Arden pulled her cloak tighter around her shoulders and stared at the palace doors. Her breath billowed out in front of her, creating a cloud of white smoke in the icy air. Seconds ticked by, marked by the shaking of her horse’s head. But Kell still hadn’t appeared.
Dev tugged on her reins. “Let’s go.”
“Just a few more minutes, please.” What was taking him so long?
“We’ve waiting long enough.” His voice softened. “He’s not coming.”
Arden’s chin quivered, and her eyes stung. After all his declarations of affection, after all the time Kell spent wooing her, she couldn’t believe he wouldn’t at least say goodbye to her.
“If you hadn’t been such a frost maiden to him, perhaps he wouldn’t be absent now.”
“And what is that supposed to mean, Loku?”
“You know exactly what I mean. A man wants a woman who returns his affections, not one who’s afraid to acknowledge her own desires.”
Her throat tightened, though more from anger than grief now. Was Kell avoiding her because she refused his bed too many times?
A sympathetic look from Dev confirmed her suspicions. “It’s time to go, Arden.”
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath as though she could exhale her pain with it. Dev was right. It was time to go. Lingering here only prolonged her suffering. She nodded to Ortono, the new Captain of the Royal Guard, and kicked her horse forward.
As they passed through each of Trivinus’s successive gates, she kept hoping she’d turn around and see Kell galloping toward them, begging her to stop. That hope died when they’d crossed the final portcullis and set out on the road toward Boznac, her horse flanked Dev’s and Ortono’s.
It was midday before she found her voice again. “Do you think I’m frigid, Dev?”
He made a noise that sounded like a cross between a cough and a laugh. “That’s not a word I would associate with you, Trouble.”
Irritation prickled her spine. “When are you going to stop calling me that?”
“When you stop living up to that name.” He continued staring straight ahead, his face concealed by his hood. “Why did you ask me that? Did that little princeling insult you because he couldn’t get what he wanted?”
“No, he didn’t.”
He turned toward her, his brows drawn together. “Then why would you think you’re frigid?”
“Because—” She noticed the members of the Royal Guard riding around her and caught herself. They didn’t need to know about Loku.
Thankfully, Dev knew whom she was talking about. “Frigid usually means devoid of emotion. You, on the other hand, are hot-headed, stubborn, and defiant to the point where I question your common sense.”
“Aw, isn’t he being romantic, my little Soulbearer.” Loku laughed.
Arden snapped her shoulders back. “If anyone’s insulting me, it’s you.”
“You asked for my opinion.” A hint of a smile played on his lips before he faced forward again, and her heart skipped a beat the way it always did when she got a glimpse of his lighter side.
“Then I’ll remember that should I feel the urge to ask for it again.” And try to ignore how handsome he was when his serious façade cracked. His green eyes had taken her breath away the first time she saw them, and the sunlight made his dark auburn hair glow like embers under a blacksmith’s bellows. He rode with an easy grace, the lean muscles of his thighs rippling in time with his horse’s stride. Just watching him stirred up those complicated emotions she’d wanted to forget since the day he told her there could be nothing between them.
The steady drip of melting snow serenaded them along the forest road. She shivered and frowned. “Ortono, don’t you think it’s a bit early to be heading toward Boznac? It’s still winter. I doubt we’ll find a ship that will take us to Gravaria when we arrive.”
Ortono cast a cautious glance at Dev before replying, “It’s cold here, but the weather is better along the coast according to the reports we’ve been given. And King Heodis himself sent a messenger ahead to arrange transportation for you and Sir Devarius, milady.”
Dev smirked. “We’re honored the king would make such an effort to be rid of us.”
Ortono cleared his throat. “Do you mind if I ask you a question about last night’s, er, event?”
She was glad he changed the subject before the other nine members of the Royal Guard taught Dev how rude it was to insult their king. “What’s your question?”
Ortono pulled at the neck of his tunic. “There are rumors that it was caused by magic.”
“It was,” Dev said before she had a chance to open her mouth.
A new spark of anger flared inside her. Ortono was speaking to her, not him. “What makes you so certain?”
“Didn’t you feel it? Or are you so inept at magic that you fail to recognize a powerful spell when you’re in the presence of one?”
Loku snickered. “Or perhaps you were too distracted at the time to notice it.”
Her cheeks burned at the memory of Kell’s kisses, but then she recalled the electric shock that shot up her spine right before the earthquake. “I felt it.”
“Which is why I need to get you to the safety of Gravaria as soon as possible.”
“And what makes you think I’ll be any safer there?”
For once, Dev wasn’t so quick to answer. A muscle twitched along his jaw. “I don’t. But at least there, I’ll have others that will help protect you.”
Ortono raised his head. “Do you think I’d be unwilling to protect Lady Arden if needed?”
She couldn’t resist a chance to hurl a jab at Dev after his behavior all winter. “What he means is that if he’d actually been doing his job and protecting me rather than hiding out in the basement of the palace, then I wouldn’t have had to use my magic to protect myself and Prince Kell.”
