Arden jumped to her feet as soon as the latch clicked. The gall of that man, telling her to get dressed in three minutes. It was obvious he hadn’t spent much time around women.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him with a woman outside of the Mage’s Council,” Loku said. “I noticed he got an eye-full of you while he could.”
A flush spread over her entire body. She rubbed the towel over her bare skin with renewed fervor. She refused to be caught naked again.
“You should be flattered he sees you as woman first instead of my Soulbearer.”
“Shut up, Loku.”
She pulled the leggings on and tied the drawstring as tight as it would go. Thankfully, their previous owner seemed to be as skinny as her. She had barely smoothed the tunic over her hips when Dev opened the door.
He assessed her appearance and nodded. “So you can follow orders.”
She snatched the comb and mirror off the bed and glared at him. “It was either that or let you leer at me like a lecherous old man.”
His expression hardened, and he strode past her. He dipped his fingers into the tub. “You figured out how to the heat the water?”
“No thanks to you.”
He swirled the water with his hand. The soap and grime vanished, leaving the water crystal clear. Steam rose from the tub once again.
Arden gasped. He made it look so simple. When she looked up, he’d already removed his cloak and was loosening his leather jerkin. “What are you doing?”
“I figured I’d take a bath, too.”
Her skin burned, and not even the water dripping from her hair soothed it. “Perhaps I should go downstairs to give you some privacy.”
“No, you’re not leaving this room. It’s dark out. That’s when the necromancer will be at full power.”
She dug her fingernails into her palms and ran toward the door. Cinder blocked her exit. When she whirled back around to give Dev a piece of her mind, he removed his shirt. Her mouth refused to make spit. Sweet Lady Moon, he was as gorgeous as she had imagined. Corded muscles rippled down his back, from his broad shoulders to his lean hips. He turned at his waist, allowing her a peek at his carved chest and stomach. Her gaze followed the line of reddish-brown hair that disappeared into his trousers, and an odd ache formed in the pit of her stomach.
“And you accused me of staring.”
Her eyes snapped back to his face. His lips twitched, but the tips of his ears appeared pinker than normal.
“I didn’t expect you to shed your clothes so quickly.”
“Not that you minded the glimpse.”
The god’s taunt added to her embarrassment. With a huff, she sat in a corner of the room so her back faced the tub. The last thing she needed tonight was to have her insides turn into mush over the sight of a naked man, even if it was Dev. She held the mirror up in one hand and started combing her hair with the other.
“If you angle the mirror a bit to the left, you might enjoy the view.”
Before she could stop herself, the mirror tilted, and the image of Dev’s well-defined behind lowering into the tub came into view. Her breath hitched. It was a crime for such an annoying man to be that tempting.
“I told you you’d enjoy it.”
“Shut up, Loku!”
Arden dropped the mirror and continued combing her hair. “The clothes are a little too big,” she said, trying to act like he wasn’t sitting naked in the tub a few feet away from her.
“They’re going to be more comfortable than that dress you were wearing. Besides, it’s only temporary. We’ll find you more suitable clothes when we get to Boznac.”
The splashes of water filled the silence while she braided her hair. Thoughts of the coastal town filled her mind. “I’ve never seen the ocean before.”
“It’s vast and as blue as your eyes.”
A smile played on her lips. “Was that a compliment?”
“No, just stating a fact,” he said matter-of-factly. “Hopefully, we can catch a ship bound for Gravaria before the winter storms hit. I’d rather take my chances on water than going over the mountains. It’s faster and, more importantly, free of undead.”
“You keep talking about the undead. How do I know you’re telling the truth?”
“Do you want to meet one?”
A chill snaked down her spine. “Not particularly.”
“You said undead attacked Hal’s inn last night. What exactly happened after I passed out?” she asked with a flick of her braid.
“You inhaled Loku’s soul and starting seizing, just like every other Soulbearer before you. Then the undead poured into the room. Cinder and I tried to fight them, but there were just too many. So I set the inn on fire and dragged you out.”
“Why did you set the inn on fire?”
“Because burning an undead to ashes is one of the few ways to kill them.”
She hugged her knees to her chest. This conversation left her feeling like she’d just plunged into an icy lake. “What are the other ways to kill undead?”
“You can cut their heads off, or you can kill the person controlling them.”
“There are more ways than that, but most mortals can’t summon the power to kill them.”
Loku’s statement did little to comfort her. “Do you think the necromancer is really coming for me?”
The splashing ceased for a moment. “I think he’s after Loku.”
The god sighed. “Everybody wants a piece of me. It’s no fun being this popular.”
“Why would he want to have some perverted deity living inside him, slowing driving him insane?”
“Ouch, that was harsh. You don’t like our little arrangement?”
She could almost picture the pout that came with Loku’s reply.
“Trouble, you have a god living inside you. Do you understand the potential power you could extract from him? Of course, it comes at a cost. The more control you surrender over to him, the less control you have over yourself.”
“And the sooner I turn into Robb.”
The water in the tub rustled, and she reached for the mirror. Once again, she was granted full view of the backside of his body while he dried off.
“Hoping for a frontal view? You are a naughty girl, just like I thought.”
