Kahli ignored his gaze and walked toward him. Miriam had given her ivory silk sling shoes with a kitten heel. Naming a heel after an animal was absurd. She’d be taller if she stood on a cat. Kahli wondered where that term came from, because it made no sense. A smirk pulled at the corners of her mouth as she wondered what a wolf heel would look like. As it was, Kahli could barely walk in these. As she approached Will, he extended his elbow toward her.
Kahli looked at him not understanding. An outward elbow was used to punch someone in the gut. Why was he standing like that?
Will didn’t mean to, but he couldn’t hide his smile. The expression on her face was priceless. “Wrap your fingers around my arm. It’s proper decorum to present you to the Queen.” Kahli lifted her hand and placed it on his arm. They left the steamy room before her hair frizzed.
Kahli took smaller steps than usual. Her heart was racing as they walked back toward the ball room. Nearly two hours had passed since the Queen’s assassination attempt. Kahli was waiting for the proper moment. Hopefully, it would come before the ballroom. Be patient, she reminded herself.
Will walked next to her, interrupting her thoughts, “I need to tell you a few things. The Regent and Royals have certain expectations. If they aren’t met—”
“I know,” she replied. “Death. Got it. Tell me what you think I need to know.” She tucked a curl behind her ear, wishing she didn’t have to do this.
Will glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. She walked with her shoulders back, proud like she wasn’t trapped in this Hell. The wheels in her mind were still plotting an escape, but she seemed too relaxed to be thinking of anything eminent. Clearing his throat, he said, “Speak as little as possible. Don’t correct the Regent or the Queen. And by all means possible, stay away from the King.”
Kahli glanced over at him. Will’s expression was closed. She could no longer read his thoughts by glimpsing at his face. She nodded. Her heels echoed through the empty halls. Will was taking her through the palace by a different way than they had come. These were not the servant’s quarters. The halls were embellished with crystal, priceless art, and gold gilded moldings at the top, middle, and bottom of the wall that were thicker than her head.
Will continued to give her instructions as they walked the corridors, slowly approaching the ball room. She nodded, listening to the asinine vampire customs. He seemed nervous for some reason, as if he didn’t want to take her back into the room. Yet, he was walking her toward the monarch to be paraded like a dog.
She stopped. Will paused and looked over at her. “Why are you here? Why does it appear that you’re playing both sides and no one knows?” Will’s eyes went wide. He reached for Kahli, meaning to pull her into a room, but she stepped back. “I won’t make trouble. Just tell me.”
He shook his head, sadly, like it pained him to talk to her. “I can’t.”
“Then tell me something. Anything. I don’t understand. You seem cruel one moment and then friendly the next.” Her hands fisted in her satin gloves. Will’s eyes drifted to her hands and then back to her face. “Why did you tell Miriam you didn’t see the runes?”
Will rolled his eyes. She pursed her lips, resisting the urge to punch him for the contemptuous look. He ran his fingers through his dark hair. “This isn’t the time or place, Kalahandra.” He breathed her name and it slide seductively off his tongue. It was his way of saying he knew.
Kahli gasped, stepping away from him. She knew he saw the markings on her side, but she had no idea he could read them. Fear rushed through her veins, confusing her thoughts. He knew her name, her full name. Panic slid up her spine and made her shiver.
Will knew what saying her name would do to her. It was something that humans guarded with their lives. Vampires grew weak from weak blood, and their ability to compel humans deteriorated with them—but if they knew your true name—the affects were not diminished. It meant Kahli could be controlled. By Will.
Leaning close to her ear he whispered, “Do as I say and there will never be reason to use your name against you.”
She straightened, her spine erect like she’d been bred from royalty, and stared at him with a frigid glare. “Cruel one moment and kind the next. Your actions speak clearly.” She was silent, biting her lip, collecting her thoughts and trying not to verbally assault him. Vampires knew little of human traditions and yet that boy was able to read the runes. It wasn’t possible, was it? There was no way he was just lucky. Her full name was far from common. Being birthed in the wild ensured it. Green eyes flicked to his face, “Tell me, how could you read it? They’re in my ancient tongue. You’re a vampire, and yet, you read it. You… ” She didn’t mean to, but tears formed in the corners of her eyes. Why did he have to read it? Why did he have to tell her to obey him like that? She pressed her eyes closed hard and stiffened her spine.
He shrugged, his gaze not meeting hers. They continued to walk until he said, “I know how to do many things, many of them serve no purpose, but once in a while I get lucky. They’re wedding runes, aren’t they? You were promised to someone?”
