I love you...
Nox's tear-filled words echo across the sand as she and Amaris are torn apart. They've battled fiercely to find each other again, and have barely reunited when Amaris is taken away by the queen's dragon.
Injured and desperate, Amaris is forced to navigate her new surroundings with the help of Raascot's enigmatic general if she hopes to stay alive. At the same time, across the land and running out of options, Nox forms a partnership with the continent's league of peacekeeping assassins, begging their help to find Amaris and forge some stability between the kingdoms.
As wounds heal and new relationships blossom, Nox and Amaris must confront impossible obstacles and stretch their magic to its limits if they are ever to create a world that might finally reunite them for good. The odds are narrow, the stakes are high, and one question remains: Is it fate, love, or something else entirely that binds these two women together?
In the enthralling follow-up to The Night and Its Moon, bestselling author Piper CJ redefines love and trust through an authentic fantastical portrayal of queer experiences, found family, and the gray areas that define us all.
Release date: February 28, 2023
Publisher: Bloom Books
Print pages: 565
Content advisory: This book contains consensual breath play.
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
The Sun and Its Shade
“Cinnamon, cardamom, pepper.” Amaris mumbled the words to her quietly. “And plums. Always plums.”
The way she inhaled was like sipping wine, as if she were savoring each delicate scent. Amaris had always said that Nox smelled like dark spices and the sweet, ripe fruit they’d had the chance to try on rare occasions. She’d also stated more than once that it was the best smell in the world, better than baked bread or perfume or chocolate.
She cuddled into Nox, sleepily muttering something about comfort, safety, and home.
Dreams were cruelties. They were painful reminders of what wasn’t and what would never be. They weren’t memories, truths, or even hopes. They were reminders of all the things that hadn’t—or couldn’t—come to pass.
“I wish you were here,” Nox said quietly, running her fingers through silken, pearly strands of hair. Her heart wanted to swell with its fullness at the girl’s presence, but instead, it squeezed, strangled with the knowledge that Amaris was little more than a phantom. Nox had been so desperate to hold her again. Seeing the rippling corners of consciousness that presented themselves only in dreams, she couldn’t bring herself to soak in the joy she’d wanted so badly to feel.
Amaris unraveled herself from the hug to look up into Nox’s face, the light violet of her eyes catching against the filtered light. Shadows obscured her lovely features ever so slightly. Her white brows stitched together in the middle with a tinge of confusion as she looked up at her.
“I am here.”
Nox murmured, “Right now, that’s all that matters.”
“I don’t want to do this without you,” Amaris said quietly against the skin of her neck.
“You have me,” Nox promised. Nox’s heart cracked at the speech, knowing that in this, as with all dreams, her subconscious supplied her with what she wanted to hear. “And I know you’re alive. Wherever you are, you’re alive.”
“How do you know?”
“I would feel it,” she whispered.
“I am,” Amaris said with low, sleepy certainty.
“You are what?”
Nox hated herself for conjuring a healthy, loving Amaris when, for all she knew, the one who held her heart had tumbled to the jagged cliffs and lay comatose after falling from the back of a dragon. All Nox had wanted was to keep her safe. She’d done all she could to help the snowflake, too small, too delicate for the cruelties of the world as she’d been dragged into the coliseum.
But Amaris hadn’t been fragile. She hadn’t been powerless or defenseless. She was nothing like the snowflake Nox had known and loved in Farleigh. She had been capable and quick and strong. She’d been agile and brave. She was someone Nox didn’t know. Not anymore.
Nox didn’t want danger or adventure or trials. She didn’t want dragons or dungeons or assassins. She hated the castles, the guards, and the welts that she knew throbbed on her skin even as she slept on the forest floor from the biting twigs and stinging insects. She rejected all of it. All Nox desired was a pantry filled with root vegetables and a quiet life that left them to rest in each other’s arms. Even in her dreams, she didn’t dare let herself hope for more than this simple exchange. Nox had locked her feelings up so tightly that even her unconscious mind wouldn’t allow her to want or to wish.
