I tried not to let the sudden flash of nerves at his clear indignation show. Instead, I just looked interested.
"Really? Why? It's your name isn't it?" I asked brightly.
He opened his mouth looking like he was about to mansplain the finer points of high society etiquette to me—I thought even Ash would be proud of me for pissing him off so quickly—when suddenly he hesitated.
We stared at each other, me waiting, him frowning. He opened his mouth twice more without speaking. But finally his Adam's apple bobbed and he muttered, "I don't know."
The words came out like they were dragged from him. And my sense of mischief came with them.
"You don't know your name?" I whispered quite loudly.
"Of course I know my own name!" he hissed, leaning in and looking left and right like he wanted to make sure no one else heard. "I just... I never thought... about... I don't know why calling me by my name is considered such an offense."
I shrugged again and took a drink of my wine. It was lovely and smooth, but it left a trail of heat down my throat. I pursed my lips and blew out a breath before looking at him again.
"What a waste of human life it would be to kill someone just for calling you your actual name," I said thoughtfully. "Would you really do it? Have them executed for doing that?"
His eyes were sharp on my face, examining me as if he suspected I was toying with him. Which I was. But I was dreaming so I could afford to throw caution to the wind. And besides, I was doing what he'd told us to do earlier and just being myself.
"I... don't know," he said finally, rolling his jaw as if he disliked saying the words. But I just shrugged again.
"Well, if there's any chance you might kill me for it, I won't use it. So it's probably better if you don't tell me, just in case. Then I can't use it by accident."
He blinked, his frown deepening. Then narrowed his eyes. "You aren't afraid of me," he said thoughtfully.
"Should I be?"
He scoffed. "I suspect if you asked any other person in this room, they would say yes."
"I didn't ask them. I asked you."
For a second I worried I'd gone too far and I took another swig of my wine to give myself a moment to think. His expression darkened and he leaned close again. But he dropped his chin so that his buttery-soft jaw brushed mine as he whispered in my ear.
"Normally the answer would be a resounding yes, especially for anyone so... impertinent," he whispered dryly. "But I will admit, Lady Zara, I find your candor... refreshing."
I almost spat my wine on his silver-embroidered coat.
That wasn't supposed to happen.
I swallowed the wine hard and laughed nervously when he drew back far enough to meet my eyes, his own dark and gleaming with something hard to define.
"Is it?" he asked with a sly smile. "You seem suddenly less sure of yourself."
I cleared my throat. "I'm only thinking about how it must be to live in a world where others being afraid of you seems normal. But that's the burden of being a powerful man, isn't it? I wouldn't know… obviously." I was scrambling and glanced over my shoulder to find Ash, wondering if he was allowed to come save me from this shitshow, but found him glaring at the King, though he straightened as quickly as I caught the expression.
"How many powerful men are you... familiar with, Zara?" he asked, and for the first time his tone was suggestive. And not kind.
I bristled, forgetting my nerves and glaring at him hotly. "I am not familiar with any powerful men," I snapped. "Though I know plenty of assholes."
His eyes flew wide and my stomach sank. Too far. It was too far. Now he was going to execute me and my lovely dream was going to end before I could elope with the beautiful Ash. Dammit!
Sure enough, the King's jaw went tight and he stepped close, putting one hand to my arm and leaning down so we were nose to nose. But to my surprise, instead of snapping his teeth and ordering my execution, he only stared, searching my gaze like he would find secrets there.
"You are unlike any woman I have ever met," he said, like he wasn't happy about it.
"Is that a compliment?"
"I don't know," he admitted.
"For a King, you say that a lot." I barked a laugh, but swallowed it back when his face got stern, raising my free hand to soothe him. "I'm not laughing at you, I'm just... realizing how ridiculous this is."
"Which part, exactly? Please, be specific," he said through his teeth.
I made myself keep holding his gaze, despite the flames flickering there. "The fact that I don't know your name, but apparently you're considering taking me as your wife. The fact that I am drawn to you so that I haven't laughed my way out of here for that reason alone. You have us brought to you like a herd of cattle. You're essentially interviewing us for the role of romantic lead in your life. But there's no way you can really get to know any of these women because they're all terrified of making you angry."
"You aren't," he pointed out, straightening and folding his arms. The posture emphasized his biceps, the intricate silver jacket pulling tight across his arms and chest. And the smoking-dark gaze he gave me didn't help my lady-parts stop dancing.
"I'm not normal. Never have been," I said, which was only true. "And, I mean, I'm clearly not going to win this. Which means I'm either here as a joke, or as a plot. Either way, all I have to figure out is how to fulfill my purpose. You have a whole Kingdom to rule. In theory."
"You think ruling a Kingdom is theoretical?"
I shrugged again. His jaw dropped.
"I cannot decide," he said quietly, "if you are the bravest, or the stupidest woman I have ever met."
I grinned, but made sure it had an edge because I might lack filters, but I am not stupid.
"Let me answer the question for you," I said, and beckoned him closer. To my surprise, he humored me and leaned in to listen. "Have you ever considered," I whispered, "that the reason everyone is afraid of you, and the reason you're alone, is because you're so uptight making sure people don't do very normal things like call you by your name, that no one ever actually gets to know the man you are? They only ever meet your crown."
I straightened, stifling a smile because he was staring at me with a very uneasy expression on his face.
But before he could respond, a massive man, handsome and clearly strong even with the gray winging his temples, draped in a formal red coat that fell almost to his knees, his chest bristling with medals, appeared at the King's side and leaned into his ear, whispering something.
The King drew back to meet his eyes and they stared at each other with the comfort and ease of two men who knew each other well, but were not in agreement.
"I am the King," he muttered testily.
"And the crown carries duty," the man replied in a voice so deep it seemed to come up from the earth.
The King cursed quietly, but after a heavy sigh he gave a single, sharp nod.
The man stepped back, bowing once, then turned and walked away.
Before I could ask, the King turned back to me and said through a tight jaw, "I have... shown you more attention than the others. It is important that I give equal time to each of you."
I raised my glass to him. "No problem. Happy wife shopping."
His expression was calm but stern, his eyes flashing with an edge that I would have bet my dwindling bank account was frustration.
"Good day," he said politely, clicking his heels together. I waited for him to leave, then realized he was waiting for me to curtsey, or something. So I grabbed my skirt and gave a little dip of my knees.
His face went suddenly blank. Unreadable. He nodded once, then turned on his heel. But he hadn't even taken a step before he whipped back to face me again, took a step so that his thighs brushed my skirt, and leaned into my ear.
"My name is Davide Alexander Janus de Clare," he hushed, goosebumps rising on my neck when his breath fluttered against my ear. He hesitated, then said even more quietly, "My mother called me David."