ophelia ripped the shiny blue paper open to reveal a small music player and headphones. “I figure there’s no reason for it not to work here, as long as we download the music in Texas and bring batteries when we come to visit.”
“That is so thoughtful, Luis!” The idea of going for a long run with her favorite music playing made Ophelia feel calmer already, and knowing that her family understood her completely was an even better gift. “I’m so glad you were all able to be here tonight, especially with Corrin not back yet.” Luis looked at her keenly, picking up on the tremor in her voice despite her best efforts to hide it.
“He’ll be back soon, I’m sure of it. No way your ‘betrothed’ is going to miss your eighteenth birthday!” Luis said, punching Ophelia affectionately in the upper arm and almost knocking her over.
The effect was exacerbated by Cricket bowling into her legs, carrying a box that she had clearly wrapped herself. “Now me, now me!” she demanded, thrusting the gift at Ophelia.
“All right already!” Ophelia laughed, trying to undo the approximately six miles of tape wrapped around the box. Cricket, after hopping from foot to foot for as long as she could contain herself, eventually grabbed the present to help.
“Look! Just like mine!” she said, lifting one foot in the air to display her purple canvas sneakers, a smaller version of the ones in the box. “Next time I visit we can match. Purple is my favorite color,” she said, deadly serious now, and Ophelia struggled to maintain a straight face in order to treat the moment with as much gravitas as it demanded.
“I know that,” she said, bending down to look Cricket in the eye. “I will always think of you when I wear them. I’m honored.”
Cricket grinned, delighted, before dragging Ophelia into the ballroom to see the rest of the family—and the rest of her many, many guests.
The next hour passed in an exhausting blur as Ophelia greeted what seemed like thousands of well-wishers. It was one thing chatting with friends, but making small talk with an endless procession of dignitaries from all corners of Charassi and the cream of Dominion high society was incredibly draining. She’d always chaffed under any instructions to be “on her best behavior,” but she didn’t have the option of acting out anymore. She was queen. There were expectations. She couldn’t let her people down—and she especially couldn’t let Corrin down. This all would be worlds easier if he was there at her side…but even on her own, she was determined to do him proud…if she could just figure out what that entailed.
There were so many aspects of Charassi culture and etiquette that she was still learning. Sometimes it felt as if she would never know enough. Occasionally, when Corrin was taking the lead yet again in a land dispute or a question of crop allocation, one tiny part of her missed the way the war had allowed her quick decision making and bold approach to leadership shine. In wartime, she could lead. In peacetime…she had absolutely no idea what to do.
Ophelia, I am outside. Come join me.
Sunny’s voice in her head brought Ophelia back to the present. She excused herself from a conversation with a hawk-winged Unseelie and walked as quickly as she could to the courtyard outside. Just seeing the magnificent golden-scaled dragon prowling there, his long, spiked tail lashing the ground as he waited, filled her with an awe she didn’t think she would ever lose.
“Are they back, Sunny? Did you see them approach? Or was there something else you needed?”
Sunny turned his massive head to Ophelia and blinked. “You look…different. Impractical clothing for any useful activity, though. No, they have not yet returned. And there is nothing I require. I summoned you because I thought you might need a respite from the…festivities.”
Sunny said “festivities” in the same tone someone might use to describe raw sewage. Ophelia couldn’t help laughing. “Are you sad to be missing the spectacle?” she teased. “We could have found some way to get you into the Throne Room for tonight, you know. We do have magic at our disposal.”
“How kind,” Sunny replied, tone dry as dust. “But we both know that I would find it nothing short of torture to be squashed into a room with hundreds of preening Fae. I would have to eat several of them just to take the edge off my irritation.”
Ophelia smiled at his theatrics, but she couldn’t refrain from sighing. “Surely they should be back by now. Aren’t you worried about River?”
“No, I am not. I knew there was a chance they might not be back in time. It is not cause for concern.” Sunny blew a puff of warm air from his nostrils over Ophelia as if that settled the matter.
“What do you mean? Why is it not cause for concern? What could have delayed them?” Ophelia tried to look Sunny in the eye, only for him to start examining one of his enormous, curved talons. It was extremely unusual for a dragon to be evasive, especially one as forthright as Sunny. “What are you not telling me? Is there something wrong with River? Or with Corrin? Are you all hiding something from me?”
Sunny finally turned his head to fix her with his gaze. His reptilian eyes flickered with some emotion that Ophelia could not identify, shimmering like a pool of amber flames.
“I—I mean we—that is to say, River…” He shook his head in frustration and then spoke quickly. “We are expecting an egg.”
Ophelia reeled, tottering on her precarious heels. All the worrying possibilities that had been racing through her mind faded, replaced first by shock and then a roaring, thundering rush of joy, love, and excitement. She stumbled closer to Sunny and threw her arms around as much of his snout as she could reach. Through their bond she felt his pride and happiness, and she knew he could feel hers. After a moment, he rumbled in his throat and gathered himself.
