Chapter Two: Problematic
‘Don’t tell me what?’ a conspiratorial voice whispers along the back of my neck.
I jump half out of my skin in shock as hands wrap around my waist. In the darkness, the only sensation I have to go off is their touch. Calloused and masculine fingers clamp my arms to my sides, enveloping me in a crushing hug from behind.
I don’t need any light to identify who’s holding me. There’s power in the lithe figure, with the muscular build of his chest cushioning my back. He’s tall; tall enough that he stoops, just so slightly, to reach down to me.
And, there’s his aroma of wonderfulness that is familiar and indescribable. A mixture of woods, fresh air and home. His hair smells distinctly of peppermint— something that’s new. His fringe tickles my cheek, sending a beautiful combination of his hair and body scent directly.
I try not to sigh.
What’s the biggest giveaway in my attacker’s identity, however, is his smug and confident voice as he cajoles me.
‘I found you,’ he murmurs into my ear, as competitive as ever, ‘So what do I win?’
His smooth syllables caress my ears, rendering concentrating difficult. I manage, spinning out of his reach and recovering my anger quickly.
‘Hades,’ I mutter. Now my eyes are adjusting to the dim light, I can make out his outline, looming over me. After a few more seconds I begin to make out the biggest component on his face; the smirk of victory.
To my credit, I sense the smirk falter. ‘You know I hate that nickname, darling.’
The way he says “darling” is practically acidic.
I play along, placing my hands along his biceps and laughing with a gentle sound. ‘That’s precisely why I call you it, my dearest.’
He steps closer, so that he’s looking down at me, and my head is forced to gaze up. His fingers brush my chin, tilting my face up towards him. His breath, cool against my cheeks, licks over my face as he speaks. ‘Where were you going, little wife?’
For a moment, he actually sounds concerned. It’s beyond the unreadable man he’s played since returning from Minoa. Perfect for the poker faced king, Hadrian had given the impression of a serene return whilst my protests were ignored.
My hands go on my hips, and I cast him a scathing look through the darkness. ‘You know where I’m going— out of here! Somebody needs to do something!’
My week’s frustration at Hadrian’s lack of action is finally spilling over, threatening to explode.
Irritatingly, my husband stays calm and collected. ‘I am doing everything I can.’
I scoff, pushing past him to make my way up the stairwell. My mind calculates whether or not I could best him if he tried to stop me. He slips back again, so no matter how I try to squeeze past, he’s blocking me.
‘Get out of my way!’ I demand, my arms pushing him aside. He sets his heels in and doesn’t budge, but instead spreads his arms so that he looks like he’s coming at me for a cuddle.
I bring up my knee and go for the groin.
He’s at my side and grasping my thigh before I reach him, wrapping his hands around my torso to stop me moving.
‘So that you can run back home?’ Hadrian chuckles darkly, and I sense him shaking his head.
I wriggle and kick and fight, but he’s got me clamped. ’How can you sit here and do nothing?′ I yell, frustrated. All I can do is beat my hands against his chest in fury. ’She cursed you, she cursed us, she took Mercer and she’s caused hundreds of people to die from the lack of harvest in the last few hundred years. Every day we don’t hunt her down, Hades, she continues that work.′
My fiancé sighs sadly, and for the first time I realise that I’m not the only one hurting. He clears his throat, as if shocked himself by the display.
‘I’m sorry, Ness,’ he murmurs, giving me a squeeze before setting me down. He waits hesitantly, as though I’m going to run. I decide to give him a chance to explain himself before I do run.
Taking my silence as a mutual agreement not to start fighting again, Hadrian continues, ‘We don’t know where Hecate has gone. We can’t just chase her blindly. I have all of the Collectors working in pairs and recording anything suspicious, but honestly...the girl has just vanished.’
‘And when she reappears it will be on her terms,’ I say, exasperated. ‘Like last time, she will take us by surprise.’
‘Aye,’ Hadrian agrees, ‘but at least we’ll know what we’re up against, and you’ll be more ready. Hopefully she’ll make a wrong move, but until then, we learn quickly.’
Something about his words makes me shiver— in a wholly fearful way. Opening and closing my mouth, I don’t know what to say.
It’s true— I don’t know the first thing about necromancy, nor my recent acquisition of elemental Earth powers. I don’t know how much control over the Earth I have.
Running after Hecate is suicide. But I’m not sure how else to proceed.
‘I ask that you reconsider leaving,’ Hadrian says, and I realise he’s trying to word his sentence in a way that I won’t take offence. ‘I need you here, Ness. You’re right; Hecate has caused a lot of pain to a lot of people— this isn’t going to be one fight. This is going to be a war.’
Well— I haven’t thought about that. Actually, I don’t know much about Underworld politics aside from there’s a fair few Courts always fighting for power. But a war? Wars require armies and leaders, and it’s like Hadrian’s asking me to be a part of it. I peer at him through the darkness, and my heart dips. My husband is serious enough, but this is a new expression for him; sorrow.
Damn my conscience. I find myself nodding in agreement.
He coughs awkwardly, and continues, ‘I won’t try to control you, and I promise that when the time comes, I’ll let you have your revenge. But until we have a way to get her, I can’t let you sacrifice yourself.’
Smiling for the first time, I reach out in the darkness and find the warmth of his wrist. He tenses a little under my touch, and then relaxes and takes my hand.
My belly backflips a few times before quietening. It takes me a few more seconds to focus my thoughts after it, but I manage eventually.
But as I open my mouth to speak, Hadrian continues on, ‘And I won’t force you to do anything you don’t want to do, and we can go through the necromancy book faster if it’s not advanced enough for you...’
