that moment, Ophelia wanted to turn and run. To run so hard and fast that time would erase itself. All the way back to Lady Karina’s estate, where she would decline delivering the letter and accept punishment for her disobedience. Ophelia sucked in a deep breath. Her inability to change things left her restless, and she tried to will her body to stop trembling, but it was no use.
She’d never had a choice. The serpent’s mark, which she was still burdened with keeping hidden, had enslaved her. She lifted her hand and touched her neck. No more burning. No more pain. But what sort of life did she have now? What kind of ‘life’ could any Cruor live?
Part of her blamed Ethan. But as soon as she tried to harness that grudge—to focus on it and use it to guide her—the emotion softened. She could still see the hard lines of his face. His eyes were just as sharp but belied a deeper pain. For all his strength, he was a wounded man. A man in hiding. Soon, she would be in hiding, too.
She could go to him eventually. Couldn’t she?
The door creaked open and Adrian stepped out. “The Queen will see you now.”
The Queen, standing eerily close to Adrian’s back and at least a whole foot shorter than him, smiled thinly to her guests. Her velvety black dress clung to her chest and stomach, and the hem swished to the floor and pooled at her feet, her bare toes peeking out. She was unnaturally thin, unnaturally pale, and unnaturally pleasant-looking. Almost-white hair fell past her shoulders, and she wiped a spot of blood from the corner of her mouth and extended her delicate hand.
“Hello, Robert,” she said.
Beyond her—beyond this girl who looked more child than woman—awaited a dark room with a long table sheltered by a white tablecloth and flickering candlelight.
In the middle of the room, a lifeless body sprawled across the gold-leafed granite floors.
As Queen Callista stepped aside and swept her arm toward the room, two young men came forward and cleared away the dead woman.
Callista’s brow furrowed. “Is everything all right?”
It was the first time Callista acknowledged Ophelia’s existence.
Ophelia nodded firmly and took several timid steps into the large room. The ceiling seemed to stretch impossibly high, so high that it became lost in the darkness. Was there any ceiling at all, or did the room just stretch up to the dark night?
Just then, a chandelier lit up overhead. The room became suddenly smaller, and Ophelia felt trapped. A hand, cold and unnerving, touched Ophelia’s arm. She spun around with a gasp.
“Jumpy, are we?” Queen Callista asked, one side of her mouth twisting into a smirk. “Please, sit. Adrian has explained a bit, though I must admit to having many questions to ask you myself.”
Somewhere behind Ophelia, Robert moved. She could feel it was him—shuffling forward, joining them inside the room. His grin beamed into the back of her head.
Queen Callista’s smile tightened.
“It’s not very polite,” she said through her teeth, “to remain standing when your Queen has invited you to sit.”
With that, the Queen, smoothing her gown beneath her, took a seat at the head of the table. There were two chairs awaiting Ophelia and Robert on one long side. On the other side, four young men—boys, really—sat in a stoic row, their gazes unwavering, their eyes as coal-black as their hair, and their skin as pale as moonlight.
Ophelia could not bring herself to move as swiftly as the Queen surely expected, but she took the seat furthest from the Queen and stared at the boy directly across from her. Anything would make a better focal point than the Queen.
Robert sat beside her. The door to the room clicked shut, and Robert immediately jumped back up again.
“My Queen, this woman”—he pointed at Ophelia—“has come here to—”
Ophelia shot to her feet and lunged at Robert, fangs already snapped down. She had him pinned to the ground, her hair