Chapter 20: Down the Rabbit Hole
Although I had been lightly instructed by Adonis to spend as much time with Xander as possible, (to ‘bond’ as he put it), I had spent my days mulling around eavesdropping. Things were extremely shifty around the palace now, as Adonis had men floating in and out without so much as a bag check. So much for caring about the future of the Averell line. I was tucked around the corner of one of the kitchen pantries when Alessia found me.
“Goddess, Cy,” she clutched her chest, closing her eyes. “Why are you hiding in your own palace?”
“Not hiding, just, taking a walk,” I shrugged, peering over my shoulder.
“This is me you’re talking to,” she folded her arms across her chest, smirking at me. “You know the servant quarters is the best place for gossip, because I told you that.” She looked like a proud mother. “Anything I can help you find?”
I couldn’t help but laugh as she splayed her arms out around her, gesturing towards the island at the center of the kitchen. She pulled open the fridge, yanking out two root beers as she slid one over to me. Popping the cap off, I took a sip before resting it back on the granite countertop.
“Not something I can discuss, not here at least.”
I sent her a defeating smile, looking down glumly at my bottle before feeling her yank me by the arm out to the gardens. She pulled me to the very edge, peering over to make sure there were no guards below before sitting on a bench as she turned to me expectantly.
“Xander warned me not to talk about it,” I murmured.
“Xander passed this up for some blonde in a dim lit bar,” she frowned. “So pardon me if I don’t trust his judgment.”
My eyes danced over my shoulder one more time before I locked eyes with her again, biting my lip.
“How much do you know about Adonis?”
“I know that he’s English, arrogant, and doesn’t deserve the head of hair he has,” she said matter-of-factly. When my look didn’t waver and she realized I was serious, she cleared her throat, taking another swig. “Everyone’s terrified of him, Cy, even Xander. I’ve never known for Xander to be afraid of anyone other than his brother. He was feared in Europe, but I never expected him to make his way to the west. He made it sound like he’d leave it untouched.”
“He doesn’t seem to believe in the Moon Goddess, not with the way he’s playing around with the Averell line of succession like it’s a Christmas toy.”
“He’s a private man, he doesn’t even keep a woman around long enough to learn his middle name.”
“I know one woman who might know a few of his secrets,” I thought aloud, hearing a light bulb go off in my head. “But I need you to come with me.”
“You want me to visit the Moon Goddess with you? Is that even allowed?”
“The majority of the past two years hasn’t been allowed. After dinner, meet in the ballroom?”
“Do you have a date?” she raised an eyebrow.
I felt myself grow embarrassed at the thought of saying it aloud. It felt wrong, seeing Xander, knowing what he did to her.
“It’s not a date, we’re just catching up. I’ve been distracted the past couple of days.”
“It’s okay, you know, to talk about him,” she assured, placing her hand on my arm. “We never actually met, and I don’t feel anything for him. My focus is making sure that you are happy.”
“It just feels messy, it feels wrong. I know you miss Ace.”
“I’ll see him one day, you know. I just have to wait a little bit longer than everybody else.”
I knew that if Ace was lingering around, as he often does, he would smile at that statement.
“Do you think they’ll let you see Damien again?” she asked.
“I don’t think they’ll let me see him even if the feeling was reciprocal. I need to play the part, or whatever.”
“Playing the part doesn’t mean acting like he wasn’t a part of your life. You still love him; I know you wish that it had worked out.”
“I had to sacrifice him to save his own life, and I don’t think he’ll ever forgive me for that, not while I’m out here playing some cushy role in evening gowns with fluffy pancakes.”
“Go find Xander, I’m sure he wants to see you too.”
Leaving her with a soft smile, I rose from the bench and started back in towards the palace in an effort to find Xander. When I discovered he wasn’t in his room, I went down to head towards the kitchens, and heard the sound of a breaking glass in Damien’s old office. Creeping slowly towards it, I felt fury bundle in my chest at the thought of someone else being in there. When I peered around the cracked open door, I discovered Xander on the floor, staring at his broken glass. My eyes drifted across the coffee table to see a nearly empty bottle of whiskey. Putting two and two together, I felt my fury turn to pity.
“Do not look at me like that,” Xander pointed at me, drawing out the vowels in his words.
“You’re drunk,” I muttered. I made my way over to him, picking up the shards of glass as I set them back on the coffee table.
“Shh,” he slurred. “Don’t tell Damien I got into his whiskey.”
He looked like a sixteen-year-old that had snuck into his father’s liquor stash.
“Why are you drunk? We were supposed to have dinner tonight,” I said. I didn’t want to manipulate his feelings out of him, but part of me genuinely needed to know. No one could see their future King falling apart like this.
“I got nervous,” he murmured the words so softly I could only make it out by reading his lips. “It was just one drink, and that became two, and that became three…”
“Nervous?” A genuine laugh came out of my mouth, and I watched him go a tinge of red. “It’s just me, Xander.”
He grumbled and clamored to his feet, heading out towards the balcony.
“You could just be straightforward and say you’re not interested,” I blurted.
He turned and looked to me with an expression of adoration I had never seen before.
“Don’t say that,” he said. The words came out laced with warning, like I was striking a cord. “I wanted to show up tonight, and sweep you off your feet into the sunset,”
“But Damien, and Adonis, and them. If I let myself want you again, they can take you from me. They will take you from me once they find out what Adonis is planning.”
“What is Adonis planning?”
I felt my pulse start to quicken in the worst way as the knot in my chest tightened. Just as I thought he was going to speak, he shook his head and ran an exasperated hand through his hair, leaving the balcony as he slumped into the couch. I hesitated before sitting next to him as I pulled his hand into mine. He looked up at me with a tinge of surprise.