Arden jerked the mirror back to her face. Redness seeped into her cheeks for being no better than what she’d accused Dev of being minutes before. The new golden rings around her irises startled her, and she dropped the mirror.
Dev rushed to her side. “What’s wrong?”
“My eyes look different.”
He tightened the towel around his waist. “It’s one of the marks of a Soulbearer.”
She closed her eyes, remembering how the strange yellow-green rings glowed when Loku spoke through Robb. Great. If she wasn’t already a freak, this made it worse. “Will they always be there?”
“Yes, as will the other mark.”
Her skin crawled. “What other mark?”
“Loku’s symbol on your back.”
“Think of it as a tattoo claiming you as mine.”
She flew to her feet. Everything was happening too fast. In less than a day, she’d witnessed a murder, been accused of burning down an inn, been kidnapped, told she had a god living inside her who would slowly make her crazy, and now she’d been branded like a cow. Sweet Lady Moon, please make this stop. There was a time in her life when she would’ve given anything to be normal. Now, all she wished was to have her old life back.
Warm hands rubbed along her shoulders and upper arms. “I know this is a bit much for a young girl like you to bear—”
She wrestled away from him. “Quit talking to me like I’m a child. I’m twenty-one, not twelve.”
“I’m sorry. You seem so young to me.”
Her hand itched to slap him, but when she focused on his face, she stopped herself. The downward tug of his mouth and the way his brows bunched together spoke more of sadness than mockery. “Why?”
He backed away and reached for his shirt.
“He’s more than ten times your age, my Soulbearer. That’s why. Talk about a dirty old man.”
“And how old are you?”
Dev flinched. “I’m three hundred twenty-three years old, if you really want to know.”
Her breath came in sharp gulps from his reply. She’d heard elves lived a long time, but over three hundred years? “Are you immortal?”
“Only gods are immortal, you silly girl.”
“No, I’ll eventually grow old and die, but at a much slower rate than a human.”
“If you were a human, how old would you be?”
“Are you going to watch me dress while you ask me all these questions?”
She dutifully faced the corner again. For a three-hundred-year-old man, he looked damn good. Almost too good. And he would continue to look good while she turned into an old crone, so it was best she push any stupid thoughts out of her head.
“To answer your question,” he continued, “I guess I would be about thirty or thirty-one.”
“Oh. That doesn’t seem that old to me.”
“Why? Do I look older?”
“Only when you frown.”
He laughed. The sound of leather sliding through a metal buckle let her know he had finished dressing. “I asked the innkeeper to send dinner up here. I hope you don’t mind eating in private.”
Someone knocked at the door as soon as the words left his mouth. The innkeeper silently set two plates of steaming food on the small table. A barmaid appeared a second later with mugs of ale and followed her boss out of the room.
Arden reached for hers and gulped half the contents. The cool liquid soothed her dry throat, warmed her belly.
“Slow down with the ale. I don’t need a drunk Soulbearer.”
She peered at Dev from over the mug. “Sorry, but I haven’t had anything to eat or drink all day.”
“That’s my fault. I should have forced you to eat something earlier today. It won’t happen again. Now, eat before your food gets cold.”
She cut a small slice of meat and popped it in her mouth. The juices coated her tongue with flavor, and she sighed. “This is so good.”
Dev tossed a sliver of meat to the wolf. “I’ve had better.”
“It’s the best meal I’ve had in months.” She reached for a chunk of bread to sop up the gravy.
“Who’s Lord Yessling?”
The bread stopped inches away from her mouth. He wasn’t threatening to sell her to him already, was he? “He’s a local nobleman.”
He cocked a brow and waited for her to continue.
She dropped the bread. “He likes women and tends to go through them quickly. Most of the farmers around here know they can fetch quite a few loras by selling their daughters to him, especially if they’re pretty.”
“And what happens to these girls?”
“They’re put to ‘work,’ is the politest way to say it. Sometimes they come back. Sometimes they don’t.”
“How do you know so much about him?”
“Why are you asking?” When he didn’t answer her question, she added, “Hal always threatened to sell me to him because I looked so different from most of the girls around here.”
He frowned but didn’t say anything else for the rest of the meal. When their plates were empty, he stood and ran his hand along the door. Blue light peeked out from the gaps.
“What are you doing?”
He repeated the same action with the lone window. “Sealing the room.”
Arden rolled her eyes and flopped down on the bed. “I promise I won’t try to run away.”
“It’s not to keep you in—it’s to keep others out.” He stared through the window at the town below for a few seconds, probably searching for the supposed necromancer who was chasing them.
“And I thought I was paranoid.”
“It’s my duty to be paranoid,” he replied with a grimace. “I am your protector, after all.”
“Well, I’m going to get some sleep. I’m exhausted after the long day.” She looked over at Cinder and patted the mattress next to her. The wolf jumped on the bed.
“What are you doing to my wolf?”
She laughed and stretched out next to the warm mass of fur. “Spoiling him. You know, there’s a bit more room on the other side of him, if you want to sleep in the bed.”
The mattress sank as he sat down on the edge. “I thought you were worried about me taking advantage of you?”
“There’s a wolf between us. I think I’m safe.”
As she drifted off to sleep, she heard him whisper, “Don’t get used to this.”