Chapter 12 - Valkyrie Marriages
It had taken me a while to fully accept Mariana’s and Louka’s betrayal and all of the implications of their actions, but I had finally come to terms with my life. I knew that I alone was going to have to be strong enough to stand between Awenasa and the world. I accepted that. I even have started to embrace it. So why was I letting the possibility of discovering a partner seep so quickly into my resolve? I was hoping for something that was never going to happen and I was only going to end up hurt. Again.
“She is a good person and will surprise you,” I heard Elijah murmur from beside me and I once again felt the insane attraction spark between us. I hadn’t known that I was into guys until I let myself feel those things for Louka. And now it was like since I had opened that door, I couldn’t get it to fully close again. The instant pull I felt towards this human-bound Valkyrie was the reason I had jumped to the conclusion that he was the missing Gatekeeper.
“I don’t know what you mean?” I lied and tried to re-harden my heart.
“Ray. She is going through a lot right now, but she will show you her pure integrity and courage soon enough. Don’t give up on her yet,” Elijah said and my heart jumped in response. He then stepped closer and tucked my hair behind my ear and whispered, “Don’t give up on me either.”
I blew out a breath as I felt my soul starting to really embrace the possibilities the future may hold.
Eventually, we returned to Awenasa and the elder Gatekeepers left me to my own devices. Actually, everyone stayed away and I was finally able to have some time void of any more drama to just process. The rest of the day passed in a blur while I was lost in the complicated web of my own thoughts. I found myself randomly wandering around the village and just watching the people of Awenasa live their everyday lives. Wiyot had been right. The people were happy and carefree. Completely content with their simple yet fulfilling lives that they had created for themselves.
At some point, Elijah returned to my side and was a comforting presence as I continued to probe my feelings about all that I had learned this last day. After the sky grew dark, Nahuel approached warily and I could tell that he needed some reassurance from me. Reassurance that I would freely give him.
“Hello,” Nahuel said with clear apprehension in his voice. “How are you feeling?”
“Overwhelmed,” I told him honestly.
“It is nearly time. The spell will wear off soon and you will be able to return to your people. I have gone to the Look-Through and there is a large party waiting for you,” Nahuel said with barely restrained anger. He was not happy that so many of the human-bound Valkyries now knew the location of Awenasa.
“I can’t make them forget what they already know,” I said, “but the royals will not learn any more about Awenasa from me. I will tell my Clan everything because I don’t want to keep secrets from them but you can trust them.”
Nahuel’s eyes flicked over to Elijah’s for a moment and I wondered what kind of conversations they had while I was with the elder Gatekeepers. “That seems fair,” Nahuel said slowly as if he was weighing each of his words carefully before saying them. “But I will ask you to please not bring anyone here. Awenasa’s greatest protection is the fact that no human-bound Valkyrie can reach us here.”
Instead of answering him on that point, I asked something that kept resurfacing in my mind. “Wiyot said that the Northerners were preparing for war, and made it seem like they were not on the best of terms with your people. What will happen to Awenasa if war breaks out? What do I do if the Northerners come looking for me?”
Nahuel ran his hand through his long silky hair that was now free of a hair tie and the wild energy surrounding him grew as he thought about the possibility of war. “The human-bound has us incredibly outnumbered, so just like the last war, our main strength would be in the fact that we can bring the fighting to them while keeping our home safe. The Northerners would go to the Human-Realm to fight and in theory, the Doba would remain peaceful and out of reach,” Nahuel said and then met my eyes in a hard stare.
“You could change that. If you shift human-bound fighters here, then I have no doubt that our entire civilization will fall in a matter of days. This is why it is so important for you not to come back here with anyone.” The enormity of what he was saying added a significant amount of weight to the new responsibility the elder Gatekeepers had placed on my shoulders.
“So you would have me just forget that the last twenty-four hours ever happened. Leave now and never return?” I asked with a desperate note to my voice because for some reason that possibility felt like I was cutting off something irrevocably important.
