"What was it?" Ash asked quietly. I had the impression he was bracing, as if he was scared of what my answer would be and didn't want to show it.
"I had… forgotten about your vow," I said softly.
Ash's face went tight. "You forgot that I vowed to you that I would get you out of this safely and marry you!?"
"No, Ash…" I stepped forward and took his hand. "I'd forgotten your vow as a Knight Defender. That… that you will never… engage with whoever is your ward."
His shoulders slackened, but his expression didn't change. "Zara, we've discussed this—"
"I just… when I was walking back here with all those Knights and the women I just… it hit me the danger you were in being here with me. And being willing to take me away." I wiped my suddenly clammy hands on my skirt. "He'll kill you, Ash. If he learns of… us. If he learns that you've already kissed me. Even if he only learns you have feelings for me!"
"I'm well aware of the risks—"
"I hadn't thought it through," I said quickly. "I feel terrible. We have to… I have to keep a distance from you. I can't give him, or his servants any reason to think that there's anything between us. At all."
He nodded, but his brows pinched. "That was always the plan. We discussed—"
"Ash, you kissed me in the alcove this morning."
His lips thinned and he dropped his head. "A lapse in judgment, I know. But in my defense, I expected that by now I would already be taking you away from this place, these people. I never imagined…"
"Neither did I. He was amused by my… what did he call it? My candor, he said. He liked it."
Ash shook his head, his hair fluttering around his cheeks which were tense. "And now… this."
I flapped a hand at him. "It's not a big deal. I'll just stay obnoxious and he'll get tired of it eventually, and then we'll leave. I know he'll never choose me. I'll just enjoy the lavishness of it all while I can."
Ash froze, his face screwed tight with disbelief. "Zara… have you truly forgotten? Or… wiped it from you mind? Nothing is that simple now!"
"Why not? He said that when we were rejected he'd return us to our families. My family isn't here—so that's you, right? He'll just hand me over to you and we can just flee… can't we?"
Ash's face paled. "Did you truly walk into this believing that? Do you not… Zara, are you feeling well? How can you possibly have forgotten that the women who are excluded by the King are killed?"
"Zara, he will soon engage in… intimacy with all of you." A shudder rocked Ash's entire body, his hands clenching to fists. "He can't risk someone claiming a child as his. The traditions say the women are set free, but after that rejection, who would take them? Their families throw them aside, claim that they are banished, but everyone knows. Why do you think the women are all so nervous?"
I was stunned and mentally flipping back through my memories of the evening—all the nervous stares and tight eyes. All the fluttering hands and pale faces. The tension in the Defenders, and how quiet and stressed the women seemed.
I'd thought they were uptight because they lived in a Patriarchal society, and were afraid of angering their King.
But they were here facing execution?
"Why would any woman subject herself to that?"
"For the chance to bed and claim the King—to become Queen. Zara, his Queen will be the most powerful woman in the world. She will order her own executions if she wishes. How have you not remembered—"
The door swung open and Ash moved smoothly away from me, as if his body had already been in motion, as if we weren't standing close, arguing like lovers.
I blinked. Were we lovers? Did he think—
"Well done, Zara!" Abigail bustled into the room carrying a large basket under one arm, hurrying across the floor towards me. "Very, very well done, my lady! I will admit, I thought perhaps your attentions were… divided, but you have done an excellent work today! How are you, you must be exhausted. Would you like me to arrange another bath?"
I turned down the bath, turned away all her attentions; in fact, except getting me out of that dress. My entire body seemed to spread and relax when the unforgiving garment was finally removed. I heaved a sigh of relief and didn't even protest when Abigail insisted on lifting the nightgown over my head, even though I was fully capable of doing it myself.
I let her happy babble wash over me like a wave, barely hearing the words, trying desperately to just relax, because I had remembered it was all just a dream. And that meant I didn't need to worry about Ash's mortality, or the King's seductive stare, or the politics at play. I didn't even need to worry about bathing or my hair.
The only thing that made my stomach tight was the realization that I was about to go to sleep. In a dream.
Which meant I would wake up for real… right? I couldn't remember ever sleeping in a dream.
The truth was, this had been such a wonderful distraction from the pain and humiliation of finding Nicholas with that woman. I knew waking up was going to be awful. Sickening.
If only I could take Ash—or even David—back to the real world with me.
But that was impossible. This whole thing was impossible.
"Oh, dear, don't fret!" Abigail said as she tucked me into the bed. She must have noticed the way my eyes were stinging because I didn't want to think about what awaited me.
"Thank you, Abigail," I said, catching her hand as she straightened.
"Well… for what?" she asked, shocked.
"For fussing over me," I said honestly. "I had… a difficult time lately. And waking up to you this morning, your cheerfulness and your comfort… thank you."
"Oh, sweet girl, I'm sorry it has been difficult. I know your father is a… strong man. His absence in this process is a gift. I'm glad you're here only with me and your Knight Defender. Please… don't cry."
Was I crying? I wiped my cheeks and discovered my fingers came away wet. "I'm fine," I said quickly, swallowing and wiping them again. "I'm just very tired."
"Of course you are. Now sleep. Lord Fireknight will watch over and keep you safe for the King's Selection, and I will watch over and keep you beautiful. Between us… we'll help you win his heart."
I just smiled. She was so full of hope and confidence in me that I wished she was real. "I wish I could take you back to my former life, Abigail," I said quietly. "I could have used the hope you bring."
"Oh, pish. Don't speak that way, Zara. You are beautiful and engaging, and unique. The King will fall in love with you forthwith. There is no need to fear, dear. Just rest now. I'll blow out the lanterns."
And so she did, her thick body slowly becoming silhouette as all the light in the room was doused, flame by flame.
"Sleep well, my dear," she whispered as she lifted the final candle and carried it to the door. "Tomorrow we begin to win the King!"
Then she was gone.