But I hadn’t seen my dagger since the stables, and based on what I’d done with the last one…
I doubted I’d have access to one anytime soon, which made escaping difficult. I needed a weapon, any weapon, but what I wanted was the dagger Vikter had given me.
I added that to my plan that wasn’t quite a plan. At least, not yet.
Kieran left shortly after I came out of the bathing chamber, locking the door behind him. I doubted he went very far. Was probably standing outside the door.
I started to braid my still-drying hair, but remembered the mark on my neck and let the strands hang loose. I then roamed the room aimlessly. There was no avenue of escape. I couldn’t even fit through the window. Was I going to be kept here until whenever time he deemed fit for me to leave?
Sighing, I plopped down on the bed. It was soft, so much thicker than the straw mat in the cell. I lay down, facing the door as I curled on my side.
What would happen when he returned for me? Would his seeming acceptance of my attempted murder change? Everything he’d said about the Ascended may very well be true, but he was still the Dark One, and he was just as dangerous. He’d said so himself.
There was a lot of blood on his hands.
With how thinly my nerves were stretched, I didn’t think I would doze off again, but that was exactly what happened. It had to be…it had to be the still-tender bite and its effect. Because one moment, I was alert, staring at the closed door. The next, I was out, slipping into a deep sleep where I did not dream. I wasn’t sure what woke me at first. It wasn’t my name being called. It wasn’t words at all.
It was a faint touch on my cheek and then on the side of my neck, just above the bite. My eyes fluttered open. The room was dim except for the sconces and the single oil lamp on the nightstand, but I still saw him.
He sat on the edge of the bed, and there was a dipping motion in my chest at the first sight of him, like always happened. I imagined it always would, no matter what I knew about him.
At least, he’d found a shirt.
And had bathed somewhere, because his hair was damp, curling against his temples and ears.
Dressed in all-black, he cut an imposing, striking figure, and I no longer saw his attire that of the uniform of a guard. I saw the Dark One. I glanced down at the sleeve of the dark tunic I wore and then to my curled leg, where I expected to see the black breeches. Instead, I saw a threaded quilt draped over my legs. Unsettled, I lifted my gaze to his.
He didn’t say anything. Neither did I. Not for a long time. His fingers remained on my throat, above the mark. After what felt like an eternity, he removed his hand and asked, “How are you feeling?”
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. A giggle burst free.
His head cocked to the side as a half-grin appeared. “What?”
“I can’t believe you’re asking me if I’m okay when I stabbed you in the heart.”
“Do you think you should be asking me that question?”
Yes? No? Maybe?
The grin deepened. “I’m relieved to hear that you care. I’m perfectly fine.”
“I don’t care,” I muttered, sitting up.
“Lies,” he murmured.
He was right, of course, because without realizing what I was doing, I reached out with my senses to see if he was in physical pain. He wasn’t. What I’d done earlier had worn off. I knew this because I felt the anguish that always brewed just below the surface. There was something else there, though. I’d felt it before. Confusion or conflict.
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“I’m fine.” Pulling my gift back, I looked down at the quilt. It was a faint yellow and old. I wondered who it belonged to.
“Kieran said you dozed off in the bath.”
“Did he tell you that he came into the bathing chamber?”
Surprised, my gaze shot to his.
“I trust Kieran,” he said. “You’ve been asleep for several hours.”
“Is that not normal?”
“It’s not abnormal. I guess I’m…” He frowned as if something had just occurred to him. “I guess I’m feeling guilty for biting you.”
“You guess?” My brows lifted.
He appeared to mull that over and then nodded. “I believe so.”
“You should feel guilt!”
“Even though you stabbed me and left me to die?”
I snapped my mouth shut as my stomach churned with nausea. “You didn’t die. Obviously.”
“Obviously.” There was a teasing glint to his eyes. “I was barely winded.”
“Congratulations,” I muttered, rolling my eyes.
Annoyed, I shoved the quilt off my legs and scooted to the other side of the bed. “Why are you here? To take me back to the cell?”
“I should. If anyone other than Kieran knew you had stabbed me, I would be expected to.”
I stood. “Then why don’t you?”
“I don’t want to.”