“No,” Nahuel said almost instantly and took an involuntary step towards me, his energy once again swelling. “This is your home. You don’t know it yet, but Awenasa will always be here. Waiting for you to return. I will be waiting for you to return,” he said in a softer voice and I swear I could feel his words take root in my heart.
I searched Nahuel’s face, completely confused. All of this was just too much to process but I could hear Elijah’s words echo in my mind. You need to make a decision about what you are going to do, and I think this might be the right answer for you. But you will never know if you keep closing your eyes and pretending that you can live a simple life away from power. You are the most powerful person I have ever met. It is time that you grow up and start acting like it.
“You want me to come live here with you?” I asked because I needed to be sure. There had been so many mixed emotions that I needed a straight answer here.
Nahuel swallowed hard and reached out to take my hand, filling me with the potent clan bond that was stronger than anything I had ever felt before. “Yes,” he said with feeling. “But it is not my decision to make. It is yours and you need time before you make it. I will be here. Waiting.”
Wow. That was just, wow. And a part of me wanted to say screw waiting and discover what kind of life I could have here, away from all of the power games that the royals were forcing me to play. But then thoughts of the guys brought me back to reality. I needed Blake’s easy smile and big heart. Connor’s iron-clad determination and steady confidence. Max’s sweet kindness and easy friendship. Derik’s undying loyalty and direct attitude. Elijah’s steadfast leadership and quiet assurance. This place might be my birthright, but my heart and soul now belong somewhere else. It belongs with the guys.
Nahuel must have seen my drifting attention because he dropped his hand from mine and cleared his throat before saying, “When the Northerners find you, and yes I believe they will eventually find you, I believe they will also try to get you on their side. I would advise you to be careful because you pose a great threat to them if you decide to join the human-bound side of the war. But, they are as much your people as we are. You would have grown up in the Northern City if things had played out differently, and there are some truly incredible people there. Be open to the possibility that you may belong there as much or even more than you belong anywhere.”
Well, that wasn’t helpful at all. I was about to question him further about the Northerners, including my own mother when I felt a slight tingling sensation. In the next moment, I felt my access to my Cloaking Gift reopen and I breathed out a sigh of relief. I didn’t feel whole while under the spell. Like if an essential part of me was cut off and if I couldn’t take a full breath without it.
Just because I could, I pushed all three of us into the void and watched in open eye wonder as the green lush land around us instantly morphed into a dusty red desert. The cute, well-maintained cabins of Awenasa disappeared and were replaced by at least six big SUVs and a large crowd of people in small groups looking out at the barren land. I quickly spotted the rest of the Oakland clan and my heart jumped. I had missed them.
“Do you want to meet the rest of my clan?” I asked Nahuel. When he didn’t answer right away I tore my eyes away from the guys and looked over at him. He looked really angry and I didn’t understand why. At my clear confusion, Nahuel let out a gush of air and ran his hand through his hair.
“Before you, I was the strongest of the Gatekeepers of our generation. Only Valerie was stronger than me, thus she was the only one that could shift me to a different plane without my permission. What you just did, shifting a Gatekeeper, is considered extremely rude and only done in dire circumstances when you are pulling rank and declaring that you have more power than the other Gatekeeper,” Nahuel explained and I felt like a little kid being dressed down by her teacher.
I ignored that feeling and just raised my eyebrows at him. He had kidnapped Elijah and bound my Cloaking Gift with a spell. I was not the one who was in the wrong here. Eventually, Nahuel must have come to the same conclusion because he started to look a little contrite and then agreed to meet the rest of my clan. I pulled out my phone, wanting to text the guys but it was completely dead, so I just pushed them into the void and sealed the entrance. I don’t think they realized what was going on until I yelled Blake’s name and started running towards him. All four of them turned and started towards us.
“Ray Ray,” Blake yelled back at me but it was Max that reached me first. I jumped full out into his arms and he caught me up in an all-encompassing hug. Then I felt two other jolts and then more arms were wrapping around me and everyone was talking at the same time. Actually, tears spilled from my eyes as I rejoiced at being back in my guy’s arms. This was home. This was my happy place.