‘...Hadrian...’ I murmur.
He continues to babble, his words getting quicker.
He blinks, as if he’s only just heard me.
I say, ‘Hades, it’s okay. I accept. You’re right.’
There’s a pause when my words sink in.
’You— you do?′ my husband seems astounded that I’ve agreed to something he’d suggested. ’I’m right? You agree with me?′
I squeeze his hand, lacing his fingers into mine. ‘Even I concede when faced with sound reasoning. Racing out there will quieten my ego but will not answer my questions. I will help you, ensure your kingdom’s safety, return spring, and when the time is right I will make my own way.’
Hadrian lets out a shaky laugh. ‘You’re confident,’ he says, ‘That’s good. I need a queen who is confident.’
There’s a rumble from beneath our feet as the building quakes slightly. I wish I were speaking metaphorically, but I’m not: at Hadrian’s mention of the word “queen”, my heart leapt so much that my control of my power ebbed.
Thankfully, he doesn’t seem to put two and two together; he just thinks I’m angry.
‘I’m sorry, I mean, I need a leader who is confident,’ Hadrian says quickly. ’It was a slip of the tongue. We’re not, like, consummated married or anything...′
I flush. I’m not angry, but I don’t feel like I can interrupt now the moment has been spectacularly ruined. His semi-proposal is going up in flames with every passing sentence.
Realising this, Hadrian gets more agitated. ‘I don’t even want a queen, and after this month is up you’re no longer my problem.’
Ouch. I flinch, his words cutting harder than I’d anticipated. Sure, I know the end of my month is approaching fast and if I don’t— ahem— consummate our marriage soon, it will be null in the eyes of Hecate’s curse.
But if we can defeat her, perhaps we don’t need to worry. That’s what we’ve been hoping, but something about the rejection stings like a knife through my sternum. It burns, like hell.
Of course, I don’t need to worry now about where I’ll go after my month is up. I’ve already been to the Otherworld and back, and in doing so gained the powers of necromancy.
But he calls me a “problem”?
’I’m not your problem to begin with!′ I hiss, getting dragged straight into the argument. ’Maybe if you hadn’t spent years sacrificing young girls because you didn’t deal with the real problem— a murderous bitch!′
There’s another stagnant pause.
When Hadrian speaks, I can feel anger pulsating from his words. ’Then please, stop giving me more problems with your immature responses. Running out in the midst of meetings, scheming behind our backs and going missing is. Not. Helpful. At. All.′
This time, the ground does rumble in anger.
I’m so, so angry that I turn on my heel and slam the door back open.
Inside, Nate hasn’t moved, but there’s a few others that have joined him inside. Clae, one of his superiors, seems to be in deep conversation with him as I barge past.
′Nerissa!′ she says, sharply. ‘The whole palace appears to be looking for you.’
After a double take, several of the other souls in the room launch into deep bows and murmurs of, ‘M’lady.’
I notice, surprisingly, that Clae is one of the few people not to address me with irritating reverence. Although I’m ashamed that instead I hear pity in her voice. I avoid looking at her; there’s something unnerving and unwavering about the honesty in her face.
I don’t have time to think of an answer before Hadrian steps out behind me, looking purple. He’s trying hard not to carry on an argument in front of these people, so I smile sweetly at him, aggravating him further.
‘I’m sorry for the disturbance,’ I plead with the group, ‘I miss my brother terribly. Would he be able to escort me back to the palace?’
Hadrian’s eye twitches.
Clae’s eyes narrow.
The man at her left, however, nods eagerly. ‘Of course, my lady, it would be an honour I’m sure young Nathaniel won’t mind.’
‘Thank you,’ I say in earnest, my eyes taking in his kind smile and gullible hope in his eyes. If I needed someone else to dupe, I hoped he’d be there.
Taking my brother’s arm, we make our way back down the tower steps as quickly as possible to not appear suspicious.
As soon as we are out of earshot, my brother whispers, ‘Ness! How did he find you? How did he get inside before we did?’
My fists ball. ‘I have no idea, but it’s pissing me off.’
Nate catches that my tone isn’t just angry about being caught. ‘What else happened?’
‘We had an argument.’
′Oh. About what?′
‘Me. Being a nuisance.’ I speak through gritted teeth as we emerge onto the lower floors and people spot us.
Nate looks thoughtful, but he doesn’t reply. We step into the bright lights of the entrance hall, where soul collectors are crossing the room in all directions. It takes concentration to manoeuvre the crowds, and we disappear among them as I hear the approach of the King into the room. It’s hallmarked by hushed whispers and the rustle of cloaks as the souls bow in unison. Nate and I turn a corner, out of sight, and facing the exit.
Outside, my faithful and loyal hound Cerberus is blocking the majority of the entrance to the building by spreading out along the steps. The dog, with her shimmering black fur and three heads of ferocity, was once Hadrian’s guard-dog of the Underworld. Now, she lets me ride on her back across the kingdom in return for whatever I can sneak from the kitchens, and occasionally guards the bridge that leads to the palace.
Her ears flick at my approach, but I notice that she’s found another friend. It’s unusual; she hates everyone except me and Hadrian, and even Nate she shows hostility for. But one of her heads is fully enjoying an ear scratching by a beautiful, slender male with an aquiline nose and hair the colour of white sand.
The man turns, and I try not to stare. He’s dressed in an elegant uniform of dark teal, emblazoned with golden leaves and tresses. Eyes of emerald chips fix on me, following my form from my hair to my feet, and back to my face, in a way that brings a slow blush to my cheeks.
‘Hello, Nerissa,’ he says, and his voice is low and melodic. ‘My name is Quillan. Please call me Quill.’