Chapter 1 - Plans and Expectations
I was so far from okay right now, that I don’t even really know up from down. Con and I grew up in the Blade Clan and almost everyone favored Con over me because he has three Gifts and I only have two. To ninety-nine percent of people that I called family, I was only seen as Con’s lesser shadow. The mistake embryo that should have never existed. Tobias was the one person in Blade that always saw me separate from my twin brother. He even went out of his way to make me feel special. Tobias was the father that I wished I had growing up, and the person that I went to when I needed guidance and love.
Now he was dead. Nothing but ashes in the wind.
How is that even possible? How can someone who was such a constant in my life just be gone? In the years since Con and I left Blade, I haven’t talked much to Tobias. I was too wrapped up in our new life and too angry about my past to give him my time when he had never failed to make time for me. I am a horrible person who took everything Tobias represented for granted. How am I supposed to protect and be supportive to Ray and the rest of my clan when I failed one of the only people to always believe in me?
I watched the fancy-looking analog clock tick away the minutes and tried to muster up some sort of concern that we were starting to run out of time. Queen Florence had rather tersely ordered me to be at Regina’s Matching event this afternoon after I had failed to appear at any yesterday, and Elijah had advised me not to ignore her summons. But right now, watching the world’s eligible Royal Valkyrie bachelors prance around trying to impress Regina was so far down my priority list that I couldn’t find it within myself to care if we were late.
Amy was more important.
My young friend and claimed protected had gone to a house party hosted by the worst that Skyline High had to offer and ended up caving into peer pressure. Amy participated in a game where a bowl of multiple unknown pills was passed around, and everyone took turns swallowing ‘party treats’. During the second round of the game, Amy must have taken something that didn’t interact well with the first pill she had swallowed because she had ended up passing out in some dark corner. Through our connection, I had felt that she was in trouble, but at the time I had been in the city attending a stupid ball for Regina’s Matching. Afterward, I had been absent when she was released from the hospital because a crazy Russian King had kidnapped me.
Long story short, I felt like I was dropping the ball left and right where Amy was concerned. As one of my protected, I felt responsible for her. I needed to protect her. And I had been failing miserably in the last month. I needed to stop trying to mitigate trouble once she was already in it. We needed to get ahead of this and give Amy the help and support she needed to turn her life back around. Because skipping class and getting addicted to drugs was not how I wanted Amy to finish her freshman year of high school.
Hence the reason that Jack and I were sitting side-by-side in an over-decorated waiting room as Amy had her first session with her therapist. The twins were here too because they refused to let me out of their sight since some unknown person had compelled Derik to attack me and I was kidnapped. Since I felt safer with them by my side, I had zero problems with them becoming my large shadows.
I allowed my eyes to scan over each of the twins’ and Jack’s faces and tried to gauge how they were doing with all of the excess drama that I had dragged into their lives. Jack looked exhausted, yet his knee was bouncing up and down with nerves. Jack and Amy had grown up the hard way with a junkie mother and a deadbeat absent father. In the trailer park where they had spent their childhood when things went bad, you did your best to power through on your own because you knew that no one else was going to slow down enough to help. Therapy was something that only rich kids could afford.
But I had recently inherited a stupid amount of money from my own awful father, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend it than to make sure Amy got the very best help we could find her. So even though it was completely foreign to both of us, Jack and I were going to see this through with Amy. And somewhere along the line, I was going to make sure Jack got a haircut. Because he was flicking his head to the side to push his locks out of his eyes so often that it looked like he had developed a tick.
The twins also looked exhausted. We really needed at least a week where no major life events occurred just so that we could recuperate from everything that had happened over the last two weeks. Connor had on his typical stoic face, but I knew him well enough now to see the strain in the way that he clenched his jaw every few minutes. I could tell that he was ready to spring into action at a second’s notice by the tense set of his shoulders. Connor wasn’t much of a talker, but he had been making a real effort with me the last couple of days to make sure that I really believed that he was on my side. I was fairly confident that he was going out of his way to do this because I had a huge mental meltdown and told everyone about my fear that the guys would leave me. Deep down, I still held onto this dark fear but Connor’s and the other guy’s constant reassurances were doing a lot to make me believe I was no longer alone. That I was worthy of their love and friendship.
While Connor had been doing his very best to open up to me after my kidnapping, Blake was more closed off than I have ever seen him. Like I said before, he never left my side for long but he was far from his happy-go-lucky self. Not that I blamed him, but I missed my joyful giant and was worried about him. After the last couple of weeks that we experienced, Amy wasn’t the only one that might need professional help.
My phone buzzed in my hand and I looked down to see a text message from Elijah.
Elijah: We are going to come and pick you up at the clinic. We can drive straight to the palace from there. Jack and Amy will have to drive Connor’s Jeep back to the house.
