He smiled at her, “Perhaps, but I know I was glad it was you here tonight and not Cora.”
“Cora,” she said, wiping her sweating hands on her linen pants. “Cora’d put her in pink. With that hair! Am I supposed to strip the dye?”
Will shook his head, “It’s not dye.”
Miriam’s eyes went wide, “She’s a real red-head?” Will nodded.
Kahli eyed Will. They were standing in a place he shouldn’t be, filled with undressed women. Although he was ignoring her, she wasn’t getting into that tub with him standing there. Will felt her eyes on the side of his face and turned to look at her. “Well?” she asked. “Are you leaving?”
Miriam snorted a laugh, grabbed her wrist and tutted, “Nah, he’s seen everyone. Don’t matter, not with things being the way they are. He might as well be a eunuch.” Vampires and human relationships were forbidden. It diluted the bloodlines, and in some cases, accidentally eradicated some lines entirely. Things were too precarious to allow such things.
Will glanced at Miriam, an odd look on his face, “I wouldn’t go that far.”
“Oh, I would. Or the Queen will castrate you herself.” Miriam turned to Kahli, trying to relieve her horror. “They can’t touch you. The vampires might admire, but touching would be a fate worse than death with Sophia as queen. Come on.” She pulled Kahli towards a bath and instructed her to remove her boots.
Kahli stood in front of the tiled tub. The steam had made her skin slick with sweat. She was filthy, but there was no way she was stripping in front of a room filled with people. And Will. He was just standing there, like he wasn’t leaving. He had to be sweating to death in that suit. Will grabbed a stool, and pulled it to the wall. He removed his jacket and leaned back, folding his arms, and closed his eyes like he was bored. Bored in a room filled with naked women.
“Come on, now. Don’t be shy. We’ve all seen all there is to see,” Miriam coaxed her gently but her patience was wearing thin. The Queen would want the girl after dinner. She had less than two hours to get her clean, clothed, and made-up. And the girl was acting like she’d never seen anyone in the buff before. She was near twenty. Miriam didn’t see how that could be possible.
As if he could read Miriam’s mind, Will spoke up, “She was captured in the Empire region. She’s probably never had a bath before.”
That statement caused several hushed conversations to erupt around the room. Kahli’s eyes narrowed at Will. She’d had a bath. When she met him, she wasn’t filthy and covered in blood. That was his fault. She rapidly stripped out of her things, her gaze burning a hole into Will’s face as he ignored her and leaned back against the wall again. She stepped down into the pool and water swirled around her, covering her body.
The warm water felt good. Miriam scrubbed her hair and poured something into the water. When the scent hit Kahli’s nose, she froze. Was that jasmine? Where on earth did they get jasmine? But it was. The fragrance combined with the vanilla scented bath water. Kahli’s stomach churned like she ate glass. She tried to stand up, but Miriam wouldn’t let her. That’s when she saw it—long elaborate colored inkings down her left side.
“What’s this?” Miriam asked, scrubbing Kahli’s side harder with a bath brush filled with soap. When she washed away the bubbles, the colorful markings were still there.
“Nothing.” Kahli looked into Miriam’s eyes hoping beyond reason that she understood, but the woman was a vampire like all the other servants she’d seen. Vampires weren’t creatures of compassion. When Miriam didn’t respond, Kahli whispered, “Please.” Please don’t say anything. Please don’t tell them.
But Miriam didn’t catch her meaning, either that or she didn’t care. “William, you’d better come see this. She’s got markings that won’t come off.”
Will’s eyes opened, but he didn’t move. His arms were folded over his chest as he looked at Kahli in the water. Her long red hair was wet, draped over the swell of her breasts. Her curvy body disappeared beneath the foam on top of the water. A silver ring pierced her navel. He could see it glinting beneath the foam. His breath hitched. Will openly stared at her. The girl was a siren, completely bewitching.
He snapped out of his trance and approached lazily. “So what? She has a ring in her belly, too. The Queen won’t care.”
But Miriam shook her head, “It’s not an inking. Come look.”
Kahli couldn’t stand it. That mark was a remnant of her old life, something that wasn’t for anyone to see. She dropped into the water, and wrapped her arms around her body. Her green eyes looked up at Will as he stared down at her. Her voice was quieter than he’d ever heard it, “Don’t.”
He grinned at her, “Now I have to see.” He reached down, extending his hand to her. He leaned over the edge of the pool in his fine pants and crisp white shirt.
Kahli swallowed hard. Miriam backed away to take care of another woman on the other side of the room. A shiver raked over her skin, making it prickle. Will stood over her, waiting, like he expected her to stand and point to the markings.
