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Sometimes the deepest loves are those forged in conflict…
Princess Roxas is a shifter. Like her spirit animal, the tiger, she is wild and stubborn. She is also haunted by her past – literally. The hunters are after her, and in order to survive, she is forced into a marriage beyond her control. Her new husband, Prince Daxius, has the unenviable task of keeping her safe as the newlyweds try to rebuild their kingdom.
Daxius has come a long way from his own home in the Shadowlands to the broken kingdom of Vera; the lands over which he and Roxas must now rule. He is strong-willed and a strategic thinker, but he adheres to the rules too often for his own good. His way of keeping his new wife safe is to forbid her from leaving the castle and not let her run wild.
That is easier said than done. As feisty as she is beautiful, Roxas fights him at every turn, forcing Dax to maintain the upper hand.
Can they both come together amidst the chaos and keep each other safe? Will they be able to enlist the help of allies to aid them in keeping the hunters at bay?
Publisher’s Note: This colorful shifter fantasy includes explicitly adult themes.
The light of the astral lines above them spilled down onto their world in magnificent shades of orange, red, and violet. It would be dark soon and Roxas knew that her absence would not go unnoticed, and yet she could not will herself to go. Not yet.
“It could always be like this, you know…” Lucien spoke in a soft murmur as his large hand slid over her smaller one. Doubt crept over her, and perhaps sensing this, he added, “It could, Roxas.”
“Father would never allow it.” She sighed softly.
“So? He couldn’t stop us from being together.” Lucien shook his head.
“But… He has already arranged—”
“You’re worth more than to be sold off like cattle. You’re worth more than that to me,” Lucien interrupted her; the longing and sweetness of his words drawing her eyes to him.
They sat atop one of the many altars that were scattered throughout Vera. It was an old structure, and while there had been light repairs, it had kept most of its original work. It was built of pale stone; a great rectangular shape with a stone roof that was held up by pillars in each corner. The walls were left mostly open. The statues of the Gods adorned their posts one after another. There was the old one, Farin, and his son, Fest. Ostium, with his serpentine eyes and Ishta, with her frozen skin. Then there was Helix, Kunno, as well as some of the lesser Gods. Beyond the shrine, the crystal forest loomed around them; the light from the astral lines glinting lightly off of the crystalline trees.
In Roxas’s mind, Lucien was absolutely gorgeous. He was tall; about 6’4” if she had to venture a guess, towering over her smaller height of 5’8”. His hands were strong, though calloused. He was muscular and his skin was taut and defined. Dark hair fell messily around his face. His eyes were a darkened emerald that seemed to burn with infatuation whenever his gaze fell upon her. He had high cheekbones and light stubble. A linear scar ran over the bridge of his nose, and another marred his cheek and curved down over his full lips until it finally stopped at his chin. Roxas’s heart would leap at the sight of her warrior; her defender. Yes, hers. The idea itself sent a giddy thrill through her. He was six years older than her, but that didn’t matter in her mind, or in her racing heart. She was just a girl, after all; youth, and the notions of love and fairytales still clung to her.
Lucien’s lips spread into a light smile and he began to draw closer. Roxas chewed lightly upon her bottom lip as her heart fluttered in nervous anticipation. She became so still that she dared not breathe as his fingers drew closer and the tips finally brushed lightly across the line of her jaw. His thumb brushed against the swell of her bottom lip, easing it gently from her bite. Roxas’s gaze flickered upward to his face; aglow with emotion, a testimony to her heritage and her nature. A gentle breeze caressed their skin and tossed their hair around lightly. He hedged closer still, until his mouth hovered over hers with an infinite patience, prolonging the moment until he marked her as his. Prolonging the change that would come.
Finally, his mouth fell upon hers in an electric and heated passion. With this kiss, all else was forgotten. Their status did not matter. Their families did not matter. Nothing mattered but this moment. As he laid her down upon the stone, the statues around them seemed sinister, gleaming as they watched. Roxas blossomed for him; his touch like fire that trailed across her skin. So preoccupied was she with the feelings of first love, she did not notice the sky had darkened with the end of day, or the sound of thunder in the distance.
Roxas woke to pale light seeping in through her bedroom window. She blinked as she shook herself from her dreamy haze, and thought of those moments from so long ago. She was no longer a girl, but a woman grown. Six years had come and gone since that day, yet the memories still lingered in her mind. Yet like all things, everything has its beginning and its end, she thought to herself as she rose from the large canopy bed.
