They parted, though it was no easy thing with so many people, and we crossed the room to the two thrones upon the dais on the other side.
Caterpillars, moths, another butterfly, and even a jester caught my eye, but it wasn’t until we’d reached the dais, our guards settling below and behind it, and stood before our thrones, that I finally saw him.
Dripping from head to toe in black was a wolf.
His mask was fur, whiskers sprouting in silver lines either side of his crooked nose, the soft black crawling into shape around his golden eyes.
My chest deflated, my steel-infused shoulders drooping, but those eyes, glow as they might, were not shining in the way I’d thought they would.
His lips thin, and his jaw flexed into an immovable square, he stared, and I stared back, fearing the kaleidoscope of feelings inside me was on display for all to see.
Raiden’s arm squeezed mine as he began to talk, and I gave my attention to the sea of faces below us, my shoulders and chin rising.
“Welcome,” Raiden said, his deep voice carrying over the room built for such things. “We are thrilled to have you all here to help celebrate such an important time for us all.” He paused, on purpose, and finished, “To celebrate peace. A unity that will lead to a prosperous, magical future for everyone.”
I smiled, hoping it appeared warmer than it felt, as clapping ensued and even some whistling.
A tankard was handed to Raiden, likely planned, and he held the ale in the air. “Drink, eat, dance. Get to know your neighbors, and enjoy one another.” Then, he tipped it back to more shouting and clapping and whistling before we took our waiting seats.
One by one, each guest was allowed to come before the dais and wish us well, but when the merriment grew too loud, the room reaching capacity within the hour, we were forced to put an end to that and left the dais to do the rounds instead.
To his credit, Raiden could charm even the surliest of storeowners and nobility alike, leaving them all in better spirits than what they’d been when we’d approached them.
“You are an expert,” I said through my teeth, smiling at a group of young girls in homespun dresses with strips of satin tied around their foreheads. It was all they could afford, I knew, and they were quick to turn beet red upon meeting my eyes, before turning to one another to gasp and gossip.
“You’re doing well,” Raiden said in return.
I scoffed. “A few smiles and waves here and there. Why, I’m practically your show pony.”
“I doubt there’s a soul in this room who doesn’t quake to their core should your eyes befall them.” He’d said it in jest, but I still took it for the compliment I wanted it to be.
A peacock curtsied as we passed, draped head to toe in greens and blues, her blond hair falling over her half displayed chest. “My lieges.”
Raiden froze on the spot. His arm tensing around mine, he gritted, “Eline.”
Straightening, she displayed her teeth in a smile that could only be described as threatening, though not to me. “I do hope your stay has served you well, my king.”
“Indeed,” Raiden said, “it has.”
Her eyes darted to me, her nose tilting up.
I only smiled and found doing so easier than the last time I’d laid eyes on Raiden’s preferred lover. “We are taking excellent care of him, Little Lion,” I told Eline. “I can assure you.”
Raiden stilled, then coughed.
Eline’s eyes narrowed on him. “Oh, I’m sure you are.”
We walked on, and I couldn’t help but notice how long it took the king beside me to unclench his muscles and offer a genuine smile.
“Does her presence bother you?” I asked, all innocence.
“Let me guess,” he said. “You invited her?”
I tutted. “It was an open event, my dear.”
Raiden sighed. “You torment me to no end.”
“I do nothing of the sort.”
“Your mere existence is enough,” he whispered, bending to drag the words over my cheek.
My eyes flicked to the shadows beneath the stairs where the lord was standing, sipping champagne, his wife nowhere to be seen. “I need a drink.”
Raiden clicked his fingers as we neared the stairs, but the server was headed in the other direction, and he grumbled before following him.
I bit my smile, and knowing Azela was trailing, as were the eyes of all our guards, but not caring, I slipped into the shadows and felt my breath plume out of me in a frost-bitten exhale.
Zad bowed, those sharp eyes on mine as he straightened. “Resplendent, even dressed dark as night.”
His words, though they were crisp and short, evoked a pattering within me, light and restless. Needing to, I stepped closer.
To my confusion and dismay, he retreated.
I nodded, understanding. “Not here.”
His response was a blunt knife. “Or anywhere.”