The gardens were drowning in silver and gold.
My hands itched with the urge to pluck the garland and wreaths and baubles from the roses and tulips and send them flying at the heads of those who’d strung them over their thorns and leaves. Instead, I gently removed anything that would damage the stems and slipped the décor into the leafy bushes behind them.
Footsteps crunched, followed by a throat being cleared. I took my time straightening, finding Klaud when I turned.
His gold hair shone beneath the waning sun trying to poke through the heavy clouds.
With the ball set to take place tonight, I’d managed to wrestle my emotions into compliance. That prickly needy sensation inside me simmered low, knowing the lord would soon be within touching distance.
Snow sat in fat chunks against the castle walls and gardens, cleared from pathways and steps and the city streets. Still, the frost remained, an added shimmering extravagance I doubted many besides myself would appreciate.
Klaud bowed, deep and graceful, his brown eyes struggling to maintain contact. They flickered around the empty gardens. “Your majesty.”
I dragged my tongue over the bottom of my teeth, tucking my hands before me. The belled sleeves of my dress joined to cover them. “Come to spit more filth at me? I cannot be sure you will walk away unscathed this time.” My nose twitched. “In fact, I can guarantee you won’t, as I’m in no mood for such disrespect.”
His gaze shifted to the gardens, as if he knew the way they’d been trussed up was partly the reason, then back to me. With a wry smile, he said, “Actually, I came to apologize. I was out of line and terribly frightened.”
I hummed, eyeing him down the bridge of my nose. “You were indeed out of line.”
“He won’t…” He stopped, retreating a step.
I moved on to a group of tulips, freeing them of the garland choking their necks, and loosened it. “Talk to you? I’m afraid that problem is not mine.”
“I know,” he said. “But he cares for you.” He said the words as though the fact he had to annoyed him worse than the truth of them. “He cares for you, and so after the way I reacted, he refuses to acknowledge my existence.”
Moving to a rose, I dragged my thumb over a thorn, blood popping through the skin. Turning to the young soldier, I placed the digit in my mouth and sucked.
His eyes narrowed as my tongue smeared blood around my lips, and then he swallowed.
“My mother used to say that those baring claws are not always so sharp.” I circled him, my boots barely making a sound, my voice low. “Tell me, Klaud. Do you consider your claws sharp?”
Confusion swept his brows together, his head turning this way and that to keep sight of me. “My queen…?”
I stopped, staring him dead in the eye. “Berron is sharp, and he need not show that he is sharper than most. So quit sniveling about like a wounded mutt and go back to your quarters to sharpen your mind rather than those useless claws.” Backing up a step, I watched understanding light his boyish features. “And next time you deem it necessary to bother me with troubles that do not concern me, remember I can do so much worse than take your favored male for myself.”
My cloak billowed behind me, the wind catching it within its grasp before I entered the courtyard and passed waiting guards to the drawing room.
The halls were teeming with wreaths of roses, and I winced, finding that most had been dyed gold and silver, the colors of our kingdoms, of which we’d chosen to represent our unity.
Kitchen staff and maids fluttered past, bopping their heads quickly before hurrying to their next task.
At the foot of the stairs, Raiden waited, eating a peach and licking the juice from his lips. “Silk.”
With a chuckle, he joined me, heading upstairs. “I must say, I am glad to see you outside your rooms.”
“My home is about to be put on display for the entire continent to see,” I snapped. “Naturally, I need to keep tabs on the preparations.”
“Naturally,” he said.
At the top of the stairs, I whirled on him. “Dare I ask what it is you want?”
“Oh, you should know better than that.” His teeth sank into the juicy fruit, his strong jaw working as he chewed. “Are you nervous?”
Annoyed, I shook my head. “You came to ask me if I am nervous?”
He tipped a shoulder. “It’s a valid question. As you said, a great deal of people will soon be arriving.”
“Then I’ll need a great deal of time to get ready,” I said, walking away. “So if you’ll excuse me.”
His eyes tracked me until I was out of sight.
“Enter,” I called, affixing the second braid to the top of my head.