There was a strange tension among the other women that I didn't understand, but soon servants appeared among us passing out tall goblets of red wine as the King gestured towards someone in the hall and people began to move. Some even carrying seats and musical instruments and setting themselves up in the corner.
When the music began it was soft and flowed through the room without intruding, covering the hum of conversation that was finally beginning to rise there on the stage, but also among those on the floor below.
Uncertain what to do with myself, I clasped my goblet and turned casually to look at the Defenders, who'd finally risen from their knees and were drawing closer together, talking with serious expressions, their eyes always quickly returning to the women they were there to guard.
As the women around me began to talk quietly among themselves—mostly about the King—Ash found my eyes every minute or so, his expression strained and... questioning?
I wished I could reassure him. He was clearly a good man. And obviously concerned for me. I tried to imagine how it would feel if I was in love with him, but having to watch him potentially be taken by someone else. Or face an unknown danger.
It must be very stressful. Poor man.
But it was just a dream, I argued with myself. He was a figment of my imagination. A beautiful, honed, near-perfect specimen of masculinity, but an imagined one. I was really quite proud of him, when I thought about it.
Sighing. I turned to see if I had created any interesting women who I could befriend. Would there be a fiery redhead with a heart of gold, but the tongue of asp? Or a quiet brunette who seemed shy, but would soon reveal a shocking sense of humor?
I hoped I'd given myself a break and there wouldn't be a beautiful-on-the-outside, ugly-under-the-skin woman here who would immediately identify me as a threat and decide to make me miserable by drawing everyone's attention to my flaws.
Though, if there was, maybe I could just get Ash to disembowel her with that sword. I always wondered why the female leads had to be so noble and give grace to the enemies. Romance needed more stabbings, in my opinion.
"That is a curious smile," a dark, sultry voice said from somewhere above my right shoulder. I yelped and almost threw my glass of wine over my gorgeous dress in startled shock.
But I caught myself and held my glass high for a moment until its contents stopped sloshing before turning, free hand to my chest, to find the King standing over me, a curious smile of his own on those handsome features.
My mouth went dry.
Close up he was stunning. That strange hair was a shining white crown—no pun intended—to a dark, seductive mouth, a diamond-sharp jaw, and dark eyes that danced, as if they knew far more than they spoke. His cheekbones were enviably high, his features angular, but in the way that made my breath come faster. I'd compared him to a serpent earlier, but while his features were sharp, the image wasn't right. He was more... hawkish.
"Like a bird of prey," I murmured to myself. Beautiful, but deadly if you were a rat.
"Are you well?" he asked carefully, but amusement danced in his eyes.
I snorted. "Well? Yes," I said bluntly. "Graceful? Not even a little bit," I said dryly, tipping my head towards my glass and the hand I'd extended to hold it that now had drops of red wine dripping from my fingers that I didn't want to land on my wide skirt.
The King frowned, then turned, catching eyes with someone. A moment later a servant in black livery, eyes on the floor whenever he wasn't trying to determine what the problem was and fix it, gently took my goblet, wiped my hand with a thick, white linen, then the stem and pedestal of the goblet as well, before passing it back to me and bowing to the King.
It all passed silently, in mere seconds, so I was left gaping at the man's back as he seemed to dissolve into the shadows behind throne.
"Better?" the King asked quietly.
"Yes?" I replied uncertainly.
The King turned his body to place himself between me and the rest of the women and my heart rate increased. I'd observed earlier that he wasn't as big as Ash, but perhaps the comparison hadn't been fair. Though he might lack Ashwood's bulk, he was clearly a man in excellent shape, his chest and shoulders more than broad enough to block my view of the others on the stage, and he loomed a good foot over my head so that I felt very small next to him, despite being sure my waist was thicker than his.
No junk in that trunk.
I had to bite my lip to stop a laugh at the thought. I turned away to look at the Defenders on the stone floor behind and below me, and found Ash staring darkly.
Dark? Why was he dark?
Oh. Right. I was supposed to be pissing the King off.
"Lady Zara, yes?" The King asked politely. I snapped my head around to find him staring, head tilted and one dark brow arched high.
Normally I would have apologized for not introducing myself, but this was my dream, and apparently I was meant to offend this man. So I just shrugged.
"You don't need to call me Lady," I said honestly. "Just Zara is fine. What's your name?"
The second brow popped up to join the first as he stared at me in genuine surprise. "You don't know my name?"
I shook my head. "I mean, I don't mind calling you highness, or majesty, or whatever. But if we're supposed to be getting to know each other I think names might be better."
Something flashed in his gaze, but it was immediately followed by delight, and amusement, then suspicion and... so many emotions I struggled to identify them.
"Are you alright?" I asked him. "You seem a little... confused?"
He spluttered. "Confused?! I am not confused!"
"Oh, good. Then would you mind telling me your name, because I want to know how to refer to you in my mind. Calling you 'The King' gets clumsy fast."
His eyes widened. When he spoke, his voice was suddenly dark and his eyes fixed on mine like a bird on a worm. "Calling the sitting Ruler by his given name is an offense worthy of death."