11 Hammer Down

It had been a very long day, but I was smiling when night fell and we were finally released. I was exhausted, but exhilarated as Ash walked me through the Palace towards the new quarters.

All around us the wide hallways were full of other Select and their Defenders, along with certain servants moving with our crowd, and also independently through the castle.

It was strange to me to always be around so many other people. After living by myself for the past three years, I was looking forward to getting to my room and being in the quiet.

Next to me, Ash stormed along, his body swinging, eyes piercing and sharp, examining every movement around us, those little muscles at the back of his jaw flexing and twitching. He looked like a cat who'd been stood on, but he wasn't talking, and with so many others around us I was reluctant to ask questions because I knew we couldn't speak openly about what was most likely bothering him—that we wouldn't be able to elope until the King kicked me out of this circus.

I found his agitation touching and brushed a hand against his arm, adrenaline simmering in my stomach when he noticed and turned to look at me and our eyes caught.

I had a flash of the kiss we'd shared this morning and suddenly I found myself wondering where he would expect to sleep. My body tensed. But I reassured myself: If I remembered the books correctly, the Knight Defenders always stayed close to their wards. But there was close, and then there was really close. It was forbidden among them to—

I sucked in a little breath and half-stumbled in my step. Ash put a nonchalant hand under my arm to catch my weight and keep me on my feet, but he was looking at me with a question.

"I just… remembered something," I whispered.

His brows pinched, but he wisely chose to wait to ask me.

It was several minutes walk through the massive castle, then another minute waiting while one of the servants showed each of us to our assigned quarters.

I wasn't sure what I'd been expecting, but when the King's man opened the large door and ushered me in, my jaw dropped.

Quarters indeed.

The door from the corridor opened into a massive, oval-shaped sitting room papered in gold and green stripes with a carpet so thick my feet sank into it. The room centered on another of those huge fireplaces, with several thick chairs and elegant couches in a cluster near it. The windows began at waist height, but soared all the way to the twelve-foot ceilings. And there were two doors off the room.

"Your chambers are in here, my Lady," the servant said quietly, opening a large green door into a bedroom almost as large as the sitting room, the ceilings just as high which should have made the room cold, but there was yet another fireplace in this room, and the bed—as large as any I'd ever seen—was a four-poster with a frame above, covered and circled in velvet curtains so thick there was a full foot of gather in the gold, tassled rope at the corner.

The servant walked across the room to stoke the fire, then turned to look at me expectantly.

"Servants quarters?" Ash asked quietly, urgently.

"There is a second bedroom Sir Fireknight—"

"I will be remaining as close to the Lady as possible, especially now," Ash said calmly, but firmly. "The servants quarters. Where are they?"

The servant looked scandalized, but he hurried to the other side of the bed where most of the wall was covered by a massive tapestry. Pulling it back on one side, he gestured behind it.

Ash nodded and stalked over to inspect what turned out to be a long, but narrow alcove room on the other side, much colder than the bedroom because the wool tapestry stopped the heat from entering the space. There was nothing but a cot that might have seemed spacious to me, but looking at Ash's shoulders, I wondered if he would even have room to turn over.

"Bring a larger bed. As large as will fit," I said quickly.

"Yes, Ma'am—"

"That won't be necessary," Ash started, but I glared at him.

"If you're going to protect me, you have to rest properly when you can. And if you won't take the other bedroom, then we'll make sure there's at least enough room in the bed for you!"

"It is late and we are all tired. This will be fine for tonight," Ash protested.

"If they can't move an entire bed tonight, I'm sure we can find something better than that cot!"

Ash gave me a cautioning look, but I ignored him and turned back to the servant who was looking back and forth between us.

"Please bring another bed—or at least, a mattress—that will fit him with room. Whatever will fit in the space. We don't mind if it's just a mattress for tonight, but please make sure that tomorrow it's as comfortable as possible."

"Certainly. Right away, my Lady. Is there anything else I can bring for you before I call your Abigail?"

I shook my head. "Not as long as she has a nightgown for me."

"Your things have already been moved to the wardrobe and drawers. She will have everything she needs here," he said, indicating another vanity set with various brushes and tools, along with a large closet and set of drawers.

"Then we have everything. If you can just arrange the bed for Ash—Sir Fireknight, there's nothing else."

The servant's lips twitched as he bowed and Ash glowered at his back, following him all the way out of the room, through the sitting room, and out the door, before he began poking through the rest of our quarters like he was looking for something.

"What are you doing?"

"Making sure no one is hiding here, or eavesdropping," he muttered, tracing a finger down the back of my hand as gently as a butterfly's wing as he passed me on his way to the other bedroom. "And when I'm certain, you're going to tell me what made you look afraid in the hallway."

"That was—"

"Please, Zar. Wait until I'm certain we're alone," he insisted.

I stood there lamely for several minutes while he checked every last inch of the rooms, then finally returned to me in the sitting room and stood in front of me looking slightly more relaxed, but still not happy.

His face was pained, as if he already knew what I was going to say and he didn't want to hear it. He wasn't right, of course, but it made me wonder… what did he think I would to say that would make him seem so sad?

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