I stared at him, hands opening and closing at my sides while he remained seated on the bed. “So, what now? How is this going to work, Your Highness?” Satisfaction surged when I caught the way his jaw tightened. “You’ll keep me locked up in a room until you’re ready for us to leave?”
“Do you not like this room?”
“It’s far better than a dirty cell, but it’s still a prison. A cage, no matter how nice the accommodations are.”
He was quiet for a moment. “You would know, wouldn’t you? After all, you’ve been imprisoned since you were a child. Caged and veiled.”
There was no denying that. I’d been kept in both comfortable cages and bare ones. The reasons were different, but the end result was the same. Folding my arms, I looked at the small window, to the night sky beyond.
“I came here to escort you to dinner.”
“Escort me to dinner?” Disbelief widened my eyes as I focused on him once more.
“I feel like there’s an echo in this room, but yes, I imagine you’re hungry,” he said, and my stomach took that exact moment to confirm that was true. “And we’ll discuss what will happen next when we have some food in our stomachs.”
His brows lifted. “No?”
I knew I was being difficult over something not worth it. Just like I had been with Kieran. But I was not going to be at anyone’s beck and call. I wasn’t the Maiden any longer. And things were not okay between us just because we had a temporary loss of rationale in the woods. He’d betrayed me. I’d tried to kill him. He still planned to use me to free his brother. We were enemies, no matter the truths.
No matter that I loved him.
“You have to be hungry,” he said, pausing as he stretched out on his side, supporting his cheek with his fist. He couldn’t look more comfortable if he tried.
Or more alluring.
I shook my head. “I am hungry.”
He sighed. “Then what’s the problem, Princess?”
“I don’t want to eat with you,” I told him. “That’s the problem.”
“Well, it’s a problem you’re going to have to get over because it’s your only option.”
“See, that’s where you’re wrong. I have options.” I turned from him. “I’d rather starve than eat with you, Your Highness—” I squeaked, almost coming out of my skin when he suddenly stood in front of me, moving so fast and so quietly I nearly missed it. “Gods,” I muttered, pressing my hand to my pounding heart.
“That’s where you’re wrong, Princess.” His eyes glowed a fiery amber as he glared down at me. “You don’t have options when it comes to your own well-being and your own foolish stubbornness.”
“I won’t let you weaken or starve yourself because you’re mad. And I do get it. I get why you’re upset. Why you want to fight me on everything, every step of the way.” He took that step toward me, and my spine locked up as I refused to back away. His eyes burned brighter. “I want you to, Princess. I enjoy it.”
“Never said I wasn’t,” he retorted. “So, fight me. Argue with me. See if you can actually injure me next time. I dare you.”
My eyes widened as I lowered my arms. “You’re…there’s something wrong with you.”
“That may be true, but what is also true, is the fact that I will not let you put yourself in unnecessary danger.”
“Maybe you’ve forgotten, but I can handle myself,” I shot back.
“I haven’t forgotten. I won’t ever prevent you from lifting a sword to protect your life or those you care about,” he said. “But I won’t let you shove that sword through your own heart to prove a point.”
Part of me was awed—still shocked that he wouldn’t stop me from fighting. The other half was infuriated that he thought he could control any part of me. As a whole, I let out a small shriek of frustration. “Of course, you won’t! What good am I to you dead? I imagine you still plan to use me to free your brother.”
A muscle along his jaw flexed. “You are nothing to me if you’re dead.”
I sucked in a sharp, stinging breath that scorched my lungs. What in the world had I expected him to say? That he wouldn’t want me dead because he cared? I knew better.
I had to know better.
“Come. The food will grow cold.” Without waiting for my response, he grabbed my hand. He started walking, but I dug in my heels. His head cranked toward me, the grip on my hand firm but not painful. “Don’t fight me on this, Poppy. You need to eat, and my people need to see that you have my protection if you have any hope of not finding yourself spending your days locked in a room.”
Every part of my being demanded that I do just what he claimed he enjoyed. It wanted me to fight him every step of the way, but common sense prevailed. Barely. I was hungry, and I needed to be at my strongest if I planned to escape. Plus, I needed his people to see that I was off-limits. If eating dinner with him like we were the closest friends would provide that, then I needed to deal.