“So, given River’s condition, she might be flying a little more slowly if she is tired or experiencing some physical discomfort. Which may account for their delay in returning. But they should be here shortly.”
Ophelia smiled up at his fearsome-looking face. “Thank you, Sunny. And thank you for telling me. This is just the best news.”
Sunny looked down at her with the closest thing to a grin that a dragon face could muster. Then he took off into the sky like a golden firework, Ophelia’s heart soaring for joy with him. With a happy sigh, she headed back inside, feeling like she could handle anything with this wonderful secret bubbling inside her.
As Ophelia stepped through the door from the courtyard, she got a bit tangled in the light, gauzy drapes. While she was extricating herself, she caught a snippet of the conversation between two High Fae by the buffet table, positioned with their backs to her.
“Looks like the queen has gone missing now too. At her own ball!” said an elderly man whose dyed hair stood out from his head like a blue sunburst. The woman he was with, dressed in a bronze toga-like garment, gave a derisory snort. “I’m more intrigued by the fact that High King Corrin couldn’t be bothered to show up. Perhaps he’s finally tiring of her novelty.”
The man turned his head to reply and glimpsed Ophelia from the corner of his eye. She had the momentary satisfaction of seeing the look of horror that crossed his face, but she managed to smile at him sweetly as she swept past, fighting not to cry. She tried not to let the words hurt. Those Fae, whoever they were, didn’t know her or Corrin, didn’t know a thing about the relationship they’d built or the feelings they shared.
Head held high, she glided away from the buffet table, but one of her heels had snagged in the drapes and it tugged her off-balance. Ophelia felt as though she were suspended in honey as she lurched, managed to free the caught foot, but then stumbled forward. Don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall, she thought, her jaw clenching with effort. Her long hours spent running and hurdling as a member of the high school track team came to her aid, the muscles in her legs bracing to somehow stop her from falling to her knees. At the very moment she regained her balance, however, her flailing left arm caught the side of a tray of drinks borne by a nervous young palace servant, a water nymph with long strands of seaweed hair, and the entire tray crashed to the floor.
Everything stopped. Ophelia had the sensation of ten thousand bugs crawling over her skin as all eyes turned to look at her. Ophelia refused to look at the High Fae couple by the buffet table, but she could only imagine what they would say about her now. Then she noticed that drops of water were falling from the nymph’s skin beside her as he shook with distress.
“Your Majesty…I am so sorry. This is my first time serving at the palace. I cannot believe I have let you down like this.”
His blue, limpid eyes were full of remorse. Ophelia placed her hand on his arm. “Don’t worry. Your name’s Loren, isn’t it?” The nymph nodded, looking amazed that the High Queen knew who he was. “This was all my fault, Loren. In fact, you probably saved me from landing on the floor. If anything, you’re the hero here.”
Her grin was a little forced, but Loren didn’t seem to notice that, smiling shyly in return. A couple of the other servants were already cleaning up the broken glass and spilled liquid, and the hum of conversation had resumed.
“You know what, Loren? Back on Earth we say it’s not a party until something gets broken, so I guess we’ve kicked off the celebrations! Now, do me a favor, please.”
Ophelia got Loren to guide her to the nearest chair and then fetch her birthday present from Cricket. Focusing on the nymph after her embarrassing gaffe had reminded her of what was important. She might not be the elegant monarch that some of these guests expected, but she cared about the welfare and happiness of every last one of them, even when they were being nasty. And that, she thought, as she tugged off the excruciating silver boots and replaced them with the purple sneakers, is all that really matters.
Able to move freely at last, Ophelia spent the next couple of hours circulating and chatting. She still missed Corrin, but whenever she started to feel a little lost, she concentrated on the feel of the necklace’s silver hearts against her skin and remembered the love and support right there in the room with her. Before she knew it, there was a pixie whispering in her ear that it was time to bring out the birthday cake, so she should ascend the dais to the throne.
Ophelia did as she was told and took a seat on the rather uncomfortable dragon-bone throne. The servants had dimmed the biggest lights in the room, leaving it softly illuminated by candlelight. She tried not to think about the empty chair next to her on the dais, searching out her family’s faces in the crowd instead.
Just then she felt a surge of relief through her bond with Sunny. Her heart racing, Ophelia tried to peer out to the courtyard. The gauzy drapes that had been her nemesis earlier parted, and in stepped Corrin. He was still in his traveling clothes, rumpled and dusty, and his chestnut curls were tangled from the wind. His brown eyes looked tired as they surveyed the room, but as soon as they alighted on Ophelia, the golden highlights in them seemed to dance. He strode towards the dais as Ophelia ran down the steps to meet him, and everyone and everything else faded into insignificance as he swept her up in his strong arms and whirled her around.