Her heart shattered, each crack like the tension of a frozen lake. It broke under some terrible impact as her ice began to fracture, feeling the first of her tears as they fell.
There is a metallic scent to blood, one Amaris recognized instantly. The iron, rust, and salt left its tang in the air as it exited in slow, methodical drops. She’d known the odor of blood when it clung to lifeless bodies baked by the sun. She recognized the smell of hot, angry liquid that spilled either from you or over you in violent buckets. And then she knew the distinct discomfort that came with knowing that the bloodied scent filling her nostrils was not her own.
Her hand had been slick with his blood. It had soaked her lap through the night as she’d held him. Even now, she could feel the itch of dried blood against her skin.
Amaris wanted to open her eyes, but they were too heavy, too tired as she tried to shake herself from her dreams. Her limbs were no longer strong and flexible. Her head was no longer sharp and clear. She was alive, but that was all she knew. She was okay but no longer a human girl of flesh and life and joy. She was made of ice and stone. She was a statue, chiseled from the slab she now rested on just as Uaimh Reev had been hewn from its granite mountain. Voices burbled around her in nonsensical rhythms, too excitable for her ears to discern as they crowded over one another. She was vaguely aware that if she were to open her eyes, a violent, bright light would assault them, and she certainly didn’t want that.
A word scratched at her ear from one of the voices. Ag’imni.
They had him—whoever they were. Her friend was here, and they could not see him for what he was. The dragon had not carried them beyond Farehold’s borders.
She had to get up.
Amaris pulled at the life within her, willing it to stir. An external force acted on her instead. Hands jostled her, rolling her body onto her side, then her back somewhere beyond the blackness of her closed eyelids. A sharp prick on her arm. A liquid splashed across her lips. There was tugging and scrubbing and the wet sounds of washing and bandages.
She was there for all of it and none of it.
She forced herself to overcome her fear of the light, fighting with her body to open her eyes. At first, her vision was scarcely two slits, squinting against the bright light that punished her vision.
There were so many people in the room. Why were there so many people?
Several were above her chatting about this and that. She heard the words, the questions, the noises. Her pulse? Yes, she had one. The numbers they ascribed to it meant nothing to her. Her pupil dilation? Yes, that was also given some measurement. Her body’s temperature? Too cold, they had said. One saw her stir and began to speak to her, snapping his fingers to gain her attention. Her head lolled to the side, rolling away from the stranger. Over their shoulders and with a crowd of his own, she was able to make out the battered shape of a winged man, leather straps binding him to a table. His arms, legs, torso, and head were all bound, secured to the sheet on which he rested. This was the jolt she needed.
Her eyes opened fully, taking in the studious, unfamiliar faces overhead.
“My friend—” Her throat scratched with the effort. The exertion of speaking nearly sent her back into oblivion.
“Our veterinarian is looking at it now. What can you tell me about what happened? Is the ag’imni the ag’drurath’s rider?”
Another voice, louder and deeper with age, shushed the first voice. The second man scolded, “Our responsibilities lie with our patient. Save your curiosities for the creature or you will be dismissed from the room.”
“Don’t take him,” she whispered, eyes shutting once more.
The deeper voice belonged to a man who may have been in his fifties, though she’d never been particularly adept at guessing ages. He sounded comfortingly human. She squinted through a curtain of lashes, attempting to block out the light as she assessed whether he was friend or foe. The man had salt-and-pepper hair and wore white. His posture, like his voice, carried the authority of years of experience. He lifted a small, white fae light to Amaris’s eyes and she winced.
“Good, good. Your pupils are showing great cognitive function. Are you able
Her voice felt like it fought through cotton to find its way to her lips. Her throat was so dry, her mouth was stuck with the feeling. She tried to push herself up, echoing the same two words as before. “My friend—”
He cut her off again.