Roxas stretched as she padded across the cool hardwood floors of her bedroom to the wooden vanity on the opposite side of the room. She glanced out the window as she passed it and noted that the astral lines were just beginning to lighten with the new day. After she had gathered up her servant’s garb from the chest beneath the vanity, Roxas dressed quickly before taking a seat on the small stool. She brushed her hair until it shone like the gold of her eyes as she studied her reflection in the mirror. Roxas had always found herself to be beautiful. It didn’t matter to her that others might see that as a statement of vanity. In truth, it was one of the only qualities she truly admired about herself. She was not as clever as Celest or Jasper, and was rather average when it came to intelligence. She was not as disciplined or patient as her father. In fact, Roxas was quite the opposite. She knew she had a temper, and she had never been very good at patience. Roxas was beautiful, though. She did have that over the rest of them, and that was important when everyone around you seemed better than you in every other way.
Roxas looked much like her mother had when she had been in her early twenties as Roxas now was. As a shifter, there were certain traits that had already been guaranteed to her. Her bright golden eyes set her apart from all the Alima and the fey of Esper. Her other natural trait—her shifter’s mark—ran along the ridge of her spine in a small floral design that opened up more into a larger flower between her shoulder blades. It resembled a tattoo and, like most shifter marks, it was solid black in color. She was an average height for a shifter, standing at about five foot eight, but shifters were also generally shorter than the Esperians. She had a slender build with a bit of muscle to her from the hard work she put in each day these past few years. Her skin was also very tan, which only set her further apart from most of the others in the palace and in the city itself. All in all, she was the outsider and it showed. There was no hiding or avoiding that.
For a brief moment she considered going out for a run once her chores were finished. She missed her other form; the tiger she had once been able to run freely as. Roxas longed to feel the wind against her white fur and feel the crunch of leaves beneath her paws. She yearned for the smell of the woods and for a good hunt. The tiger inside of her clamored to be free, but such things had become forbidden to her. The days of running wild had ended when she had lost those freedoms. With a sigh, she turned those thoughts away and finished up.
Once she was ready, she swiftly made her way out of the room and down the hall. It was still early, and she figured she would be the only one in the kitchens for a little while yet, which was fine by her. Roxas made her way down to the kitchens and quickly went to work, scrubbing out all the pots from the previous evening. Once this was done, she went into the storage and made several trips, carrying out wine and mead. It was when she came back into the kitchens on her final trip that she noted the two other servants who had finally made their way in to help prepare the morning meals.
Lys and Ester were sisters who had originally come from the Summer Court about a year ago. They were a few decades older than Roxas, but like the shifters, the fey aged very slowly and so they did not look any older than Roxas did. Both had the trademark bright auburn hair of the summer fey, and deep emerald eyes. They were tall and slender and often spent more of their time chatting with each other than getting their work done, but Roxas had never really paid much attention to them or attempted to get to know either of them. Today would not have been any different, but as Roxas started on the large pots of stew, their topic of conversation caught her ear.
“I heard that the Tattered Prince cancelled court again today at the very last moment!” Lys told her sister as she placed carrots on the cutting board.
“Really? Again?” Ester chuckled a little. “Did anyone say why?” she asked curiously.
“No, but that’s not really a surprise anyway. The Tattered Prince does as he likes. I heard that a convoy had traveled all the way from the Summer Court, and he refused even them. I guess he found something better to do today. He’ll probably just stay in his library all day and play chess with himself as he often does. He doesn’t really give a shit about the problems in Esper anyway.” Lys snorted.
“Maybe Jasper had something else come up,” Roxas interjected as she glanced over at the two. “What business is it of the two of you, anyway?” She huffed a little. It annoyed her that they even spoke of the Esperian King the way that they did. She knew they wouldn’t dare say any of this or even question him to his face, and certainly would not call him Tattered Prince. It wasn’t that she felt any sort of loyalty towards Jasper that brought her to defend him. Roxas just couldn’t stand those whom she found to be fake and two faced.
“It’s our business because he’d rather run this kingdom into the ground,” Lys bit out as she turned her attention towards Roxas.
“From what I’ve heard, Jasper is far better than his brother Arumat was. Perhaps you have the two confused,” Roxas said.
“What do you know about any of this, anyway? You’re a shifter. You don’t even belong here. You’re just some street rat that was shown pity and taken in to be made to serve. Arumat was a great king. He would have led all of Esper into a great regime, had the Tattered Prince not betrayed him as he had.” Ester scowled.
Roxas gave a light shrug of her shoulders. “The Summer Court sided with the wrong man. That’s all there is to it. Most of you despise Jasper, but I think the real problem is that none of you summer fey seem to be able to get over the fact that you picked the wrong horse.”
“Is that what you think?” Lys turned more fully towards Roxas.
“Roxas.” A voice called out from the doorway before Roxas could say anything else. All three women looked towards the figure who stood in the doorway, and the sisters seemed to pale a little as they quickly bowed.
