As we met other couples in the hall—all beautiful young women holding the arms of or shadowed by dangerous looking men who walked with their hands on sword-hilts, or eyes cutting suspiciously to every corner and noise.
All of them moved with that predatory grace, the way I'd imagined truly dangerous men carried themselves. And my hot Knight was no different, I realized, my heart thumping with the thrill of realizing I was walking through a fantasy.
With each step down the long hallway towards a pair of massive, arched doors looming at its end, more couples joined us at each intersection of corridors. Until we were a small crowd.
Four guards stood to attention in front of the massive doors at the end of the hallway, and even my beautiful Knight slowed as we approached.
Soon we would be hemmed in, clustered with the others, so I gripped his arm tighter and looked up at him.
He turned his head, his eyes darting left and right, then back to me, a question in his gaze.
"Your name," I whispered. "I need your name to… to hold onto…" I stumbled over the words, trying to imagine what was appropriate, but knowing the question had to confuse him since he clearly believed we were in a relationship.
But his shoulders rose as he took a deep breath, nodding, as if he'd heard something in my words. A signal or reassurance of some kind. I was confused, but then he answered exactly as I'd asked.
"Fireknight," he said, his voice husky and deep. "Ashwood Fireknight would take you to wife, dear Zara. Hold to that. You know I am vowed to truth."
"I would kiss you were it not a death sentence," he murmured almost below hearing. "Now, hush, before you force me to reveal the treason of my true intentions."
But he put his large hand over mine on his forearm as if he were reassuring me, his calloused thumb, hidden from others, tracing the back of my hand twice before a loud voice rang out from one of the guards ahead.
"The King comes! Bow your heads, the King comes!"
I watched, wide-eyed, as those massive doors began to swing open, seeming even larger when everyone around me began to sink to one knee.
"Zara!" Ash hissed, tugging me down.
"Oh!" That's right. I had to play along. I hurriedly dropped into what I hoped was a passable curtsey, just as heavy footsteps began to ring on the stones behind us.
Nerves skittered through my stomach, but I reminded myself this was all just a dream. I kept my chin down, only letting my eyes scan the people around us. Every other woman kept her head bowed, and her Knight clasped her to his side, each of them placing a fist to his chest and dropping his head and shoulders below hers.
A quick look at Ash confirmed he'd done the same thing. But there was no time to ask him what was going on, because the footsteps had almost reached my side.
Thoughtlessly, I looked up, then froze, locked in the gaze of the other man from my dream—older than Ash, but only by a handful of years… his face had lost the smooth elegance of true youth to the rugged strength of a man, and he looked no less dangerous for it. This man had a presence that called to something deep inside me.
Where Ash was swarthy and broad, this man was lean. No weaker, but honed. As if he'd walked through the refining fire and every ounce of unnecessary flesh had been burned from his bones. Where Ash was dark steel, a sword half-drawn, this man was cold lightning, a deadly lash ready to fly.
He'd caught me staring and he didn't approve. One dark eyebrow, so at odds with his silver-white hair, arched, his face painted in disapproval. But then suddenly his eyes widened. His step faltered and his lower lip went slack with surprise.
Confused, but suddenly remembering the role I was supposed to play, I dropped my eyes to the stones in front of me, heart hammering, just in time to watch his shining black leather boots reach the paving next to me. My breath stopped as he drew close and his pace slowed. There was a moment where I saw what was about to happen in my mind—he'd rest a hand on my shoulder, whisper something soothing and it would work. My heart would slow and I'd smile—but then I was jolted from the daydream when he picked up his steps a couple of strides later.
He never said a word.
The heels of his boots stopped ringing as he reached the doorway and turned to face us all.
"Welcome." He made the word a declaration. "Please, return to your feet. If we are to become intimates there is no need for deference." Around me everyone began to move, lifting heads and getting to their feet.
Ash pinned my hand to his ribs with a steel elbow, tugging me to my feet.
I could barely see the King beyond all the Knights in the rows ahead of us. But I leaned sideways slightly to catch glimpses.
His eyes found mine and locked there.
"You are welcome in my home. In my life. In my rule," he intoned, then raised his chin. Though his eyes never left mine. "Please, join me in the chambers. Today The Selection begins."
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