Dev kicked his horse forward and reeled to the side, blocking the road. Rage simmered in his dark green eyes, adding an air of danger to him that chilled her blood. “Don’t you ever call my duty into question. I have sworn my life to protect yours, and if that means I die in the process, then so be it. But I’ll be damned if I let you stay in harm’s way.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” she snapped back, “because for a second last night, I feared I’d end up like Robb.”
Dev’s nostrils flared. Even the forest grew silent as they glared at each other. Finally, he pulled the reins so hard, his horse reared in protest before it started moving again.
“That was a bit below the belt, don’t you think?” Laughter laced Loku’s voice. “I bet it’s taking everything in him not to teach that smart little mouth of yours a lesson.”
“I’m too old to be spanked.”
“Nonsense. In fact, I bet you might enjoy his hand smacking your bottom, you naughty girl. And then afterwards, I’m sure he’d find a few other ways to keep that mouth of yours occupied.”
Arden dug her fingers into her gloved palm and gritted her teeth before she released the growl of frustration welling inside her. Leave it to Loku to turn this into something perverted.
“Point taken,” Dev said at last in the quiet voice that she feared more than when he shouted. “From now on, I won’t let you out of my sight, if that is what you want.”
“If he’s true to his word, you’ll be sharing a bedroom with him tonight. Remember how nice that was?” Loku’s voice, no longer taunting, caressed her like a velvet cloak.
A new wave of longing overwhelmed her. She remembered how it felt to sleep in his arms, warm and secure, inhaling the smell of smoke and spice that clung to his clothes. There was nothing sexual about it. He wanted to comfort her, to keep her warm and safe, not try to get her out of her dress.
But now that he knew she’d developed feelings for him, would it ever be the same? Ever since she’d broached the subject, he’d barely even touched her.
“He’s scared of his own feelings for you.”
She watched him as they rode. The flare of anger she’d witnessed a few minutes ago dimmed with each clop of the horse’s hooves, but his shoulders remained rigid, his gaze focused on the road ahead of them. Was there some truth to what Loku said?
“I feel sorry for you, my little Soulbearer,” the chaos god continued. “You want a man that will never return your feelings, and you closed yourself entirely to the one man who might have loved you.”
“Kell didn’t love me. He didn’t even say goodbye.”
“Maybe because he couldn’t bear to be rejected by you once again.”
Her cheeks warmed. If the earthquake hadn’t stopped them, she probably would’ve allowed Kell to continue. And then where would she be? No, it was for the best. At least now she wouldn’t have to worry about conceiving a child after she’d been cast aside by her lover.
“Has it ever occurred to you that I can prevent that?”
The wind rippled her cloak, sneaking in through the crevices to chill her skin. It was one thing for the chaos god to play tricks on her mind and lure her toward insanity, but when he spoke of having control over her body, a new fear crawled through her stomach. “What are you talking about?”
“You know very well what I’m saying. It’s crowded enough with both our souls in your body. I refuse to share this space with another.”
“Are you saying you can prevent me from conceiving?”
“I am still a god, so remember that next time a man gets your blood pumping. You might enjoy what happens between the sheets.”
Even if Loku could alleviate that problem, it still didn’t change the fact that she could be abandoned by a lover as soon as he tired of her. She pressed the gold pendant into her chest, the cold metal a symbol of the nights her mother spent crying over a man who’d done that to her.
Dev followed Arden into the dimly lit common room of a roadside inn. The minute she lowered her hood, the patrons stared at her. She reached to cover her hair, but he caught her hand.
“Don’t ever be ashamed of who you are.”
Her lips parted, but no words came out. Even though he was ordering her around once again, his words ignited something other than anger this time. She stared at him as though no one had ever told her that before. After a few seconds, she lowered her arm and turned to the innkeeper. “I’d like to be shown to my room, please.”
Dev stayed close behind her as they climbed the stairs. The innkeeper flattened himself against the wall when Cinder slipped into the tiny room with them, a dribble of sweat sliding along his temple. “Is there anything you need for the evening?”
He fought a grin from the man’s reaction. These Ranellians feared anything that was unusual. “Please bring dinner up for the three of us.”
“Three?” The man visually counted the occupants of the room as though he thought they were insane.
“Yes, three—me, the girl, and the wolf.” Dev closed the space between them. “Unless you want the wolf to find food for himself.”
Cinder licked his lips and stared intently at the innkeeper.
The man nodded and made some incomprehensible gibberish before darting out the door.
“You shouldn’t have scared him like that.” But even Arden couldn’t suppress the way the corners of her mouth rose. “You’d be surprised how quickly a town can form a mob.”
“I do, but we’re also being escorted by the Royal Guard, and I have every faith that Ortono would step in before he let anything happen to you.” Dev removed his cloak and flung it on the bed.
Arden’s gaze lingered on it as she fumbled with the clasp of hers. “You don’t have to stay in here if you don’t want. I know how to ward a room now.”
Dev shared her unease. For months, he’d looked forward to getting her out of the palace and on the road to Boznac. From there, they’d catch a ship to Gravaria, away from Kell, away from these backwards Ranellians, away from those that either wanted to use her or kill her. But now that the time had arrived, he was faced with a whole new set of problems he didn’t count on, including the need to protect her more closely than ever.