A soft voice spoke from the next tub, “Will, leave her alone. She’s already shaken up. And taking her straight to the Queen is insanity. She’ll be lucky if she makes it through the night.”
Will glanced at Cassie, “She’s not like you, and if she’s hiding something, I need to know.” Will looked back down at Kahli in the water. His voice was soft, “Tell me what it is. There was nothing there when I put the salve on your shoulder. Just tell me and I won’t look.”
There was no explanation that she could give. The lie wouldn’t form in her mouth. Kahli’s hand pressed into the runes on her side, the runes that only appeared during the ritual. But this wasn’t the ritual. This wasn’t her wedding night. These were the same oils that brought the colors out, but it was the wrong time. She couldn’t let him see. Her voice was barely audible. She breathed, “I can’t.” Her heart raced in her chest. She withdrew from his hand, sinking further into the water.
“Don’t make me come in there,” he teased, but Will could sense that the girl wasn’t going to cooperate. It wasn’t curiosity driving him. It was something else. He wondered if that inking could be what he thought it was. Dragging her out of the pool to look wouldn’t work. He made the gesture again, extending her his hand, hoping she would take it.
Kahli looked up at his open palm, and shrank further from him. Cassie groaned at Will, telling him to stop. Kahli glanced at the girl. She was leaning over the edge of her tub, watching them.
Miriam had been watching from across the room. She slammed her bare feet across the slick tile and stepped into Kahli’s pool. “Enough of this.” She wrenched the girl out of the tub, forcing her up the steps, toward Will. Water poured off her in a slick sheet as Miriam pulled her up the stairs.
Will stood in front of Kahli, Miriam stood behind, sopping wet. Kahli didn’t fight back and he wondered why.
It felt like her heart would tear in half. Kahli stood before Will, dripping and bare, with her body curled forward, trying to hide her nakedness. Her face flamed as red as her hair. Miriam gripped Kahli’s arms, prying them away from her body, and twisted her so Will could see the markings on her side. They were fading quickly. Curiosity got the better of him. Will reached for her waist, and ran the pads of his fingers over her smooth skin. The marks seemed to disappear beneath his touch. Kahli shuddered.
“For godsakes,” Miriam complained still clutching the girl, “Well, what is it?”
Will stared at Kahli’s side. As the water slid off her skin the runes vanished. He lifted his gaze, trying to meet Kahli’s, trying to understand what he saw. Desperation and hope clashed together in his mind, rattling him to his core.
Ripping his gaze from Kahli, he said to Mariam, “It’s nothing. A trick of the light.”
“But I saw—”
Will replied sharply, “You saw nothing. Get her dressed. Use the candlelight colored gown with the ribbon under the bust. Hurry. It’s the Queen’s favorite holiday, or so she says. She’ll want this girl to show off.” The other women in the baths were silent, watching the exchange. The girl closest to her looked at Kahli with pity.
Kahli was pulled away by a muttering Miriam. They strode toward the dressing area at the back of the bath hall. The back wall was a wardrobe lined with clothing. It was accessible from two sides. The other side must have been near the resting chambers. Beds were visible through the open doors. Kahli was compliant, biding her time. She waited for Miriam to dress her and when the last curl was in place, Miriam grinned.
“I’ve never seen another creature as striking as you are right now. It almost like your hair and skin are glowing. It’s stunning.” Miriam smiled at Kahli, and admired her for a short second before crossing the room and going back to work.
Kahli stood in the back corner. When Miriam passed Will, the round woman said something that Kahli couldn’t hear. Will looked up at her and his heart nearly burst. He couldn’t breathe. The gown was perfect. Her long red hair was piled in soft curls on top of her head, but a few strands hung down in soft ringlets around her face. Kahli’s neck was unadorned, pale and perfect. She wore no necklace, as was the tradition to showcase her purity. The pale gown accentuated her curvy figure, ample breasts, and narrow waist. He swallowed hard, his lips parted as he tried to breathe.
You can’t have her, Will, he scolded himself, trying to tear his eyes away.
Kahli had never worn a dress. It was a frivolous piece of clothing to own. It did nothing to keep the cold out and it used more cloth than pants. And at the moment, she felt naked below the waist. Above the waist, the corseted top was crushing her ribs and forcing the swell of her cleavage into unnaturally large territory. That was when she glanced at Will and saw him staring at her. That look made something stir within her. It was cross between longing and fury. There was no explanation for it. He shouldn’t look at her that way. Miriam made him sound like a celibate monk, wandering the bathhouses. But that look said he knew lust as well as anyone else, and didn’t care that she was off limits.