“Miss, can you tell me your name?”
She swallowed, throat on fire as she found her dry, sandpaper mouth unable to summon saliva. She croaked out her name to the crowd in three raspy syllables. Several of the younger faces around her scratched the name into their parchment studiously. She made another motion to bring herself upright.
“Please, don’t attempt to move. Your beast is safe and appears stable, though we don’t understand enough about its species to assess its condition. You were in a hypothermic shock when we found you. The creature appears to have suffered a head wound and is rather battered, but as my interning associate has previously stated, the veterinarian is tending to it now.” Then, to himself, he mused with a smile, “Though I do have to say it’s rather exciting to have the opportunity to study an ag’imni. We’ve never captured a live specimen.”
“Please, let him go,” Amaris rasped, eyes closed once more.
The hands pressed her down again as she felt the sting in her arm once more. Her world drifted away, and she let the warmth of the darkness consume her.
When Amaris woke, she had the sense of the passage of time. There were no windows in her room, but she knew that if she were to have looked, the night would have fallen. She took in the room around her to see it dimly lit with the warm glow of a single lantern on a desk. Cabinets lined the wall,
accompanied by a long stretch of utensils on a counter and a number of books. In the corner, a sharp-faced young girl with bobbed, mousy hair and foxlike features who couldn’t have been a day over sixteen, sat scribbling notes onto a parchment stuck to a wooden slab. A fae light was latched to her slab, gently illuminating her features.
Amaris recognized her. It was the girl from the forest.
“Hello?” Amaris called softly.
The girl jolted, short hair whipping around her face as she snapped her head up. Caught by surprise, the wooden slab nearly tumbled to the ground. “I’ll go get the healer.”
“Wait,” Amaris commanded. She hadn’t intended to flex her persuasion, but the human reacted instantly. The girl obeyed.
“Come here,” Amaris said quietly, and the girl approached. She wasn’t trying to use her ability, but it did come in handy. Her throat felt unusable. She desperately needed water. “You’re the one who found us in the woods?”
The girl quickly admitted that yes, she and her friends had been the ones who’d discovered them. She’d also been the one who had sought out the healer and guided the professor to where Amaris and the ag’imni had been lying on the forest floor.
“I’m Cora. I’m only a second-year student, so I’m not really qualified to interact with the patients. I’m here taking notes on your condition for the healer. I really should go fetch him.”
Amaris attempted to nod an acknowledgment, but her neck was rigid. Her muscles were stiff. She knew that if she could see herself in a mirror, she’d be covered with bruises from her tumble as she’d crashed from the dragon’s back, through the canopies, and onto the forest floor.
“Tell me what’s happened with my friend.”
“Where is he?” Amaris pushed.
“It’s alive. We took it to a secure room where it can be watched through glass so as not to harm any of us.” Cora made a face that Amaris assumed was an attempt at bravery. The girl was afraid of the demon they held. “While we understand from the way it accompanied you that it might be tame, we don’t know if its amicability extends to those other than yourself. Our Master of Beasts and head veterinarian have instructed us not to take chances. It has not yet awoken, but we’ve kept it restrained just to be safe.”
Amaris’s stomach roiled. She swallowed rising bile at the information. They were keeping Gadriel like an animal.
Amaris pushed herself up to her elbows, her head an ocean of uncomfortable sensations from the movement. “Can I have a healing tonic?”
“Please, you were very close to death when we brought you in. You’re not supposed to exert yourself while you regain your strength. What you need is sleep and warmth for stabilization, not tonics.”
Amaris coughed, touching a hand to her throat. Cora understood the gesture and rushed to the counter. She procured a tin cup, filling it with water from a nearby pitcher. Amaris drank deeply, a small dribble escaping the edge of the cup and dripping off her chin. Her throat burned as the water washed over her inflamed passages.
She didn’t want to waste time.