I blew out a breath and texted back that his plan sounded okay with me. I told Jack that I was going to have to leave from here to make it another important appointment, and he just nodded his head at me. This whole lying to Jack thing was slowly killing me. It wasn’t so bad when I had no life and didn’t have to go supernatural gladiator fights. I used to be able to pretend that I wasn’t really any different from Jack and I had thought I had been happy. Together we were just two teenagers who were dealt crappy cards in life and trying to beat the odds. It had been simpler that way.
Now, I had basically dropped out of school and had at least two life-changing events happen to me weekly. Keeping Jack in the dark meant lying to my best friend. The worst part was that we both knew that I wasn’t telling him the truth and it was pulling us apart. After my meltdown, I knew that Jack wasn’t going anywhere, but there were so many unsaid things between us that I no longer knew how to just sit down and connect with Jack or Amy. The truly unbearable part was that we all knew it, but none of us knew how to fix it. It was like watching a car crash in slow motion. You want to help, but you know that you are no match for inertia.
The simple truth was that they were human and I was not. Sooner or later that basic fact about us was going to tear the first people I ever considered family away from me.
A full thirty-five minutes after her appointment was scheduled to be over, the office door opened and a red-eyed Amy walked out into the waiting room. Jack shot to his feet and Amy buried her face within his chest. I hated seeing Amy upset, but I was relieved to see that they had made some sort of progress. I doubted they would have run over on time if Amy had just sat there and refused to talk.
After an awkward good-bye with the therapist, we all headed out front. Just as promised, Elijah, Max, and Derik were waiting outside in a black SUV that was large enough to hold our entire Clan. Amy surprised me by giving me a hug before she climbed into Connor’s jeep and for a moment I held onto her for dear life. I was still waking up in a cold sweat as my body reminded me what it was like to feel her slipping through my fingers. It did me a great deal of good to feel her whole and alive in my arms.
My mind was still focused on Jack and Amy and before I knew it, we were only minutes away from the palace. Missing chunks of time like that as my mind pulled me into different directions and my emotions wreaked havoc on my psyche had been happening a lot over the last few days. I had to actively focus on keeping myself engaged in the present, otherwise, a tide of memory and regret was going to pull me under.
Focus on the now. Live in the present, not the past, I reminded myself and then asked the silent car, “What is it again that we are going to see?”
“It is an ancient tradition among our people and now is a focal point within a Princess’s Matching Ceremonies,” Elijah explained in a patient voice. “Valkyries from all over the world have traveled here to celebrate Regina’s eighteenth birthday and today they will display their ability to protect our future Queen and Kingdom by fighting against each other publicly.”
“Basically, it is our version of the Olympics and each kingdom takes it very seriously. The winner will bring not only honor and respect to his home country but also a whole lot of bragging rights,” Derik added and I appreciated that he was telling it to me straight.
“From what you have told me before, I thought that the decision of who Regina will marry has already been made. So why are they fighting for her? Why go through this whole ridiculous event if the outcome is already a foregone conclusion?” I asked because this point had been bugging me. I had seen how much money and effort they had put into Regina’s Matching Ball, and that had just been the first event. Holding an entire week of these over-the-top shindigs must be costing our kingdom a small fortune.
“Yes, it is true that over time most Royal marriages have been painstakingly planned over years and who will be the best match is decided before the Princess’s eighteenth birthday, but we have held onto the tradition. The Matching also gives the leaders of the worldwide supernatural community to gather and discuss important affairs. It helps us stay connected and increases the level of communication overall,” Elijah responded in his ever political way.
“That is why we think we can learn more about who Compelled me during the Matching. Valkyries love to gossip more than teenage human girls. So if you can send some of us to the void, I am positive that we will learn a lot of juicy information. And hopefully, something that will give us a lead on who wants you hurt so badly,” Derik said and I could literally feel the anger in his voice. He was still struggling with coming to terms with what he was forced to do to me.
In all honesty, I was still coming to terms with it too. In my mind, that attack was a much worse offense than King Alexei’s kidnapping attempt. At least the crazy king hadn’t beat me up or forced someone I have come to trust to try to rape me in my own clan house. In my book, our mystery Compeller was a whole different class of villain and he needed to be stopped.
I allowed the familiar anger from that attack to burn through my soul and focus my thoughts. I would attend all of these stupid Matching events if it leads to some real answers.
“What is the plan for today?” Max asked and I smiled over at him. I could always count on Max to keep me on track.
“Just as they were yesterday, Mathis and Sean have been at the palace all day and are gathering information the old fashion way. The interest around Ray has only increased since her defeat of King Vasiliev at the airfield, so they say that they are having no trouble getting people to talk to them,” Elijah started to explain when Connor interrupted him.