Eventually, I was able to see out of a crack between bodies and saw that Derik wasn’t in on this hug fest, but instead was standing between us and Nahuel with two scary-looking axes in his hands. Elijah was standing in front of Derik and looked like he was trying to calm his friend down, but Derik wasn’t hearing it. He was defending us because he felt like I needed his protection, even if Elijah told him otherwise. My heart melted and I think I fell a little bit in love with him at that moment.
Somehow I tore myself free of the Three Musketeers and wrapped my arms around Derik as I plastered my chest to his back. He tensed up for a moment and then dematerialized one of the axes and reached around to pull me to his side. “It’s okay Derik. Nahuel isn’t going to hurt us. I just wanted you to formally meet him before we head home,” I told him but Derik still refused to let down his guard.
“He took both you and Elijah. He took away your Gift. It is not okay,” Derik growled and I squeezed him even harder. Almost unconsciously, Derik turned his head and ran his lips against my forehead, leaving a trail of hot tingles that quickly spread through my entire body.
Now was not the time for my body to take control, so I turned my head away from him and looked back at the guys before saying, “Guys, this is Nahuel. One of the leaders of the Hidden and a friend. Nahuel this is Blake, Connor, Max, and Derik, my clan.”
Everyone just stood there looking at each other and not saying anything. The tension continued to grow and I tucked my head back under Derik’s chin just because it felt good to be held by him. He had been so skittish around me since the attack. I felt more than saw the twins and Max walk to stand near us, sending a clear message of unity.
“It is good to meet all of you,” Nahuel finally said, sounding incredibly uncomfortable. “I am sorry for all of the worry I caused you. That was not my intention, and I am glad to see that Ray has such protective people surrounding her.” I couldn’t help the smile that spread across my face because it really was amazing to be surrounded by my guys.
“Okay,” Elijah said, finally taking control of this situation. “It looks like we should get going. Nahuel, please keep in touch. Ray, let’s go.” I briefly wondered how Nahuel was going to keep in touch with Elijah and why he would, but the growing commotion in the physical plane caught my attention. Nahuel had been right when he said that there was quite a crowd waiting for us. All of the people that had originally come with us to rescue Elijah were here, plus about twenty more. I recognized Ethan and Darron Deveroe and Goro Tanaka among them and saw that both Sean and Mathis were standing with them instead of the Americas West Valkyries.
I let out a deep breath to prepare myself to rejoin the world of politics and then pushed everyone except for Nahuel into the physical plane. I looked to the spot where I knew Nahuel was still standing but could no longer see and gave him a sad little smile that I didn’t completely understand before turning to face the music. Our reappearance did not go unnoticed and we were mobbed by both people and questions. I tightened my grip on Derik and he wrapped both arms around me protectively.
A lot of chaotic things were happening, and I could tell that everyone wanted to talk to me but Elijah and the rest of the guys were able to convince everyone that there would be time for that later after we returned home. We all piled into the cars and before I knew it we were on yet another airplane. This one was different from the one we had come here in. Significantly bigger and nicer. When I said something about it, Sean was happy to inform me that this was the Tanaka Royal Plane and that it was a great honor to be allowed on it. I looked around more carefully and noted that neither Herenan nor Eli were with us. Rather the Deveroe and Tanaka princes filled the fancy lazy-boy-like seats across from me and the guys.
Faster than I really thought possible we were up in the air and I could practically feel all of the questions that everyone wanted to ask me filling the air. I knew that I didn’t want to talk about the Hidden or Awenasa because I needed to really think about what I was going to say before I got grilled on the subject. So to deflect from the conversation that everyone clearly wanted to have, I blurted out something that I was sure to garner attention.
I looked directly at Ethan and said in a completely serious tone, “So, did you know that your brother and my uncle are conspiring to get me to move to Boston so that we can get married by the end of the year?”
