The King didn't break our gaze until he'd turned so far that it would have been awkward to keep his head twisted around. But my chest still felt tight as we all moved forward as one, following him into the audience chamber ahead.
Walking through those massive doors and into the black-and-white checkered, polished floor of the Royal Audience Chamber, felt like passing through the throat and into the belly of the beast. It was a massive room of dark stone and a soaring, cathedral-like ceiling. And yet, there were so many arched windows and they were so tall, the room breathed with light.
Shadows moved along its sides, but I was entirely focused on the King, and the other women, moving through the space ahead of me. And through it all, Ash clung to me as if I might be blown away by a breath.
We stopped in somewhat orderly rows as the King trotted up five or six steps to stand on the red-carpeted dais at the back of the room, stalking to stand in front of a huge, ornate throne, then turned to face us again.
He didn't sit, but put one hand to the sword at his hip and scanned each of us, his eyes passing over me as if he purposefully ignored me.
"Do not fear," he said quietly, yet his deep voice rang through the massive chamber. "Those of you who do not meet expectations will not be punished. You will be allowed to return to your homes and families."
He kept speaking, laying out what we were expected to do that day, but my brain had stuttered at the word 'punished.'
I risked a glance at Ash, only to find his cheeks pale and eyes wide. The muscles at the back of his jaw flexed as if he were grinding his teeth.
The tiny details of this dream—the warmth of his side, the pressure of his arm pinning my hand to his side, the chill morning air in this echoing chamber, and the stink of fear… Even the ringing voices in this space…
Those of you who do not meet expectations today will not be punished.
Why would I ever have expected punishment for not meeting a man's personal preferences?
Scenes from a few of those BDSM romances popped into my head and a nervous giggle broke in my throat. I was forced to give a little cough to cover it. Ash glanced at me from the side.
"What is it?" he whispered, so quietly I barely heard him even though his lips were only inches from my ear.
"Why would any of us be punished?" I breathed. "Isn't he just choosing a wife?"
I felt him stiffen under my hand. "Zara... have you no mind for the risks? We have made this plan... you cannot have forgotten the danger?"
Forgotten? No. You had to know something first to forget it. Unfortunately, I was still trying to think of a way to question him that wouldn't make him think I was insane when the King completed his speech and the echoing room went silent.
Neither of us could risk speaking when we might be overheard.
"I am grateful for all you have given to be here," the King said gently, with a smile that softened his angular features. "Now... let us begin."
He clapped his hands and immediately the other Defenders in the room dropped to one knee—Ash following them half a breath too slowly—and the women stepped forward towards the stage.
As I nervously followed the others towards the stage, for the first time I became aware of other bodies in the room. Under the tall windows and soaring ceiling, dwarfed by the place, people were scattered around the chamber. Nobles, I thought, given how whatever they were wearing reflected the light with the sheen of luxurious fabrics like the dress I wore. In couples and clusters, they watched the women—myself included—mount the stairs to join the King on the low stage.
I felt his eyes on me when I made it to the top step and I instinctively looked up to meet his gaze. That recognition flashed in his gaze again, followed quickly by skittering clouds of some dark emotion I couldn't quite identify. But there was no opportunity to analyze it, because we'd all made it to stand in a semi-circle around him then and he turned again to look at the Defenders, and the crowd around the chamber. Then he turned back to address us.
"The coming days and weeks will be fraught, I know," he said gently, meeting eyes briefly with each woman as he turned. "I urge you to simply do and say as you see fit in each situation. I do not have specific requirements beyond the reasonable. So the rest of the rite will be a matter of... fit." Several of the women seemed uncomfortable with that statement, shifting their weight and swallowing, or blinking rapidly, though I couldn't figure out why. Hadn't he just told us to be ourselves? Wasn't that a good thing?
"Those of you who advance today will be honored as one of The Select, a title which, even if you do not become my Queen, will remain yours until the day of your death."
Several of the women sucked in deep breaths at that. What was I missing? What danger had Ash warned me about before this?
"Now, please... I will call for the players and we will enjoy a simple meal and time to speak with each other. Nothing more. You need not fear me." His eyes reached me at that point. Did I imagine that he held my gaze a breath longer than he had the others? "I only wish to know you better. I give you my word."