“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
When Anzi awoke, it was in utter confusion that she found herself wrapped in hard, solid arms and pressed back into a very bare chest. For several seconds, she had no recollection of how she had ended up in this unfamiliar bed with a man’s face buried in her hair and his hands perilously close to dropping below her hips. But she certainly knew who said man was in an instant. There was no mistaking the intoxicating masculine scent she could never get out of her head. Oh. Oh, that was right. He had pulled her into his bed and all but forced her to fall asleep against him. But how long ago? What time was it now? Her eyes widened in unadulterated shock when she realized it had to have been hours since. She was far too well-rested and soothed, and struggling still to rise out of the comfortable depths of delicious sleep even now. Wake up, she ordered herself, and she tried to pull out of Kai’s embrace so she could jump off the bed and onto her feet. Sleeping in the middle of the day when s
“This is where the understudies train the apprentices,” said Abelard. “There aren’t enough masters in the Magisien body, so we delegate what we can.” So many explanations. After the latest long-winded speech from Abelard in front of several dozen adolescents, by now, Kai must have mastered the art of tuning him out, a vital skill Anzi too possessed. She believed in the great strength and glory of the Imperial City—even now despite recent doubts—but she didn’t put on performances for its sake. The elderly mage, on the other hand, had waxed poetic about the storied history of the Empire’s mage class and its renown throughout the land for the last half-hour. No one liked his speeches. Anzi was an outsider, but the practiced, dead-eyed stares of all the students at their desks were proof enough. Oza hadn’t liked him either. At least, he hadn’t…the last time they had spoken. “And for the chieftain’s pleasure, we will be going down and doing some demonstrations. Up, everyone.” Kai looked