Hours. Hours and hours we talked and drank and ate finger food from sterling silver trays that were walked around the chamber by straight-faced servants.
Eventually we spread out and were allowed to stand around down on the floor with the other nobles, chatting. But everyone was so tense it just gave them more space for nerves. Emory was delightful and funny and subversive, and I adored her. But at some point she was called aside to have her turn speaking with David.
I found myself alone in the large chamber, sipping wine and watching people, feeling weary. I hadn't slept well the night before and now that the initial adrenaline rush of being here had worn off, I just wanted to lay down in my sweats and watch funny cat videos.
I didn't even have a phone to look at, so I was just standing awkwardly by myself in a corner trying not to yawn.
Luckily Ash caught sight of me and came to join me, standing at my side, one hand on his undrawn sword.
"Are you well?" he murmured, his lips barely moving as he scanned the room.
"Just tired," I replied. Even examining the incredible dresses and tunic-jackets of the nobles had become boring. "I really thought it would be more fun than this," I sighed.
Ash tensed. "Fun? You thought this would be fun?" he hissed.
I turned, putting a hand to his arm. But before I could come up with a good reply that wouldn't confuse him, a strange chiming echoed through the room and everyone went silent in a heartbeat.
We all turned to look at the dais at the front where David stood, bracketed by two men—one, the dark, older soldier who'd come to speak to him while we were talking, the other a much smaller, bird-thin man who was almost bald and was drowning in a long, brown cloak.
"Who's that?" I whispered to Ash, nodding towards the oldest of the men.
"The King's primary advisor—he stepped in when the former King died and His Highness took the throne. He was only eighteen."
The old man's clothing reminded me of a monk's robes, but there were some designs embroidered on it in black, and he didn't have that air of serenity that I associated with a man of the cloth.
But then the man raised his chin and intoned to the room. "All hail, King Davide Alexander Francis de Clare, fourth in the de Clare line to hold the throne, and our Heart of Honor!"
"Hail!" A rousing shout rose in the chamber, echoing into the highest reaches of the cathedral-like room. I startled, but Ash tugged at my arm as everyone debased themselves again, the men kneeling with one hand to their chests, the women dropping into curtseys.
I hastily followed their examples, not rising out of the curtsey until Ash raised his head and got to his feet.
It was only a few seconds, but by the end of it, my thighs were killing me.
David raised a hand to receive the honor and smiled. "I thank the noble families and daughters who have attended this tradition today. You all bless me with your willingness to be a part of my reign and family. But the time has come to confirm the Selection. I would like to invite The Select to join me up here on the Dais," he said.
The room went preternaturally still as the soldier who'd approached David when we spoke stepped forward with a long scroll of paper in his hands and began to read names.
I heard Emory's name, which made me smile, and I saw the brunette woman from the superstitious bunch clasp her hands at her chest when the name "Isabelle Catherine Searcy" was called. Her timid blonde friend was also Selected and the two hugged when her name was called.
There seemed to be a lot of names, but since these people were apparently fans of three and four barreled Christian names, it was a little hard to keep track of how many actual individuals were being called.
"…and finally…" the soldier drawled, cutting a glance at David, who nodded, gesturing for him to continue. The man sighed. "Finally, the King invites Zara Lea Anderson to join The Select." The man bit the word off, then both he and David looked at me.
Next to me, Ash made a strange noise and his hand clamped on my forearm.
"Please, all of you, keep your heads high and join us here on the Dais," the soldier ordered.
The Chamber was suddenly awash with applause, polite clapping from the nobles there to witness the moment.
I turned to Ash to find his handsome face pale under his dark stubble, his eyes wide. But when he caught my eyes, he blinked and straightened his face. His fingers tightened around my arm, almost to the point of pain, but he led me forward without a word.
We made part of a wave of pairs walking up to the stage from among the rest of those gathered. But when we reached the steps, Ash stopped.
"I have to… leave you here. For now," he said reluctantly, his teeth gritted.
"Don't worry, I'll be fine," I whispered back, patting his hand as he let me go.
He bristled, but didn't speak as I trotted up the stairs to join the other women lining up behind the King and his advisors.
When the applause died, David was still facing the watchers.
"I thank you again, fathers and mothers, uncles and aunts, loved ones, for willingly releasing your daughters to my care. I will offer them every comfort and care their prestigious positions now afford them. Do not fear! Those who are not successful in this quest will be returned to you safely."
Then he turned to face us. "And you, my beauties, you are my prize. My return for the years in service to the people. Thank you for submitting yourselves to this day and these traditions. Please rest assured that as my potential Queen, you will each receive both my honor, and my undivided personal attention."
He smiled then, right at me, and there was a gleaming edge to those words, a heat in his eyes that I hadn't seen before. A part of me flushed, my heart pumping harder because the suggestion was… primal. But surely he hadn't meant—
David turned back to the gathered nobles. "My lords and ladies, please be at ease. Traditions have been met, and we are now at rest. Eat! Drink! Farewell your daughters! Tomorrow our true journey begins!"
A small, hesitant cheer rose from those on the floor, and then it was as if someone had shot the starter's gun. Everyone below began to move, either towards servants for food and drink, or towards the doors.
I would have taken a step towards Ash, who stood near the stairs, watching me, but then even as the women around me began to whisper and lean into each other's ears, David turned back and stepped up to speak to us in a normal voice, below the level of the hubbub in the room.
"I know you will be tired. I want you to be confident that the rest of the evening will be yours to rest and prepare for the coming weeks. When you leave this chamber you will be taken to new quarters, a wing which has been set aside, solely for your use. But I must ask one thing of you first: The role of the Queen at formal gatherings such as this is to ensure that every guest is honored and comfortable. That they feel recognized and served in our home.
"Before you return to your rooms, please move among the people who have remained as you would if this were your home. Speak with them, watch after their comfort, welcome them as guests. The servants have orders to respond to each of you as if you were Queen Consort, so your orders will be heeded. Please…" he opened a hand towards the wider room. "Make our people—your people—welcome."
And as the women grasped their skirts and began elegant walks down to the Court below, David turned and caught my eye, one brow arched again, as if in a question.
He wanted me to stop and talk to him, I was sure. But I was tired, and also a little unnerved by that sense of… power that emanated from him. It drew me, but scared me, too. I knew how these stories went—I was supposed to resist that. Yet, I didn't want to. I hadn't expected him to choose me, though I supposed that was all part of the fun of the dream, right? Unexpected twists.
So as I moved towards the stairs at the edge of the stage and he opened his mouth to greet me, I just patted his arm and swept past him. Laughing quietly to myself because I heard him snort when he realized I wasn't going to stop.
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