The Pavanian princess stared at Cassius, her mouth open slightly. When she first walked into this room, Cassius had thought her stunning in her savagery, colder than the depths of winter. Her dress seduced and threatened in equal measure, clinging to her curves and adorned with carved skyfire crystals that jutted from her shoulders and head like the spikes of a warrior’s armor. And yet for all that careful pageantry, it had only taken a compliment to rattle her. She looked very young in that moment, very sweet, which was never a good thing for a potential ruler to be.
She donned an unreadable expression before his curiosity was satisfied, and her lilting voice turned sharp. “Flattery is not necessary. The betrothal has already been set.”
Another blast of that wintery gaze. She had unusual blue-gray eyes—wide and expressive and lovely enough to bring a lesser man to his knees. Her confident demeanor would likely have convinced most, but he had sharpened his instincts in a court little safer than a lion’s den. Tension rode her—something between unease and fear. He gripped her wrist and had the inexplicable urge to drag her somewhere else, anywhere other than the betrothal celebration that waited upstairs with his family. She was a delicate songbird, and his father was a bird of prey. They all were, Cassius included. And he couldn’t help but wonder how long it would be before this little bird had her wings clipped.
She tugged her arm out of his grasp, hard. He was tempted to take it back. That was part of his nature … to take. But she fixed him with a harsh glare, and he smiled in response. Perhaps his little bird had talons after all.
Enough. She was not his little bird. A jungle cat does not care for prey, even if he wants it with a hunger stronger than any he has ever known. He pushed his more ruthless instincts aside. That would be his greatest challenge here—fighting the need to seize, command, destroy. Those were the things he was good at. The things he’d been taught since he could walk. With Aurora he would have to coax and flatter and comfort—that was his path to control.
She said, “We should probably go. They’ll be calling for us soon.”
Cassius offered her his elbow, and her body was tense as she curled her hand around it. But before they even took a step, it became clear that the voluminous fabric at the bottom of her dress wouldn’t allow them to easily walk side by side. Cassius took hold of her hand, sliding it off his arm and lacing their fingers together instead. Slowly, he lifted her hand until his lips dragged across her knuckles. The blacks of her eyes expanded, swallowing up that lovely color and adding just a touch of sin to her sweet. She jerked within his grip, trying to pull away. Chuckling low, he put some distance between them, but he did not release her hand.
It took entirely too long to cross the throne room in her elaborate attire. She had to kick the bottom of her dress out before she stepped so that it wasn’t underfoot. Cassius was willing to bet that the dress and the headpiece weighed a third as much as she did or more, but her posture remained rigidly upright and her steps smooth.
By the time they reached the staircase at the back of the throne room, her lips were open and her breathing quick. He was beginning to hate this dress, even if it did cling to her curves rather spectacularly.
“You know,” he said, “I have a knife. I’m tempted to cut off the bottom of that dress so you can walk like the rest of us.”
A smile flitted across her mouth, small at first, then widening into something playful and bright. It called to the darkness in him. “You could try. But you’d likely find that knife at your throat with my mother on the other side of it.”
“If I had my way, we’d burn it once you cut it off. The headdress too.”
He smiled, and for the first time in a long while it felt almost natural.
“Perhaps we’ll celebrate our wedding with a bonfire.”
Every time he mentioned the wedding, she tensed. It was, of course, already agreed upon and signed in ink, but he had plans that would not succeed if she remained reluctant.
They ascended the first few steps slowly, the beaded fabric of her dress pulled taut around her legs. He wanted to throw her over his shoulder and charge the rest of the way, but he distracted himself with studying his surroundings instead. The hallway they were leaving behind was filled with paintings and statues of the Pavan Stormling ancestors. At the hallway’s end a massive, gold-painted statue of the current queen stood in a decorative alcove. Once upon a time, there might have been altars to the old gods—places to pray for good harvest or fertility or even luck—but those days were long past. Too many years of unbridled destruction and unanswered prayers.
No, Stormlings were the gods now. It was Cassius and the people like him who either answered prayers or ignored them.
“You said you faced a blizzard on your journey, but you did it without an affinity.”
He squeezed the hand he still held. “I did.”
She pulled her bottom lip between her teeth, scraping at the white paint that covered her skin. She asked, “Would you tell me about it sometime? The blizzard?”
He angled his head to smile at her again, and she looked away. Shy. So many pieces to her puzzle. “On one condition.”
“Which is?” He had expected her to be like most of the well-born ladies of the court in Locke: sirens with claws and teeth or frightened little mice, made to be gobbled up by this world. Aurora seemed neither vicious nor weak, but she was working so carefully to show him a façade that he could not pinpoint exactly what she was.
He had to know. It was his curse, the reason he thirsted for the thrill of a storm. He had to know how things worked, had to know why. And the girl in front of him was no different. In fact, the need to unravel all her secrets was stronger than he’d ever felt because she would be his. And he had a feeling that conquering her would prove more exhilarating than any storm he had ever defeated.
Rather than giving her his condition, he released her hand and wrapped an arm around the slim circle of her waist. She tried to step back, but her feet tangled in her dress, and she gripped his tunic to stay upright.
There it was. A thread of fear in those eyes. He could have stopped then, but he had little self-control when it came to these things. It was not enough to see a measure of her emotions on her face. He wanted them all. So he pushed a little more. “You might be patient enough to fight with this dress, but I am not. Let me get us to the top of these stairs, and I promise to tell you whatever story you want to hear.”
She jutted her soft chin out and said, “You have a deal.”
The paint had begun to wear away on her lips, revealing rosy skin underneath. Was the rest of her flushed beneath all that powder? He dragged his fingers back and forth over her side, feeling hard ridges beneath the heavy, embellished fabric. “Corset?”
She sucked in a breath, and he knew he had shocked her. Innocent. He collected each morsel of her identity like a scavenger in the jungle. He saw just a sliver of panic before she hid it away and met his gaze.
Brave little bird.
“It will have to be like this.” Before she could change her mind or reason could catch up to his own actions, he bent, winding his arms around her thighs, and lifted. She was tall but slight, and he held her tight against him so that her hips pressed against his chest and her stomach hovered in front of his face. She gasped and braced a hand on his shoulder, reaching up to balance her headdress with the other. He could not see her face like this, but he imagined she was scandalized. He chuckled. “I suppose I should have given you some warning.”
He risked offending her or word getting back to her mother through the guards that followed them. Both of which paled in comparison to the risk of his father hearing of his actions. He was a child, poking at a fish with a stick, rather than reeling it in the way he was supposed to. But he could not seem to help himself.
With some measure of urgency, he started up the stairs. Her body swayed toward him, her beaded dress scraping against his chin. This close, he felt her breathing speed up. The hand on his shoulder migrated to her chest, doing her best to cover the cleavage that was only just above his line of sight.
His instincts said to push again, but this time he reined them in. He kept his head down and quickened his feet. Again, the movement made her sway toward him, harder this time without her hand on his shoulder as a brace. He turned his face to the side, and her belly pressed against his cheek just for a moment before her hand was back at his shoulder, righting her position.
He took the last few steps at a pace that was nearly a jog, and when he reached the top, he looked up at her face. Her mouth was open and soft; he knew by the rise and fall of her body against him that her breaths were ragged, and in her eyes was a gleam. Not fear. Not panic. Not even anger.
He could work with that.
Copyright © 2017 by Cora Carmack
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