As I gaped, David straightened again, caught my eye with an unreadable look in his, nodded once, then turned on his heel and left me alone as he descended on a small group of women on the other side of the stage.
I'm not sure how long it took me to realize I was staring at his back. But when I did, I turned quickly away... to find Ash watching me from the stone floor below, thunder in his gaze.
Suddenly nervous, I downed the rest of my wine, then used the empty goblet as an excuse to look away for another servant to get me another one.
It's just a dream, I reminded myself, my palms suddenly sweaty so that I almost dropped the fresh goblet the silent servant offered me.
This was a romantic fantasy, I reminded my fluttering heart. And those stories always needed either a very handsome and seductive villain, or very handsome and seductive competition for the romantic lead.
A very handsome, powerful King could be either one.
Well done, brain, I thought to myself as I scanned David from his snow-white head, down his broad back, to his leather-clad feet. Very, very well done.
Heart pounding, I tottered away from the edge of the stage where I'd been standing all this time, towards a cluster of the women draped in gowns as fine as the one Abigail had draped over me.
They were almost shoulder to shoulder, turned towards each other, so that I wondered if they would even let me join them. But before I could ask, one of them spoke loud enough for me to hear.
"...heard that he calls on the shadow power, that his family pass down the dark traditions. He has sold his soul."
"A sorcerer?" another gasped. "You heard that too?"
The first nodded. "I had discarded it as simple rumor, but... when he appeared today I felt him before I saw him. Did you feel it? The power within him?"
"Yes!" the other cried. "Oh, what will we do?! I cannot marry a man who is the son of the Devil!"
I snorted, and they all turned, whirling quickly, their eyes going wide when they saw me.
I raised my hands to soothe them. The little blonde one looked like she might cry.
Her dark-haired friend was braver though.
"You find the Dark Power amusing?" she asked coldly.
"No, no. It's not that," I said quickly, trying to smile so they'd know I meant no harm. "It's just that you don't need to worry about that."
The woman's expression sharpened. "You know the source of the King's power?"
I rolled my eyes. "Seriously, don't fall for the hype. Whenever they say the guy is the devil's son, it's never true. He just always has some dark backstory that stunted him emotionally. If he's looking for a wife, that's good. He's going to fall hard for her, then he'll get emotionally vulnerable. And then after he hurts her in some forgivable way, he'll finally let his walls down and tell her the truth about whatever it was that started the rumors, and she'll be the only one who knows and can be in the drama with him."
They all stared at me blankly.
"It's the same every time," I added.
"What is... hype?" the blonde one asked faintly.
"How do you know what the King will do before it has happened?" the brunette hissed.
"She must read the stars," a third gasped, pulling the first woman further away from me.
"No, no!" I rushed to reassure them. "It's common knowledge! He's probably a romantic lead, but that power makes him look like a villain. So at first—"
"Do you, or do you not know the source of his power?" the brunette asked sharply.
I snorted and flapped a hand at her. "That's just big dick energy, don't worry about that. He probably just thinks he's God's gift to women."
They all stared at me as if that were an obvious fact.
"The King has channeled energy from a deity?" the little blonde asked carefully.
"No! There's nothing mystical about it. It's just what happens when a man... or sometimes a woman... when they're... born with certain... gifts. It gives them confidence. They have... presence," I finished lamely because they were all more horrified than when we'd begun.
The women looked at each other.
"If he was born with it, it must have been from his father—the Devil—"
"There is no devil involved!" I snapped impatiently. "I'm trying to tell you, you don't need to be afraid of him. It's just a trope!"
But they were all backing away from me. One of them made the sign of the cross, and when I groaned, she flinched.
"Don't mind them," a soft voice said from behind me.
I turned quickly to find a short, curvy redheaded woman smiling at me, her blue eyes bright.
Relief washed through me. "Thank God you're here."
She giggled. "Have we met?"
"No," I said with a sigh of relief as I pulled her into a shocked hug. "But I know exactly why you're here. Now, please, tell me your name, and tell me you don't believe any of that Devil nonsense."
"Of course not!" she smiled brightly. "My name is Emory. And you are?"
"Zara," I said, beaming at her.
"It's lovely to meet you, Zara."
"Same to you. And thank God you don't believe that devil claptrap. That's not the direction this is going."
"No, of course not," she repeated, laughing softly. "Don't worry about them. They're all daughters of second sons. Superstition is their only way to feel that they have some form of control over their lives."
"Oh, that's sad—"
She flapped a hand derisively. "You don't need to worry about them. They'll be far too busy being frightened to actually present any competition for you."
I blinked. "I... I wasn't really worried about competition..."
My new redheaded friend winked at me. "That's what we all say. But it's never really true, is it?"
Her knowing look confused me. "It's true for me," I said, with a look at the King over my shoulder. I was suddenly not so certain she was here to be my new best friend and sidekick. But my heart sang a moment later when she looped her arm through mine and began to turn me around, walking casually with me in an aimless stroll around the stage.
"I'm sure that is true for you," she said quietly. "You're clearly of a different breed than the rest of this herd. That's why you and I are going to get along so famously.
I looked at her sideways. Her smile had turned saucy and I couldn't help but return it.
"Now, since you've obviously been very sheltered, let me tell you about the rest of these empty-headed larches," she said with a grin. "You need to know which of them can be pitied, and which needs to be watched."