He went to work on building a fire. His pride had been wounded this afternoon, but the sting had worn off enough by now for him to admit it. “I don’t want you to end up like Robb, either.”
Her brow furrowed. “I’m sorry, Dev. I was angry when I said that—”
“But you were right.” He stood and rested his hands on her shoulders, taking note how delicate her body seemed. “I let my guard down with him, and he ended up dead because of it. I won’t let that happen with you.”
Her bottom lip trembled, and something wrenched deep inside his chest. He felt the same way this morning when he watched her disappointment over Kell. If he could shield her from pain, he would do all in his power to do so. Instead, all he could do was pull her into his arms.
She pressed her cheek against his heart and dug her fingers into his upper back. Her chest billowed with several deep breaths, but that was the only movement she made until she said, “I know.”
The door opened, and she pulled away, finally removing her cloak as the innkeeper crowded three trenchers on the table. Dev already missed her presence, a subtle reminder of why he didn’t allow himself to get close to her anymore. If he held onto her much longer, he might’ve given into his forbidden desires.
At least he wouldn’t have to worry about Kell stealing her heart anymore. Sure, she was upset now, but in time, she’d forget about him. To help her along with the process, he said, “I know you wanted to say goodbye to Kell, but you’ll see it’s for the best that he didn’t show up this morning.”
Her blue eyes flashed. “And what is that supposed to mean?”
“Let’s forget that he’s a prince and you’re a barmaid. Let’s forget that you’re a witch in a kingdom that forbids magic.” He took his trencher and sat on the floor near the door. “How do you think he would feel about Loku?”
She avoided his gaze and pretended to be interested in the greasy stew that their host had provided for them. “I really can’t say.”
“Because you didn’t want to tell him about the voice in your mind, about the fate that awaits all Soulbearers.” Even as he said it, part of him dreaded the day when the insanity would claim her. It was never a question of if, but when.
“Damn it, Dev.” She shoved her food away and crossed her arms, pouting in a way that confirmed his accusation. “He wouldn’t have believed me anyway.”
He shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. The point is, he wanted you to stay, and that would’ve only made things worse.”
“How so?” Her expression softened, and she glanced at him out of the corner of her eye.
“Even if we ignored last night’s assassination attempt, there’s still the problem of learning to control and contain Loku. The only way for you to learn that is to go to Gravaria where there are mages who specialize in that kind of magic. If you don’t, then it just hastens the process.”
“And I end up like Robb faster.” She pinched off a piece of bread, dipping it in the stew. “I suppose you’re right.”
“I’m surprised you came to that conclusion so easily.” He sniffed their dinner. Under the layer of grease, it smelled burned. Even Cinder lapped at it as though he were grimacing from the taste. “I expected you to be more stubborn.”
She took a bite of her meal and wrinkled her nose. “This is awful.”
“Perhaps you should ask our host for something better.”
The green circle that rimmed her irises flashed, indicating Loku had whispered something to her, and she choked back a giggle. “I think it might be best if we don’t cause any trouble on our way to Boznac.”
He didn’t even want to know what the god of chaos suggested. Loku’s ideas usually resulted in more work for him. “I agree. In the meantime, I’m going to sleep on the floor in here, just to be safe.”
“You can sleep in the bed, if you want.”
Her cheeks turned such a delicious shade of pink, he almost took her up on her offer. He missed the way her body fit so perfectly against his, the way she sighed in her sleep before she snuggled closer to him, the way her eyelids fluttered when she dreamed. Part of him still cursed that day he refused her when she asked if they could be something more.
Thankfully, Cinder hopped up on the bed and stretched out. “There doesn’t seem to be any room for me.” In more ways than one. The way she moped over Kell today told him she’d moved on. And as much as he wanted to, now was not the time to try and win her back.
“We can push him off, Dev. He’s just a wolf, after all.”
Cinder lifted his head and growled, his flash of fangs telling them he was quite comfortable where he was.
Dev cast a ward around the room and leaned his head back against the wall. Once he had her safely behind the walls of the Mages Conclave, he could sort out his feelings for her. Until then, he needed to keep his mind focused on keeping her safe. “It’s for the best.”
“Are you certain we have to go to Gravaria?”
Her question pinged around in his mind like a caged hummingbird. The raw edge to her questions revealed her uncertainty, and he tried to imagine what she was feeling. This was a girl who’d always existed on the fringe of society, who’d been abandoned by those she cared about, who was now being forced to leave everything she’d ever known behind. “Yes. You’ll see. When we get to Gravaria, you won’t be the odd person in the room. You won’t have to worry about being killed for your powers.” He thought about her Milorian heritage, even though giving her a family might prove perilous in its own way, and added, “You’ll find a place where you belong.”
She remained so quiet, he thought she’d fallen asleep. But when he looked her way, she was staring into space, her lips pursed in thought. “I hope you’re right,” she whispered before lying down and pulling the covers up to her chin.
He stared into the fire long into the night, hoping he was right, too.