“Knowing if they are telling us everything they learn is a whole other issue. I don’t trust them. They want Ray to leave here and go live in Boston with them. How do we know they aren’t working against us?”
“We don’t,” Derik stated firmly, causing my stomach to sink. I was just starting to get to know my newly discovered blood relatives and hated that we had to be so suspicious of them. But I knew for a fact that Sean was working with the Royals from the Americas Northeast Kingdom. Mathis claimed that they just wanted what was best for me and he hadn’t been lying, but they just met me a little over a week ago. How could they possibly know what was best for me?
“We know that they want to discover who Compelled Derik almost as much as we do,” Max interjected. “Let’s focus on that.”
“Right, so as I was saying. Mathis and Sean will stay in the physical realm while Derik, Max, and I will go to the void and gather as much information as we can. The twins will stay with Ray, who will most likely have to stay visible. The Queen wouldn’t be so adamant about you attending if she didn’t want you to play some part. I know it goes against your nature but as long as it isn’t something that will hurt you, I would advise you do as the Queen asks. We need to pick our battles and after everything that went down with King Vasiliev, we need to appear compliant right now.”
“How will you let me know when you are ready to come back to the physical plane?” I asked because once I sealed them in the void, there was no way for them to communicate with the physical plane. I also would have no way of knowing where in the void they were at any given time. It would be super easy to lose someone.
“We will have a designated time and place to meet. You can bring us back then.”
"I don’t like it. What if someone is in trouble and needs help,” I asked.
“What kind of trouble would they get into in the void? There is nothing there?” Connor asked, but Derik took my question more seriously.
“We don’t know. That’s the whole point. Wonder Girl is right. Closing off all forms of communication is not smart. But Elijah got that text I sent him last week at the police station when we were in the void. We should test it again, but I think text messaging works between planes of existence.”
I had been wondering about that myself. We were just about to drive through the gates of the palace so I had Elijah pull over and I pushed myself back into the void and sealed the entrance. My legs ghosted through the inside of the car, so now I was standing through the seat that I was seconds before sitting in. I pulled out my phone and texted all of the guys in our group chat. I gave it a moment to send and then walked to stand next to the car before shifting back to the physical realm. I had learned a long time ago not to shift back if I was standing through something physical. I would literally get caught inside the object.
I climbed back into the SUV and Max showed me his phone. My text message greetings from the void was on his screen and a weight lifted off my shoulders. The guys would still be able to communicate from the void. This would make things a lot easier.
We continued on and once we were cleared by the guards manning the front gate, we pulled up to the front entrance of the Collins’ Royal Palace. It was a large five-story stone building that looked over a cliff dropping into the ocean below. Instead of heading into the palace as we had for Regina’s ball, we were directed to get out of the car and walk to the beach where they had held Tobias’s funeral two days before.
We all got out of the car and started to walk towards the beach. Before I could push Elijah, Derik, and Max into the void, a Valkyrie I had never met before but was decked out in the Royal Guard Clan uniform, told us that Queen Florence wanted to talk to me. After checking with Elijah and Derik, I followed him to a large white tent that was set on the sand of the beach. I noticed that there were dozens of dark stones on the sand, outlining a circle that was surrounded by chairs. All of the chairs looked the same except for a grouping that was placed on a raised dais. I assumed that is where Regina and her family would sit and watch the show.
As soon as we entered the white tent, my eyes were drawn to the center of the room where Queen Florence was sitting on a literal throne. The fact that she had a portable throne did a lot to describe the Queen of the Americas West. When I had conversed with her at a dinner last week, I had discovered that she was just as shallow and conceited as her daughter. However, where Regina was content to play the blonde bimbo, Florence was far more intelligent and I had no doubt that she was able to play a part to achieve her goals.
“Valkyrie Olsen,” Florence said in a commanding voice that had every single person within earshot snapping to attention. “I asked to see you, not the entire Oakland Clan. Please ensure to follow my directions more carefully in the future. Valkyrie Nilsen, you and the rest of your clan are dismissed. Please take your seats as the event will start soon.”
My knee-jerk reaction was to object to being left alone with this woman, but Elijah’s rational request of following the Queen’s orders as long as it didn’t do me any harm kept my mouth shut and my feet planted as the guys stiffly left the tent. Florence walked over to stand before me and scanned me from head to toe. She did not look happy with pursed lips and slightly squinted eyes that caused small wrinkles to form on her otherwise flawless face. My stomach tightened the longer that she studied me without saying anything.
“Do you really think this is appropriate attire to wear to my daughter’s Matching?” Florence finally asked in a dangerously low voice. I glanced down at my pressed grey slacks and dark blue flowy blouse as I tried to form a response. These clothes were brand new and substantially nicer than anything I had worn in my entire life. The guys and all of the people I had seen since we got here had been wearing clothes of the same level of professionalism. I truly didn’t understand the problem here.