Throwing her legs over the edge of the bed, Amaris allowed her head to find its equilibrium. The girl made a useless cautioning gesture, but Amaris ignored her. She planted her hands on the lip of the bed while the world dotted with stars. It took a moment for the blackness to ebb and the humming in her ears to quiet. She looked at the student once more. “Remind me of your name again?”
The girl responded in a bright, polite voice, “I’m called Cora.”
Amaris made a resigned exhalation as she once again flexed her persuasion, morality be damned. “That’s right. Cora, take me to see my friend.”
Cora escorted Amaris from her room and down the corridor. Time passed with unbearable slowness as they went down two spiraling flights of stairs into the belly of the basement. They were still in the healers’ hall, though now they seemed to be deep underground and on the far side of the building.
Cora opened a door marked as a laboratory and led them into a strange room with three stone walls and one wall of exceptionally thick glass—a window to another room rather than the outside world. The glass took up three-quarters of the wall itself, with the remaining quarter dedicated to a metallic door. Amaris had never seen anything like it.
Cora stopped in front of the glass barrier that separated an onlooker from the dark fae inside. There was no one in the observational room at this hour. The building was hushed with the night.
Gadriel was all alone.
Amaris tried the metal handle but found it locked. She watched Gadriel’s form through the glass that separated them, but the sounds of the handle hadn’t caused him to stir. She set her face into a steely expression as she turned to the student with another attempt at persuasion.
“Cora, open this door.”
Cora frowned and tried to obey, but even as she twisted the handle, she answered, “I don’t have a key.” She continued twisting at the handle.
Amaris’s eyes widened as she watched the girl raise a hand as if to claw at the door. Fear gripped Amaris in a flash as she watched Cora bring her fingernails down against the obstruction, and she cried out a horrified order to cease.
“Stop! Stop what you’re doing. I’m sorry. I don’t need you to open the door,” Amaris said, disgust so thick it was nearly palpable. “I do need to know how I can get to my friend. How can I find a key?”
Persuasion was useful, but she’d been sloppy. She would need to be exceedingly careful before utilizing her gift. If she hadn’t told Cora to stop, would the girl have clawed until her fingers were bloodied? What were the limits to the powers of persuasion and obedience? The horror of the moment stretched between them. Amaris’s face melted in apology at the sight of the welts already swelling on the girl’s hand. Cora’s lips parted to ask what had happened, but then she closed her mouth again. She looked both confused and terrified—the same expression Malik had worn when Amaris had wielded her power on him.
Her heart squeezed painfully as she thought of Malik.
She closed her eyes as she blinked away the memories of her brothers in the cell across from her, seeing their faces as they’d stared helplessly through the bars. They were two of the bravest and strongest men she knew, and
they’d been unable to protect her as she’d been dragged onto the sands to face the ag’drurath.
Her last words had been to beg Nox to save them.
She couldn’t think of them now.
The only person she could help was Gadriel.
She stared at his motionless body through the floor-to-ceiling window and saw how he had been strapped to the table in his cell. They had not only bound his wrists and ankles but his torso, his lower section, and his forehead, all with thickly padded, buckled leather straps. The university seemed to be taking no chances with an ag’imni in their possession.
From behind the thick barrier of glass, Amaris saw the tears to his once-powerful wings. Black feathers dangled helplessly from the tattered wings that remained pinned beneath him, like a crow secured to a table. Dried blood matted both his hair and feathers. She knew it had been his blood that had filled her nose as they had been hoisted into the building together on entry.
How was she supposed to help him from this side of the glass?
“Cora.” Amaris didn’t tear her eyes from where they roamed over Gadriel as she spoke. “Who is in charge?”
The girl fidgeted. She answered out of either politeness or fear. “In our sick ward, we have the Master Healer. You are under his care, as are the medical assistants who serve him. In this wing, we have a few other creatures who fall under the supervision of the Master of Beasts when they’ve taken ill. And then of course, the university’s headmaster oversees all seven departments, from healing and math and literature to zoology, cultures, magics, and manufacturing. Headmaster Arnout’s specialization is theology. Isn’t that interesting for the master of academia? My concentration is in healing.”
