“Hi,” I said.

“Thank you for all of this,” Rose added. “It’s wonderful here.”

“You’re really very welcome. Theon has spoken to me so highly of all of you.” Then she paused. “Are you lost at all? I know how these corridors can be winding…”

“Oh, no,” I replied. “We were just wanting to explore a little.”

“Would you like me to give you a tour?” she offered.

I exchanged glances with Rose, not wanting to suck up the queen’s time. I could only imagine how busy she was. At the same time, a tour sounded amazing.

“We would love that,” Rose said. “If you have time.”

“I can make time,” she said with a grin. She led us away from the corridor and took us on a tour of the entire castle. She showed us the hall of trophies, the vast library, the treasury, even the dungeons. All the while, she recounted to us the story of how she and Theon had met, which Rose had been particularly curious about.

Her story truly was fascinating. And it was quite a revelation discovering how much I had in common with Penelope. She was just a girl like me. A girl who’d been plucked from the mundane world of humans and dumped into the wacky world of supernaturals… in the process losing her heart to one.

Yet when I looked at her, she almost struck me as a dragon herself… at least, she didn’t strike me as a regular teenage girl from DC. She spoke with grace and exuded a regal elegance, as though she were born to be a queen.

After she finished giving a thorough tour, she returned us to our apartment. Kissing each other’s cheeks, we parted ways until dinner time. We all gathered in the corridor, which was now crowded with other females and males intermingling. With a leap of my heart, I spotted Ben, standing in one corner, talking to Griffin. I crept up to him from behind and placed my hands over his eyes.

“Guess who?” I whispered.

“Oh… That is a difficult question,” he muttered, even as his hands reached down and clamped around my thighs. “River. Definitely River.”

I giggled, letting go of his eyes. He turned to face me. “You look… rather sparkly,” he said, running a hand through my freshly washed hair.

“You look quite clean, too,” I remarked.

“Dinner is about to be served!” a voice boomed over to our left. “Please make your way down to the grand court.”

Arms around each other, we headed down to the hall. Long tables now lined it. A feast had already been laid out. I was practically drooling as I sat down at the table with Ben. Theon and Nell sat at the head of our table, and other dragons sat with us too. A lithe man with coal-black hair and piercing gray-blue eyes pulled up a chair next to me, giving Ben and me a pleasant smile.

“Welcome to The Hearthlands,” he said, pouring himself a drink. “I suppose it’s your first time here.”

“It is,” I replied.

“And you are a couple to be wed?”

“Yes,” Ben said.

“Ah.” He winced slightly, before taking a swig from his glass. “My name is Lethe, by the way. Congratulations on finding love.”

“Uh, thank you,” I said.

“I’m yet to find it,” he muttered. There was a melancholy expression on his face as his eyes traveled over each of the guests, particularly the females.

Before Ben or I could say anything more to him, Theon and Nell stood up and called for silence.

“Thank you all for gathering here,” Theon said. “This dinner is to celebrate the weddings of many fine men and women whom we wish will share strong and prosperous lives together. Now let us eat, drink and be merry.”

Theon and Nell sat down again, and dinner was served. I was shocked to learn that there were fifteen courses to this meal. I thought that I had misheard but I had not. I thought that I would make it through the first three courses, maybe the first five if I really paced myself, but by some mysticism, I was able to try every single one. There was something special about the food; as delicious as it was, nothing felt heavy in my stomach; it felt light, and left me salivating for more. By the end, I was well and truly satisfied. I had no stomachache from overeating, I just felt comfortably full. I truly felt sorry for the vampires among us, being unable to taste even a slight bite of this wondrous food.

Lethe proved to be chatty throughout the meal. He seemed to be quite a pleasant soul, asking me things about The Shade, the human realm and particularly about romance and love—which I found rather sweet. In the end I suggested that he come to visit The Shade, if he had no luck finding a female here in The Hearthlands. To my surprise, he seemed delighted by the idea. “Maybe I will,” he said.

After we all finished eating, we stood up and bade each other good night before heading for the exit. As we arrived back in our corridor, I stood on my tiptoes and kissed Ben good night. Then Rose and I retreated to our apartment.

After brushing our teeth, we changed into the silk pajamas the dragons had laid out for us, then slid into bed. We chatted for a while—Rose was telling me how she’d managed to speak to Charis and apologize to him—before we both thought it wise to get an early night and switch off the lights.

But I still lay awake long after Rose drifted off to sleep.

Tomorrow.

Tomorrow I will be Mrs. River Novak.

River

Rose did not look surprised the next morning when I told her I’d barely gotten a wink of sleep that night. She just smiled and said, “You really shouldn’t have expected to.”

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