“You haven’t slept.”
It was only thanks to years of rigorous discipline that Anzi didn’t leap out of her skin. Instead, she reacted the same way she had when Bastien had surprised her earlier, lashing out with her arm at the source of the unexpected voice while simultaneously sliding backward off the stone railing. But a spark of something indescribable exploded under her skin when she struck warm flesh, and she nearly stumbled. Head reeling, she retreated several swift steps toward the doors before she finally realized who it was before her.
“Do I have to get on my knees for you to stop calling me that?”
She stared in silence at the darkened silhouette half-straddling the balcony wall. She hadn’t bothered to light a candle before coming out here, and with the clouds muffling the faint light of the moon, all she could see was the tousled, almost shaggy black hair
“Are you Anzi?” She leaped to her feet and reared up like a serpent about to strike, only to realize the voice belonged to none other than a pretty girl wearing a pale pink chiffon gown and bedecked in numerous small articles of silver and pearl. Loose blonde ringlets fell about her pale face, giving her an innocent yet womanly look, but the pale blue eyes that stared back at Anzi were more alarmed than sweet. Her hands were clasped and folded in front of her chest, and she stood half-turned away from when she had jumped in fright. One of the harem girls. Anzi relaxed and made sure her relieved exhale was slow and silent. No need to reveal her agitated state this morning to anyone. “That’s me,” she said. “Are you the one His Excellency sent to see me?” “No, but she’s fallen sick this morning, and all I know is that I’m to see you instead. I was hoping you could fill me in on what I’m to do.” Anzi blinked. She hadn’t been told? Even if an emergency had arisen and they had hastily se
“I don’t think about him at all. Except the things I told you about him. That’s it.” “Oh, don’t be like that. I want to help. Trust me, I know I said I’ve only been here a few months, but I’m very gifted at this sort of thing. You can ask any of the other girls when you see them next. They’ll tell you. I’ve been training for this since I was fifteen, and I know how to read people when it comes to those syrupy sweet feelings they try to hide.” Anzi leaned away. She most certainly did not like that. As a matter of fact, she felt threatened, as if Violetta was saying she could look right through her down to where she tried to quash the wild, twitching spark that was her attraction to Kai. Fine, then. So what? She was human. It was only natural that she would appreciate a fine musculature and handsome face. It didn’t mean she had things like syrupy sweet feelings. This was annoying. And humiliating.
Nosy passersby chose that exact instant to cluster around the scene, and now Anzi was on the wrong side of the circle of murmuring civilians forming around the disturbance. Not for long. She forced her way through with savage shoves, earning strings of filthy curses, until finally she caught Violetta’s gaze over the last several shoulders. The woman was still on the ground, kneeling in the dust and twisted to the side as she shielded the lower half of her face with a dainty hand. A thick drizzle of blood dripped from her chin, and Anzi’s face tightened in hot anger. Who dared? Violetta was her responsibility. Whoever was stupid enough to lay their hand on her was going to lose it. She wouldn’t even give them a chance to apologize, neither to Violetta nor to the Emperor whose charge she was. But before she could charge in, the woman sent her an almost imperceptible warning, a quick shake of her head and a bright, frightened look. It stopped Anzi in her tracks, and instead of leaping fo
Anzi said nothing after that, neither when she picked Violetta up from the ground nor when she helped clean off her bloody face nor even when they returned to the palace. Whatever the reason for Violetta’s willing subjection to such mistreatment, it was up to her to confess it. She was an adult. They were both adults. And they were neither friends nor each other’s confidants. “I lied to you,” Violetta blurted. She had whirled around to face Anzi with clear, stubborn eyes, and her hands were clasped together white-knucked-tight over her chest. A semi-defiant incline raised her chin. “Lied?” Anzi repeated. “How.” “I told you the girl who was supposed to teach you is sick. Berenice. She is, but what I didn’t tell you is that today, everyone else planned to go out into the city. But someone has to stay behind to entertain any unexpected guests, and that’s me. It’s always me, every time. I stay behind and mend the
Kai came to her first. He wasn’t supposed to. She should have been the one to go to his room an hour from now, according to the timecatcher hanging from the window in the sunlight. But for some reason, he was standing here and looking at her with a slow, lazy smile that almost made her close the door in his face in the compulsive need to escape from it. He was too much. She couldn’t do this. He was too early. She had needed the extra time to steel herself so she wouldn’t do idiotic things in his presence, but now he had stolen that from her. “Anzi.” She hated how he said her name. It made her bones shake and her eyes hot. “Yes, sir.” “Come walk with me. I’m lonely.” “Weren’t you with His Excellency and his advisors just now?” “I was. But talk of business and trade doesn’t warm a man any.” He extended a hand to her across the threshold, palm up, and she dropped her gaze to it wit
He was going to have to let go of her hand eventually. Anzi glanced down every hallway they passed, heart pounding harder and harder with each one. For a short while, she had been too entranced by the sensation of his fingers intertwined with hers to pay any attention to the rest of the world, but after narrowly dodging a few giggling maids who were luckily too distracted to notice, Anzi had realized this was too outrageous to continue. She would not be seen holding hands with a foreign chieftain like they were lovers. Maybe she was still officially only a foot soldier, but she had a reputation to uphold, a reputation arguably as fearsome as any officer’s—more than most, if she set aside modesty. Not only that, but once it became public knowledge that she was the newest member of the Premier Guard, she refused to let it be marred by shallow rumors about illicit affairs with exotic men. It was hard enough being a woman in this world, sometimes. She just wanted… “What are you thinking
“You’re late.” “I’m early.” “Not to me.” Bastien pointed down the Cave’s sloping passageway. The scant light of the moon faded as the woven grass cover rustled into place, and the growing darkness made his sharp smile look even more sinister. Anzi followed the direction of his jabbing finger without another word. She had no time to waste on him. She was here on a mission, one more important than any argument no matter how irritating he was, especially since Bastien had laughed in her face last night when she spoke of soul bonds and a singular meant-to-be waiting for her in one of the dragon eggs. He had said she was being ridiculous, but if it made her feel better to think that way, he didn’t care so long as they found a good steed for her. Steed, as if dragons weren’t noble creatures with great intelligence even if it was different from that of humans. She knew it. She saw it in Colonel Bisset’s dragon every time she found herself at the center of the creature’s heavy gaze, somethi
For the next three days, everything was an uncomfortable blur. For one, Anzi had let slip to Letti that there would be a gala or some such thing happening soon, not realizing that it would promptly send her into deep, long-lasting convulsions. Secondly, she was still diligently pretending she could sense no life in any of the dragon eggs whenever she and Bastien made their rounds. And there was the matter of Kai, who had unfortunately noticed there was something wrong with her and refused to leave her alone until she told him exactly what it was. She couldn’t tell him, obviously. Couldn’t tell anyone. She had to keep this secret and guard it closely until she could figure out what to do next, until she figured out why she couldn’t expel the lingering dread that plagued her from morning to night. Was it shock at all the gruesome things she had learned over the last several days? Maybe that was what it was. Poisonous disappointment, the sinking of her optimistic ideals into a miry swamp