When I looked back up into Queen Florence’s eyes she must have seen my confusion and didn’t wait for my reply before turning and ordering, “Someone get Valkyrie Olsen something more flattering to wear. She is too large to fit into any of Regina’s clothes, but I am sure we have something that will suffice somewhere in the Palace.”
The disgusted tone to the Queen’s words both offended me and made my blood start to boil. I had worked very hard over the last three years to not starve to death. There was nothing wrong with my body, and insinuating that I was fat in front of a bunch of people that I don’t know wasn’t making me feel more cooperative. It was literally having the opposite effect.
“I was unaware that there was a dress code in place for today’s event,” I said through clenched teeth as I held onto my growing temper with both hands. The last Royal that I had lost my temper with, I had beheaded. I needed to not cause a scene. I couldn’t afford any more drama or life-changing events right now.
“That is because you have been hiding away like some sullen toddler after throwing a tantrum. If you want to be kept in the loop, my dear child, then you need to show up and be present in the moment. Now, stop complaining and pay attention. I require you to take the seat to Regina’s left during the strength demonstration. This is a very important day for her and you will publicly show your support for her and this Kingdom” Florence stated in a sharp voice that illustrated her impatience. “You will not draw attention to yourself. You will do nothing more than sit there and offer silent support. Do you understand me?”
The more this woman talked, the more my power rippled under my skin as my rage grew. Was this really how she talked to people? No wonder everyone was scared of her. She was downright mean. I didn’t know if I could sit by and continue to take this kind of treatment and not speak my mind. Maybe it would be better if I separated myself from the Queen. Plus, I really didn’t want to sit up on that dais with Regina. The whole point of this week was to shower the princess with attention for her birthday. I hated attention and didn’t want to be drawn into her limelight.
“I think it would be better for everyone if I showed my support of the Princess from a seat with my clan,” I said with forced calm.
“I am your Queen. I do not care what you think. All I care about is that you understand that I know best. It is why I am the Queen and you are only an honorary member of a small, nothing, startup clan lead by someone who is young enough to be my son. You have been given allowances for your blatant disobedience because of the horrible circumstances that you were discovered in, but that stops now. It is time for you to learn your place, Valkyrie Olsen. You are beneath me. You are beneath my daughter. You are even beneath my sons. And if you continue to act outside of your station, I will not hesitate to rescind your tedious clan membership and will happily watch your family whisk you away to the Americas Northeast. I have no doubt you will be married to Anne’s sorry excuse for a seventh son in under a year while I crush your little Oakland Clan under my shoe just for the fun of it.”
Queen Florence paused to allow her words to fully settle on my soul before continuing in an angry whisper. “Now, for the rest of this week, I need you to pretend like you know how to follow basic directions and do everything I say. If you disrespect me or my family again, I promise you will not like the consequences.”
About halfway through Florence’s demanding speech, I felt an old but familiar fear start to creep up my spine. My father used to talk to me just like this. As if I was so far beneath him that I was no more than a bug that he could squash if he so desired. Growing up with words like these spoken to me every day had done a lot to splinter my self-image. If I even had a self-image to start off with. As a child, I had wholeheartedly believed that I was lesser. A belief that I had learned day in and day out.
In the years since my father was murdered, I have come a long way in developing some kind of self-love and confidence. But that self-confidence was shaky on the best of days, and I have been struggling with what I did to get free of my kidnappers. Today was not the best of days, and the Queen’s words did a lot to shred through my fragile foundation of self-worth. I could almost feel myself split into two parts that were in disagreement about what I would do in response to this uncalled for and disrespectful speech.
A small part of me wanted to laugh in Florence’s face and tell her exactly where she could shove her self-centered demands. I was starting to understand that I was significantly more powerful than even her. No one could force me to do something that I didn’t want to do because I had access to the void. If I didn’t want to go live with my uncle and grandfather then it wasn’t going to happen. End of story.
But my strong and unique Gifts didn’t mean that Queen Florence didn’t have any power over me. She was right. I now had a weakness that the Queen was more than willing to use against me. If I made a wrong move here, Florence was going to take the guys away from me.
I had just accepted that I truly belong with them and they seemed to feel the same way. I couldn’t lose them now.
With that thought forefront in my mind, I let the larger part of me take over. I fell into my old and hated submissive ways that my father had raised me to fully understand, and lowered my eyes.
“Yes, your Highness,” I murmured before someone I didn’t know pulled me over to a corner of the tent. Then I was stripped of the clothes I had admired just hours before and forced into a monstrosity of a dress that did nothing to showcase the woman I wanted to be in life.