I didn’t bother telling her to quit, but I made a face next time she did, and that did the trick.
Sweeping blotches of cacti stood before the road that was covered in a thin layer of sand, aiding in marking its presence. My ankles almost sighed in relief at the feeling of flat ground beneath the soles of my feet.
We walked between bamboo huts on towering steel stands that served as lookout towers. Six of them circled the sprawling desert oasis, and at least three sentinels occupied each one, watching our every move.
Soft music and the sound of traders offering their wares soon reached my ears as the road wound into the outskirts of the rock lined city.
Lime green trees, foreign but beautiful, dotted the sandstone and brick-filled quarter, providing much-needed shade and a slight breeze.
It took longer than I’d have thought, but when people eventually realized who was within their walls, some bowed. Others sneered, and one woman even spat a wad of phlegm at me.
It landed on my boot, and I halted, my breath freezing as I stared down at it, then glared at her.
Unperturbed, she stood there with beautiful gray eyes and a hard jaw, her freckled arms crossed over her ample chest.
Before I could mutter a word, the female escorting me backtracked and whispered harshly, “Leave her. It would not behoove you to attempt to make an example of someone in a city filled with resistance.”
“Attempt?” I questioned, blinking at the female with eyes so dark they were almost black. They matched her hair, which curtained her shoulders like a gleaming layer of silk. Her pink lips parted as her face paled, and I smiled. “Have no fear. I’ll just be a moment.”
I marched over to the woman’s stall, snatched the pail of water from beside it, and washed the muck from my hands and face.
The number of eyes watching began to multiply, and I rose, perusing her cart. Selecting a stunning woven purple scarf, I dipped it in the pail, then used it to clean the filth she’d lobbed onto the toe of my boot.
Staring down at it, I nodded. “That’ll do.” I then tossed her soiled scarf back onto the cart, and grinned. “Good day.”
Gaping, she glared as my escorts and I moved on. Dipping through the bystanders in front of me, I could’ve sworn the black-eyed beauty’s shoulders shook with laughter.
The crowds grew thicker the closer we drew to the looming sandstone castle. Circular globs perched atop each squat but thick turret. Large rooms, I guessed, eyeing the swishing white material fluttering over the circular windows. There was no glass, no doors, I discovered, as the hill grew steeper and the courtyard, a flat expanse of rock with few gurgling fountains, came into view.
At least he didn’t keep me waiting.
Within moments, he arrived, strolling out of the shadows to the top of the circular stairs of his home in nothing but a pair of linen pants and a crown.
I withheld a laugh. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d donned my own crown.
A crown was typically worn at formal festivities and select life-changing events. How precious of Raiden to skip half-naked around his castle wearing the heavy metal as he saw fit.
Upon closer inspection, I noticed the gold contained inset rubies connecting with branches and snakes. The sun caught the jewels, flashing, and then my eyes caught his smile.
I reached the bottom of the stairs, and his lips tilted higher as if he knew where my thoughts traveled.
“You rob me of breath,” he mouthed, then dipped and held out his hand. “My queen, welcome.”
“Save it,” I said and heard a few gasps from behind me.
The townsfolk weren’t permitted to follow into the royal courtyard unless by invitation, but enough guards and nobility were loitering about to catch our interaction.
Raiden cocked his head, withdrawing the offer of his hand. “Come inside then, freshen up and eat.”
“I’d rather not. Where’s Truin?”
He nodded at the sentinels beside me. “Thank you, Meeda, Alix, Serdin.”
With a low bow, they left.
“Your witch is fine.” Raiden gestured to the doorway behind him, then stepped to the side, waiting. “Come.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him I was no pet.
Sucking in a breath, I inhaled the citrus and dirt and spiced scents surrounding me, then remembered why I was here. I’d need to keep my boiling emotions under lock and key if I wanted to leave with my witch and wits about me as soon as possible.
I climbed the steps, breezing by the smiling king, but paused inside the giant entryway.
Portraits of royals lined the walls, and baskets of fruit sat in almost every doorway where red and gold woven rugs lined the hard floor.
A man with silver hair and a flat smile bowed. “Your majesty. I am Patts, advisor to the king.”