Max, who was sitting to my right, had been in the middle of taking a drink of water and ended up spraying said water all over and then started coughing, showcasing that I had taken everyone off guard by that statement. I locked eyes with Ethan and watched as his cheeks started to tinge pink. Yeah, he knew exactly what I was talking about. He may be acting like my cool bestie that wasn’t interested in playing games but he knew exactly what was going on around him. I flicked my gaze over to my uncle to find that he couldn’t quite force himself to meet my eyes and his ears were bright red. Darron, on the other hand, had no trouble looking at me and narrowed his eyes on me, like if he knew exactly what I was trying to do.
“Umm,” Ethan said as he continued to blush. “Yeah, I knew that that subject had been discussed. But that shouldn’t really be a surprise to you. You are a female Valkyrie that is about to turn eighteen. I can guarantee that my family isn’t the only one to approach your uncle and grandfather with a proposal.”
Now, this was news. Mathis kept telling me to keep an open mind, but he also insisted that it would be my choice in the end. I had no idea they were actually gathering proposals on who had the highest bid for my hand. I pursed my lips and forced myself to keep my focus on the princes. There would be time to confront my family later. I turned to Goro with a confused look on my face and asked, “Have you approached my family with a proposal?”
Goro was like a smooth and bottomless body of water and gave nothing away. “No,” he said in a calm, steady voice and I was relieved that he was telling the truth. Maybe not all of the Royals were going to bark up this particular tree. “But that is only because we have not decided on what to include in our marriage agreement. I am still learning about you, and am trying to decide what you would find the most enticing.”
I blew out a genuinely surprised breath and looked over to Mathis. “People are actually offering you things so that you will arrange our marriage?” I asked with disbelief ringing heavily in my voice.
“Not me, my dear,” Mathis said in the voice he used when he thought he was explaining something I should already know. “They are offering you things. I just haven’t brought them to you because I didn’t think you were ready for that yet. But yes, Sean and I have been fielding quite a few different proposals. And most of them are ones that I would urge you to consider.”
I refocused on Ethan and said, “But I am seventeen and you are twenty-one. And we have only interacted a couple of times over the last week or so. How in the world are you okay with possibly marrying someone you don’t even know at such a young age?” Then I gestured to Goro and continued, “And I heard that you were in a serious relationship with a prince from China. Why in the world would you want to marry me? I am just a girl that you barely even know.”
This got Goro’s attention and he leaned forward in his chair before saying in a carefully guarded voice, “Are you saying that you would be against extramarital affairs?”
“Umm, as a rule, yes. If I marry someone, I would be completely loyal to them and expect the same in return,” I said and hated how I felt like I was explaining that the sky was red instead of blue. Why were they all looking at me like a gullible creature that had no idea of the real world? I had lived in the foster care system for four years. I was completely aware of the real world.
“I think you are allowing the human connotations of marriage color your thinking here,” Goro explained in a neutral voice, devoid of the condensation that I had been expecting. “The general population of Valkyries rarely marry because they cannot be with humans and most find relationships with other supernatural creatures to be unpalatable. The ruling royal Valkyries do marry, but not for love. They do so for the strength of their Kingdom. Marriages are our main way of forging alliances, formalizing trade deals, and blending our cultures.”
Goro let that sink in for a moment before saying, “You were not misinformed when you were told that I have a long-standing relationship with a Chinese prince. His name is Wang Yong, and I would love to introduce him to you. He is my soulmate and I will do everything in my power to stay with him until my dying breath. But I am still a prince and have a responsibility to my kingdom. Forging an alliance with you and having you move to Japan will greatly strengthen my kingdom and Wang understands and supports this. While we would be expected to one day produce children, a Valkyrie marriage does not necessarily mean that you would start a romantic relationship with your husband. If you were to accept, I would have no problem with you bringing your clan with you to keep you emotionally and physically satisfied as long as you were okay with me maintaining my relationship with Wang.”
My heart jumped at the idea of bringing the guys with me, and then the possible larger implications of his suggestion hit home and I looked towards Blake. He had been the one to tell me that nothing that I was feeling was wrong or inappropriate. And what I was feeling was attraction to more than one man. Was Goro telling me that I could bring the guys with me if I got married and have a relationship with them while I was married politically to someone else? That was so far out of things that I thought were remotely possible that my brain was having trouble comprehending. Blake gave me one reassuring smile and reached over to hold my hand.