Kahli’s looked at him with a stony expression on her face. “Do not belittle me by asking questions that you already know the answer to.” Kahli had been promised as a child. Her parents gave her the ritual runes that bared her name down her side. The only other person that would have known her real name would have been her betrothed. It would have solidified a bond of trust between them. The rune was not meant for outsiders. That life was lost to her now. She hadn’t seen another human since her mother was taken. For years, Kahli knew she was alone. Her betrothed was probably dead or getting drained in a camp somewhere, weak. She didn’t even remember him. The children from her early years were a blur of sounds and colors, fading like ghosts when she closed her eyes. It was as if they never existed. Kahli was the last one at the safe houses. There was no one else.
Resolve built in her shoulders, stiffening in her neck.
Will watched her, knowing that he ignited a flame of defiance within her. It was the last thing he wanted, and now he couldn’t undo it. “Fine. Then let’s not play games.” He took her shoulders and turned her toward him, careful not to hurt her wound. The salve had healed it almost completely, but the skin was still pink and tender. Mariam covered the site with make-up, so that Kahli’s skin looked perfectly smooth. The gown flowed over her shoulders, concealing any imperfection from the wolf attack that wasn’t covered in make-up.
His sapphire eyes bored into her, “The queen is ruthless. I don’t want you to die tonight, so stop wondering if you can kill someone with the heel of your shoe. Stop counting how many turns we’ve made. Stop trying to figure out a way to escape and just trust me.”
Kahli laughed, “Trust you? Trust the arrogant idiot who sold me? Really? That’s what you think I should do? Tell me, if you were in my position, what would you be doing right now?”
He swallowed hard. That was how he knew what she was thinking. He’d be doing the same thing, plotting his escape, but there was no way out. He’d tried. “How do you think I’ve gotten stuck between Regent Reggie and the Queen? It was a stupid mistake, like the ones running through your mind right now. Don’t believe me if you don’t want to, but I’m telling you the truth. If you piss off the queen, she’ll give you a fate worse than death. Believe me. I know.” He grabbed her hand and pulled her down the hall.
Kahli said nothing, staring at the side of his face as he tugged on her arm. When he stopped in front of the ballroom doors, she could see the muscle in his jaw tighten. She rested her small hand on his elbow. A doorman nodded and walked away to tell the Queen her new toy was ready. While Will waited for his message to reach the queen, Kahli decided that she didn’t trust him. Maybe he was speaking the truth—to some extent—but he would do what he had to do to save himself. He proved that once already in recent days. For some reason, she didn’t hold his childhood acts against him. Although he was the one to stop her mother, she felt like he had no choice then. Now, he did. And he chose wrong.
Leaning closer to his ear, she said, “I’ll do as you ask, as long as they don’t grope me. And if they try to bleed me, I don’t care what you say—I’d rather die than feed them.”
Will turned an extra frigid gaze on her and she flinched, “Then you’ll die.”
The ballroom was as beautiful as it was before it got covered in blood. The Queen made no mention of her ruined gown or her wayward brother, if you could call him that. Assassin was another word, but Sophia chose not to use it. Reginald sat at the Queen’s right side, beside an empty chair. He wore a sleek black suit with a black collared shirt that make his eyes appear to be two pieces of obsidian. Reginald glared at Kahli when she entered the room.
He couldn’t look away. That creature was supposed to be his, and now his sister had her. He leaned back in his thickly carved chair, smiling like Kahli was a gift, all the while plotting ways to steal her back. And hopefully soon. Her neck was as Will stated—untouched—and that gown made her desirable in more ways than one. No doubt his idiot brother-in-law would notice the girl dressed like that. Bare neck. Ample curves. If only it were easier to bait the King. Then he could ensnare the majestic couple into a battle and steal the crown when no one was looking.
Queen Sophia rose from her dais and the crowd parted. She smiled with matriarch pride as she floated across the room in another exquisite dress. Kahli’s eyes rested on the bodice. It looked to be covered in rubies. The queen’s blood red gown was much larger than her previous white dress. Her skirts billowed at her ankles as she walked. Or flew. Kahli wasn’t sure if they could do that anymore. Vampires had grown weak over the years. Sophia wasn’t as weak as the others. That’s why she was the Queen.
Will bowed, lowering his head, staring at the floor before bending a knee and bowing deeper. It marked his status to bend so low. Regent vampires only bowed slightly to the queen, servants more so, and humans were supposed to bow the lowest. Kahli stood straight, looking the ruthless queen in the eye. Will realized that she didn’t bow, but he couldn’t rise until the queen addressed him. He pressed his eyes closed and stifled a curse beneath his breath.