Cora’s words came out as nervous babble. She was undoubtedly still feeling residual fear from her bizarre attempt to scratch through the door. It only made Amaris’s guilt swell.
Amaris’s hand slipped from the glass. “Do you have any healer’s magic?”
Cora looked a bit glum. “No, I simply study the medicines, tonics, and poisons. I can stitch and set and wrap, and by the time I leave the university, I’ll be able to aid any village in Farehold. Wellness shouldn’t be a privilege to only those born with power, don’t you think?”
Truth be told, Amaris had no idea what to think.
She didn’t know much about the university aside from the childhood whispers at Farleigh. If an orphan had displayed a rare aptitude for magic, it wouldn’t be long before a university ambassador came to claim them if the church didn’t snatch them first, though that had only happened once or twice in Amaris’s fifteen years at the mill. Her peers had fancifully insisted that those with magic were whisked off to help develop and hone their skills. More sinister rumors persisted about the university’s intent and its need to capture those with such inclinations to dissect, study, and understand. A horrible image came to mind of the informational text Amaris had found in her room at the reev and its anatomical sketches that had been diagrammed from autopsies. What future might they have in mind for someone like Gadriel?
Amaris’s voice hitched with urgency. “Cora, I need to be able to speak to someone in charge. It’s important and it can’t wait. Can you find someone for
Again, it wasn’t a command. The girl hedged but nodded and scuttled off down the hall. Amaris listened to Cora’s footsteps grow quieter and quieter. She pressed her hand to the glass once more, refusing to look away from Gadriel’s too-still form.
They were finally alone.
“Wake up,” she pleaded with him through the glass. “Wake up!” But this was not how her persuasion worked. He was fae, and he could neither see her nor hear her. She pounded her fist against the glass, face falling in anger over how helpless she felt. “Damn it, Gad, wake up! You don’t get to die like this! I was supposed to take off your head in the coliseum, remember? Don’t you think I should get a say in when you die? It’s not now.” More quietly, she said, “It’s not like this.”
She was hit with a powerful wave of emotion that she wasn’t prepared to understand. What was pushing her to the edge of tears? Was it fear? Helplessness? Anger? Amaris grabbed for the airtight box within herself to shove each and every emotion inside. She could neither focus nor do what needed to be done if her heart was squeezed so tightly. The last thing she slipped into the cage was the sight of how very, very still he lay.
This time, the box fought back.
A new wave of feeling assaulted her as she was struck with how he had held her against the dragon’s back for hours, clutching her tightly, no matter how it had burned his muscles or tired him. She could still feel the shock and thump of their downward descent as his tattered wings had slowed their fall just long enough for him to cocoon her in safety while he absorbed the blows from the trees and their outstretched branches. Amaris fought a second flood of tears as she pictured his crumpled body and how it had been so motionless against the rock.
He’d entered the castle, had his wings slashed to ribbons, battled a dragon, and cushioned the plummet to the ground all for her.
All she wanted was for him to be alive.
She scrunched her face against the wave of pain as she banged her fist once against the glass. “You shouldn’t have come to Aubade. I told you not to come.”
Every bad thing that had happened to him was her fault. Gadriel was strapped lifelessly to a table because of her. If he hadn’t stumbled across a girl in the forest with the ability to see them many moons ago, he would be safe with his men right now. His life would be better if he’d never met her. Yet she felt a strange, pained twist when she considered the alternative.
She was too tired to be responsible for controlling her feelings. If she didn’t get some rest, everything she fought so hard to suppress would bubble over. Her mind would go to Nox. She’d think of how Nox had come for her in the dungeon, had held her, had done everything she could to save her. She’d think of the kiss…
Goddess, she needed to sleep.