Jasper didn’t look much like one would think a king should. For one, he didn’t dress the part. He wore simple clothes, choosing comfort over extravagance, and he hadn’t worn his crown since the day they’d placed it atop his head. He had dark green hair that fell around his face, the longest strands hanging just above his shoulders. Jasper often seemed aloof or bored in his expression, or lack thereof, as Roxas had never witnessed him really showing much emotion at all. Perhaps that was, in part, due to his eyes. They were a cool yellow color that didn’t reflect much emotion. He had a slender build with taut muscles and he was tall for an Alima, standing at nearly seven feet.
Roxas didn’t bow like the others did, but that wouldn’t come as a surprise anyway. Jasper was a king, but he was not her king. She had never seen a reason to bow and Jasper had never tried to force her to.
Jasper watched her coolly for a moment. “Come with me,” he said finally. “I’m sure that these two here won’t mind doing a bit extra to fill in for you.”
“Of course not, your grace,” Lys piped up immediately.
“We’d be happy to, my king,” Ester echoed quickly.
Roxas rolled her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest as she found herself annoyed with them all over again. She closed the distance between Jasper and herself and waited for him to lead the way. He watched her for a moment before he chuckled as he turned and headed down the hall.
“Why do you let them talk about you like that?” Roxas asked quietly after a long silence between them as they walked.
“Like what?” Jasper mused as he glanced towards her.
“They call you the Tattered Prince. Some have changed it to Tattered King, but you don’t like that name, do you?”
“What does it matter what I like or don’t?” he asked.
Roxas’s eyebrows drew together a little in a light confusion. “Because… You’re king, so…” She trailed off. “You could make them stop,” she pointed out after a moment.
“Why?” Jasper chuckled. “They’re not committing any sort of treason and I don’t honestly care if they like me or not. I couldn’t care less if they hated me. Just because I am king doesn’t make me a tyrant. If I forbid anyone from saying certain things, I would only be showing the world that I was afraid or even bothered by what they might say, and I’m not. Being king gives you power, but it doesn’t mean that you control everything.” He told her, “I will never be able to please everyone. I will never be in everyone’s favor. Neither will you. The sooner you learn that, the better.”
Roxas fell quiet and considered what he had said. She had never sought the admiration of others, but she had always been quick to shut down what other people said if she found it distasteful. Did that mean that she was showing others that what they said angered her or bothered her in some way? Did that mean that she was showing weakness? She inwardly cringed a little at the idea of that. She was not weak. Not anymore.
Jasper led Roxas into his private dining room that was nestled in the eastern wing, near the bedrooms of those of import and near his own private library. He motioned towards one of the chairs for her to sit before going to the opposite end of the table. This was not entirely strange. Often, Roxas ate in the meal hall like the rest of the servants, Tanek, knights, and guests of the castle, but there had been a handful of times when Jasper had invited her to eat with him and some of his Chosen. She took a seat, but her thoughts lingered on what Jasper had said before drifting elsewhere. She hardly even noticed when the food had been served, and had barely noticed that Jasper’s Chosen, Celest, had joined them. Roxas was never really part of the conversations anyway. They invited her to the table, but they often talked amongst themselves about other things or political affairs.
Her thoughts wandered to the past, to the first time she had met Jasper or any of his people. It had been a darker age for Esper. After the civil war between Jasper and his elder brother Arumat, something had happened, though she did not know what. Their kingdom had fallen into stasis; their world frozen in time, along with most of their people. Jasper had later discovered a way to return Esper to normal, but Roxas had not been a part of any of that either, since she had had so many problems and focuses of her own.
The first time she’d come to the Crystal City had been terrifying. The first person she had come across had been a woman who appeared to be frozen in a thin layer of crystal. Roxas had drawn closer, curiosity and horror tugging at her as she studied the woman’s face. Roxas could still remember everything so clearly…
The woman had been rather plain. She was an Alima of average height and weight, with mousy, dark brown hair that fell around her face. The crystal woman was on her knees, with her hands covering her face as though she had been weeping, and that sorrow had been captured and suspended in time along with the rest of Esper and its inhabitants. Roxas wondered what had upset the woman so. Had she somehow known her fate? Had she lost someone in the war?
Roxas’s fingertips grazed the crystal woman lightly, but the second she touched her, the crystal began to noisily crack before the woman shattered into a million tiny pieces. Roxas recoiled, giving a startled shriek as she covered her mouth with one hand.
“Who’s there?” a gruff voice called out.
Panic snared around Roxas’s heart. She looked around quickly for a place to hide or run to, but it was too late for that, as a large and horrific-looking man came from around the corner.
Celest had been so frightening to Roxas the first time she laid eyes upon him. He was about 7’5”, with a massive and wide, muscular build. His eyes were mismatched. His left eye was lavender and the right was a coal black shade. Horns jutted out and curled on either side of his head like a ram’s, and he had scales like a reptile along the tops of his arms, his neck, and some even crept up onto his jawline. His hair was black and fell shaggily around his face. His left hand was not like his right, but rather ended in a twisted set of claws that were about five inches in length and looked like they were composed of some sort of bone. Lastly, he had a long, dull yellow tail that ended in a snake’s head. The snake gave a hiss, and she took a startled step back.