Ethan cleared his throat and I jerked my hand away from Blake’s out of reflex. “For the record, I do not want only a political alliance with you. I genuinely like you and think that we would be good together. My mother and father are madly in love with each other and I see that as a possible future for us,” Ethan said and his cheeks tinged pink again. My heart melted a little towards him because that must have been really hard for him to admit in our current situation.
There was a beat where no one talked but eventually, Sean spoke up and said, “This is why we think you need to have a Matching. There are a lot of people that want to get to know you and need a chance to lay out what kind of future they can provide for you. Once you have seen what everyone is offering and get to know people a little more, then you can decide how you want to move forward.”
I looked over at Elijah as his words echoed through my head once more. You need to stop running from any hint of responsibility and start taking this seriously. You cannot keep hiding behind our clan because we simply are not strong enough to hold up the weight. You need to make a decision about what you are going to do... but you will never know if you keep closing your eyes and pretending that you can live a simple life away from power. You are the most powerful person I have ever met. It is time that you grow up and start acting like it.
Even though I was once again Cloaking my mind so he couldn’t actually read my thoughts, I knew that Elijah understood that I was thinking about what he had said to me. He looked slightly regretful, but also steadfast. He may be sorry that he delivered the message in such a harsh way, but he still believed I needed to hear it. Just like Sean and Mathis, he believed that I needed to be more open to hearing these royals out.
This was all a lot of information to take in, especially after all of the other revelations I had learned in the last twenty-four hours and my head was starting to pound. I nodded my head to Elijah, letting him know that I would think about it, and then laid my head on Max’s shoulder and closed my eyes. I wasn’t going to be able to give any answers tonight. Everyone was going to have to be a little more patient with me.
I had meant only to close my eyes for a moment, but I must have fallen asleep because the next thing I knew I was being lifted up into a pair of strong arms and being cradled to a broad muscular chest. I cracked my eyes open to see that I was in Connor’s capable hands. I let out a sigh and laced my arms around his neck to help support my weight as I felt us start walking off the plane.
“We really need to debrief both you and Valkyrie Olsen about your experiences with the Hidden,” I heard a stern voice that I thought was Darron Deveroe say.
“Clearly, Ray is exhausted, and quite frankly, so am I,” Elijah responded. “It is the middle of the night. Let us rest and we will answer your questions tomorrow at the palace.” I think that Darron and maybe Goro continued to argue with Elijah, but Connor was quickly taking me out of their hearing range. Once we reached the car, I had to wake up more so that I could crawl into the back of yet another black SUV and buckle up. Connor slid into the seat beside me and I didn’t hesitate to lean my head on his shoulder. Not only because I was tired, but also because it just felt good to be near my mostly stoic twin.
“Here,” Connor said as he passed me my phone. I checked the screen to see that it was now fully charged. I unlocked it to find a stupid number of text messages and missed calls. The majority of them were from the guys, presumably because they tried to reach me after I disappeared on them earlier. Their clear panic was a powerful illustration that what I was feeling for them wasn’t one-sided.
There were some other text messages in there from people that I was more surprised about. Ethan had texted several times before they just stopped, so that must have been when someone clued him in on what was going on. Jack texted but when I asked Connor about it he was quick to assure me that they had been in constant contact with both Jack and Amy and they knew that I was okay. I took the time to text them back because I didn’t want to wake Jack up with a phone call in the middle of the night.
The most surprising text was one from Lawerance Lopez, the future pack master of the Oakland Shifter Pack. Lawerance was notoriously wary of me as a female Valkyrie and had never reached out to me personally before. The text was overly formal, reading more like a business letter than a text message, and basically asked if he could have a meeting with me at my earliest convenience. I read the message several times and then tipped the phone screen to Connor so that he could read it.
“Weird,” Connor said in a gruff voice and I realized that he was even more tired than I was. He must be staying awake right now on sheer force of will. “Law wouldn’t ask for a meeting unless it was really important.”