Her fingers began to tingle with numbness. Her hand had gone pale and bloodless from how long she’d kept it pressed to the glass. Footsteps echoed through the hall, tearing her attention from the fae within. Amaris released her hand from where it had touched the barrier between them, leaving a small, clammy print in its wake.
The door opened.
“Hello,” Amaris said quickly. “Thank you for seeing me. I’m sorry it’s so late.”
A rather plain woman in her forties with hair slicked back accompanied Cora. The stranger appeared to have been rudely awoken. Her face was both shrewd and annoyed as she eyed Amaris and the ag’imni beyond the glass. Though the woman was in a structured autumn jacket and normal walking shoes, she wore a white linen nightdress. She extended her hand to Amaris.
“It’s fine,” came her brusque words. “I’m Master Neele, Master of Beasts and overseer of our zoological department. I’m in charge of your creature’s case here in the veterinary wing. Thank you for bringing your ag’imni to our doors. We’re very excited for this opportunity, regardless of the hour.”
Amaris understood precisely what was happening. These men and women of science and education saw Gadriel for what he could offer them: knowledge of the demons. What did the time of night matter when a man was being strapped down and contained like an animal?
“Yes, about that…Master Neele, thank you and everyone here for your efforts in taking care of us. I appreciate your intentions. However, there has been a mistake, and I need you to listen carefully.”
Master Neele’s face remained impassive while she listened to Amaris describe the dark fae and the perception enchantment at the border between Farehold and Raascot with all the passion and gravity she could muster in her exhausted state. Amaris informed the woman hastily that Gadriel, her friend, was no ag’imni nor any beast of the night. When she finished explaining their situation, she waited expectantly for Master Neele to show a sign of remorse or understanding.
The severe woman merely responded with tight, pursed lips, “I will have to speak with the Master of Magics in the morning to discuss this further. Cora, please see our patient back to her room.”
Amaris flexed her fingers with stress, unsure about the morality of her next move. Just beyond the glass, Gadriel was dying. She couldn’t believe the woman was going to leave after everything she’d been told. It was unconscionable to leave him strapped to this table like a monster.
Amaris drew in staccato inhalations as she struggled to stay calm. She overcame her aversion to her gift and summoned it once again, speaking in a quick, commanding voice. “Master Neele, open this door.”
The woman straightened her shoulders. She turned back to look at Amaris with painful slowness. She narrowed her eyes with dark, unmistakable loathing before responding with one word. “No.”
She left without a second glance over her shoulder, shoes clacking on the stones of the basement.
Amaris stood in shock at the utter fucking uselessness of her gift. Master Neele’s ears had been round. Her features had not been the beauty of the fae. The woman was unmistakably human. Amaris flexed her fingers so tightly that her nails bit into the palm of her hand while she continued to blink numbly through the baffling exchange. Without another word, Cora escorted her back to the medical room.
Amaris shook her head at her own confusion, trapped in silent debate with herself. First the priestess, then Queen Moirai, now Master Neele. She
grappled with the limitations of her power and how she could possibly know when her gift would or wouldn’t work. She couldn’t fathom the purpose of such an ability if it was utterly meaningless every time she genuinely needed it.
Cora helped her onto her bed and informed her that another intern would be along to keep watch for the rest of the night. She rubbed at her palms absently as if not fully understanding why the anomalous welts on her hands pained her. Amaris hid the shame from her face, looking away from the hurt she’d caused.
The student bid Amaris good night and disappeared into the hallway.
Once she disappeared, Amaris was up from her bed, opening every drawer, pillaging every cupboard, studying every label and tonic and container in the room. There were strange names and unfamiliar smells, barbaric objects and tools meant for incisions, informational scrolls and medical terminology strewn about her chamber. Once she’d snooped through every conceivable object and was satisfied that there was nothing useful for her here, she began the long, sleepless process of waiting until the sun came up.
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...