Roxas had thought he was some sort of monster, something she now thought had been quite unfair of her.
“Who are you, girl?” Celest asked her as he studied her in a cautious way.
“I-I’m sorry… I didn’t… I shouldn’t have come, I-I didn’t know, please…” Roxas stammered shakily as he began to approach her.
“Your name, girl?” Celest asked with slight frustration or impatience in his voice.
Roxas shook her head, untrusting of this stranger. She took another small step back as her eyes darted left and right, searching for an opportunity for escape.
“Roxas?” Celest’s voice drew Roxas out of her memories and back into reality. She blinked and looked up to see that both Jasper and Celest were staring at her. Jasper wore his usual bored expression, but Celest’s mouth had formed into a hard line. “Are you listening?” Celest asked with a sigh.
“Sorry,” Roxas started, “I had… been thinking of something else.”
Celest watched her for a moment. “We were just discussing that it would be unwise to continue to keep you in Esper, even posing as a servant as you have been. It is still strange to see a shifter within the Crystal City.”
Roxas’s breath caught briefly and she shifted nervously in her seat. Her lips parted to speak, but Jasper beat her to it.
“Don’t look at us like that. Do you really believe that we’d simply abandon you now after three years of keeping you under my protection?” he mused. “What a waste that would be.”
He paused for a moment and Roxas watched him anxiously as he took a long drink of wine from his goblet. “We simply need to hide you elsewhere for a time,” Jasper told her finally as he set his goblet down on the table. “I have business in the Shadowlands across the sea and I am sending Celest in my stead. You will accompany him there. That should provide enough time for you to remain away from Esper.”
Roxas exhaled the breath she’d been holding and slumped back a little in her chair. She was glad they weren’t getting rid of her, but she inwardly scolded herself for showing such an anxious and desperate response. She hated that she had to rely on people like Jasper and his men to keep her safe, but she had also begun to grow comfortable in the safety that they provided her. She didn’t want to return to pursuit; the hunters would find her eventually if she was on her own again, just as they’d nearly caught her several times in the past. She didn’t want to return to that life.
“What business do you have in the Shadowlands?” she asked curiously in an attempt to alleviate the uncomfortable silence. “I had thought that both Esper and Vera had not attempted to reach out to the Shadowlands in centuries. My grandfather once told me that those lands were nearly barren, and full of different tribes and barbarians.”
“Business that is none of yours,” Jasper replied curtly. He watched her for a moment before he chuckled. “Do not worry. We won’t allow the barbarians to harm you, either.”
Celest watched Jasper for a moment before he looked towards Roxas. “But you will need to remain in hiding for the time being,” he reminded her. “You will still continue to play the role of a lowborn who had been orphaned in Esper as a child and has served the Talos family since. You are not to tell anyone who you are, or anything of Vera.”
Roxas nodded again, she’d heard this for what felt like a million times now. She glanced towards Jasper, hesitating for a moment because she wasn’t even sure that he would give her an answer anyway. “When will we be departing for the Shadowlands?” she asked finally.
“You will leave tonight and head for Aslag,” Jasper said casually, though his answer gave Roxas surprise. She knew that Aslag was a port city to the far south, beyond the crystal forest and the fey courts. She knew that withoutincident they would likely be able to reach Aslag as the astral lines began to lighten with the approaching day, but that was assuming there would not be an incident. The crystal forest was often avoided at night, for then all manner of creatures roamed the forest. These were the creatures that slumbered during the day, but the forest was theirs at night. There were spiders larger than any horse, a great behemoth known as Idris who commanded lightning and spewed acid onto its victims, wild cats that could cloak themselves in the shadows around them—completely invisible until it was much too late—and monstrous creatures far worse than they.
“You forget that there is no creature within the crystal forest that does not bend to my will, Roxas,” Celest mused as he observed her obvious unease.
Roxas shifted in brief embarrassment of having forgotten that. With that in consideration, she doubted that anything would even come within eyesight of them, so she supposed there was nothing further to worry about. “Sorry,” she murmured as an afterthought as she glanced towards Celest. Roxas looked back towards Jasper.
“Would you… like me to return to the rest of my duties for the day?” she asked him.
“No. That won’t be necessary. I’d rather you return to your room after we’re through here, gather your things, and wait for Celest to come for you,” Jasper said with a shake of his head.
Roxas frowned and bit her bottom lip briefly. “Is there any danger?” she asked hesitantly, for this all seemed so sudden. She wondered if something had happened or if someone had recognized her.
“There is always danger,” Jasper said as he held her gaze. “But we will see you through it.”