“Ophelia, I’m so sorry for the delay. I can’t believe I nearly missed your birthday, I—”
“Shhhhh,” Ophelia said, gazing up into his foxlike eyes. “You’re here now.” Their lips met in a soft, gentle kiss, Ophelia’s feet not touching the ground as Corrin held her against his strong chest, pressing her to him like he would never let her go. A sound filtered into Ophelia’s consciousness, and as she realized it was applause and cheering, her eyes snapped open at the same time as Corrin’s. With a sheepish grin, he returned her to the ground and waved around to acknowledge the crowd, who laughed and cheered more loudly.
Hand in hand, they walked up the steps to the dais and sat side by side. Corrin took from his travel bag a package wrapped in large, soft leaves and tied with a garland of orange daisy-like flowers.
“This is what took so long. The pixies had to finish some last details, and it is such delicate work, it couldn’t be rushed.” He placed the package on Ophelia’s lap. “I hope you like it.”
Ophelia smiled at him. No gift could compare to having him here by her side, looking even more handsome than he was in her daydreams. She gently untied the blossom ribbon and opened the leaves. Inside was a fabric softer than anything Ophelia had ever felt. Wonderingly, she held it up and saw that it was a hooded cloak, lighter than air, silvery in color but with an iridescent sheen.
“The pixies wove it from spiderwebs,” Corrin explained. “It’s light and soft but it’s also incredibly strong. Like you,” he added softly. They both stood, and Corrin fastened the cloak around Ophelia’s neck. “Beautiful,” he said, with a smile that was just for her. Ophelia had to restrain herself from kissing him again.
“Corrin, I love it. Thank you so much. I’m just happy you’re back. I was so worried—oh!” Her eyes widened as she remembered Sunny’s news. “You know about Sunny and River, right?”
Corrin frowned. “I sensed she was acting strangely recently, but she got evasive when I tried to ask her about it. Are they okay?”
“Just a second,” said Ophelia, reaching out through her link to Sunny. She could feel his happiness at having River back by his side. Sunny, can I share the news with everyone? she thought. After a moment, during which Ophelia figured he was checking with River, Sunny sent back his agreement.
Ophelia clapped her hands in delight. “Corrin, assembled guests, palace staff, everyone—I have wonderful news!” she stated, raising her voice to catch everyone’s attention. They all turned to face her expectantly, the pixies zipping back and forth in excitement. Even the four High Fae who were carrying in the cake—a multitiered extravaganza decorated with flowers—stopped in the middle of the room to listen.
“Sun in the Black Sky and Shadow on the River, our bonded dragons, are expecting an egg!”
The whole place erupted into cheers, stamping and clapping. Laughing with delight, she turned to see Corrin’s reaction. She saw the same emotions sweep over his face that she had experienced a few hours ago: shock, followed by joy, love, and pride. He got a faraway look in his eyes for a moment, and Ophelia knew he was communicating with River. Then he grabbed Ophelia’s hand and held it up in the air, cheering along with the crowd. Ophelia felt like her heart would burst with happiness.
Later, when the initial euphoria had died down, a group of High Fae musicians set up in a corner of the throne room.
Corrin stood and offered his hand. “Let’s dance, shall we?”
Ophelia was out of her seat and halfway down the steps so fast she almost pulled him off balance. He laughed and ran to keep up with her, then pulled her close to swing her around the floor in a complicated series of steps. Ophelia gave herself up to his direction, flushed and breathless and incredibly thankful that she had changed into sneakers. Around her she got momentary glimpses of her family and friends, all beaming at her as they danced. Corrin twirled her out to the end of his arm and her cloak gleamed like dewdrops on spiderwebs, throwing off prisms of light so that she was wreathed in rainbows.
She twirled back close to Corrin’s body and reached up to whisper in his ear. “This is the best night of my life. Thank you for everything.”
He nuzzled her neck, making her shiver, and whispered back. “Thank you, Ophelia Monroe of Tipton, Texas. I’m very glad that you were born. I don’t want to think of my world without you in it.” He leaned down and kissed her before spinning her out again. They danced for hours, until the stars paled in the dawn sky and even Cricket fell asleep in Luis’s arms, her face sticky with cake. He had to carry her through the portal back to Texas when the human guests left, smiling and waving to Ophelia until the portal closed behind them.
She squeezed Corrin’s hand as they said farewell to the last stragglers. “I feel so lucky to have had a night like this.” She sighed, leaning her head against his shoulder. “How often does someone get to be so happy?”
He stroked her cheek and smiled, his eyes lighting up the way they always did when he looked at her. “Let’s just see what tomorrow brings.” And then he kissed her until she had no words left.