“You can tell me anything,” I promised.
“I can’t tell you, he’ll have my head.” He was sobering up out of fear, but I didn’t let go of his hand. I rested my head on his shoulder, letting out a heavy sigh. Up until tonight, Xander was the most composed man I had ever met.
“Let’s get you to bed.”
I nudged him up, starting him down the hall as he slumped against me. I got funny looks from a few of the guards, but made it to my room without questioning. When I rested him on my bed, he looked around and realized where he was.
“I shouldn’t stay here—”
“I have to go see Alessia, but I’ll be back. You shouldn’t be alone tonight.”
He didn’t object, but instead stared up at me doe-eyed like a child. He rolled over and sunk into the sheets as I pulled the comforter over his shoulders.
“It smells like you,” he mumbled.
His murmurs quickly turned into soft snores, and I was relieved that I had gotten him out of sight. As I left my room, I turned to the guard posted outside my door.
“Don’t let anyone in or out, and you saw nothing, understood?”
He nodded gruffly, addressing me as your majesty. I didn’t let myself linger, but instead headed down to the ballroom. Two guards were posted at the end of Adonis’ wing, which meant he was either asleep or busy. Either way, it would leave Alessia and I undisturbed during our meeting tonight. When I creaked open the towering door she was already there, dressed in her ceremonial white gown she wore as Patron of the Moon Goddess.
“Dinner cut short?” she asked, cocking her head.
“He got drunk, I put him straight to bed,” I brushed off the notion, but didn’t miss the sad look on her face. “Let’s do this, shall we?”
I took one last look over my shoulder before closing my eyes and beginning the ceremony. When my eyes opened, I was standing at the clearing before the lake, holding Alessia’s hand. I expected a disapproving look from Artemis, but she looked occupied by her reflection in the water. She didn’t utter a word as we approached her, and when I came around to the front of her, she looked briefly distraught before composing herself.
“I wasn’t expecting both of you,” she rose to her feet, giving me that signature look of disapproval.
“I needed a witness,” I explained.
“You’re here to ask me about Adonis,” she stated. When I opened my mouth to ask how she knew that, she spoke again. “A mysterious man from the other half of the world offers you a deal to save your husbands life in exchange for a second wedding. It was only a matter of time before you got suspicious about him.”
“I wouldn’t have been suspicious if it hadn’t been for something that Xander had said. He said there were others, things he couldn’t talk about. He said Adonis was planning something.”
She paced over to a campfire that lingered in the clearing, sitting cross legged on the grass. Alessia and I followed suit, trying our best to mentally prepare ourselves for the information we were about to receive.
“Damien kept a lot of secrets from you, but not to hurt you. You were so distraught after the wedding, he decided it was against your best interest to inform you of what was going on. Have you ever wondered why everyone in this city has so little access to the outside world? Have you ever wondered why you didn’t hear from your parents again, or why you heard little to none about what human life was like outside the city?”
“I assumed humans wanted to stay off the grid, away from the werewolves. That was why they segregated, to save themselves.”
“At first, yes. They wanted to be free, to protect their sons and daughters. After that, the evolutionary gene that all species have kicked in; they wanted to preserve their own people. They wanted to liberate all humans, even the ones that have been swept up into this world like you.”
“How would they do that?” I frowned, but I watched Alessia start to squirm in her seat.
“You never saw an ounce of rebellion here,” Artemis said dismissively. “The guards in this city don’t allow humans into their legions because werewolves are stronger, more simply put. That squashed out any rebellion possible, and the humans slowly dispersed from the city. It’s outside the city walls where it happens. There’s a reason why the rogues wanted to be let back into the city. They’re being hunted out there, picked off one by one.”
“By humans? How? Werewolves are stronger, they heal faster.”
“Werewolves can heal from almost everything that isn’t fatal. You’ve seen that firsthand.” Her eyes danced in Alessia’s direction before centering back on me. “Humans have only existed so long on this earth because of their knowledge and science, and they’ll continue to do so. They’ve created some sort of concoction that is fatal to werewolves even if it grazes their skin.”
“They call themselves The Huntsman,” Alessia piped up.
“What do they have to do with Adonis, what do they have to do with me?” The questions were racking up in my head.
“For every royal that Adonis controls, he controls their armies. He wants to use those armies to fight back against them, but he’s fighting blindly in a war he cannot win, not while science is on their side.”
It felt like the breath had been knocked out of me, but that didn’t stop Artemis.
“Xander was talking about them taking you away. If the royal family falls into shambles, so will its people. If you marry Xander and seal your fate with a child, they’ll have lost their shot. They’re ruthless people, but they live by a code. Part of that code is that no child can be harmed.”
I felt myself blush at the mention of having children with Xander.
“So they want to kill me, and leave the line of succession empty.”
“With no clear line of succession, the royal family will fall, and without leadership it will make their job that much easier. You’re the ultimate catch.”
“No one thought to warn me about this?” I wanted to yank my hair up as I scrambled to my feet, pacing.
“You have plenty of stress already—” Alessia started.
“No,” I held my hand out towards Alessia. “Being stressed about boys is different from an entire legion of humans trying to serve my head on a silver platter.”
There was no chance for Artemis or Alessia to try and rebuke what I had just said, because we were yanked from this realm back into the palace. I felt my head bang against the floor, and clutched the back of it as I looked up to see Adonis looming over us. I turned rapidly and saw Alessia passed out beside me, and swallowed harshly as I prepared for the next blow.