I was thinking along the same lines and texted him back that he could come over to the Oakland Clan house in the morning. Hopefully, whatever he needed could wait a couple of hours. The car ride to the Oakland House had been quiet and I assumed it was because everyone was afraid of being overheard, because the second that we reached the house Mathis demanded that I take us to the void so that we could talk.
I knew that my disappearance must have been really hard on my grandfather considering that my father had gone missing in the same way twenty years ago, but he hadn’t really interacted with me since I got back from the Doba. Now I understood that he was barely holding himself back until we had a safe place to talk. I noticed that a lot of Valkyries that I didn’t know seemed to be getting comfortable in the now parked SUVs and figured that we were once again going to have a layer of surveillance for the night. I huffed out a sigh and then pushed all of the Oakland guys plus my blood relatives into the void so that we could talk.
I could tell that everyone was beyond exhausted, but also that they needed answers. I blanked my mind and told them everything that I had discovered with the least amount of emotion as I could manage. I told them about the four Gatekeepers, my transition to more power, the two different cities within the Doba, and what had happened to my father and the Rebec Clan twenty years ago. When I was done, no one looked particularly tired anymore. Now they had differing expressions of shock, disgust, and anger.
“Where is this Northern City?” Mathis demanded when he could tell that I didn’t have any more heartbreaking news to relay. “We must gather a contingent of Valkyries and go after those responsible for this. I am sure the Northeast Kingdom will agree. Rabec was one of their most celebrated clans and Queen Anne will not allow this to go unanswered. We can go to her and get support and then get the justice that my son deserves,” Mathis declared and his voice cracked on the last word.
“No,” I said and felt the slightest bit like a traitor because of the look that both Mathis and Sean were giving me. “We will not spark a war that the Northerners are ready and jonesing for over something that happened two decades ago. What is done is done and adding more violence on top of it won’t solve anything.”
“You can’t seriously be taking their side right now,” Mathis said, sounding hurt and disbelieving.
“Of course, I am not taking their side,” I hissed out in a harsh whisper. “But this is bigger than one horrific thing that happened twenty years ago. We are not talking about just getting to a couple of Valkyries that kidnapped and tortured your son. We are talking about hundreds of people going to war. We cannot be hasty about this. Most of the people living in the Doba had nothing to do with what happened to the Rabec Clan. We cannot just rip their life away from them on a whim.”
I paused for a moment to see if anyone was going to add anything to my little rant, but when everyone remained silent, I continued, “We aren’t even sure if that is what really happened. None of the people we talked to were there. Everything they told us was pieced together after the fact based on hearsay and rumor. My father and the rest of the Rabec Clan are dead. There is nothing we can do for them now. Taking some extra time before we act is the smart move here.”
“Wonder Girl is right,” Derik said and I felt immensely relieved that at least one person was on my side of this. “Acting hastily is the worst thing we can do right now. We are all exhausted and need time to process. Let’s all hit the hay and we can continue to talk about this in the morning.”
There were a lot of head nods and grunts of approval and I could tell that everyone expected me to bring us back from the void, but I needed something before that happened. I turned my entire attention on Sean and Mathis before saying, “I am going to need you to keep this information to yourself. Don’t go running and tell Prince Darron Daveroe because he will just turn around and tell the Tanaka Royal Line and before we know it, everyone and their royal brother will know about this. I do not want that to happen. I told you this because you loved the person that my father used to be and you deserved to know, but if this gets out I will never trust you with any sort of information again. This is my story and I get to decide when and how it gets out.”
Mathis just clenched his jaw angrily and Sean refused to meet my eyes. I understood that they were angry and hurting right now, but I wasn’t going to budge on this. Too much was at stake. Probably more than any of us really understood at this point. After a full minute of tense silence, Sean nodded his head at me, but that wasn’t good enough in this situation.
“I am going to need you to say it out loud so that I know you are telling me the truth,” I said with a harsh edge. Sean had betrayed this kind of promise before.
Both Mathis and Sean looked offended, but what was done was done. Eventually, both agreed out loud to keep everything they learned to themselves and I returned us to the physical plane.