I wasn’t going to answer, but I figured if I was to spend the rest of my existence with him tied to me, it was probably best he knew enough about me. Maybe then he’d leave me alone, or at least know when to.
“Every now and then. There are always so many voices.”
He hummed in understanding. “Nod and smile. Bear it all.”
“That.” I sighed. “Sometimes it’s too hard to fake it, and that’s when I need to escape for a while.”
The blades of cold grass tickled my ankles, and Raiden observed the way my skirts fanned around me in a rippling pillow of chiffon. “Hate to break it to you, but you’re not so great at faking it anyway.”
I tossed a bud at him. His hand shot up, catching it. When he opened his palm, there was nothing but smoking specks. The wind swept in, curling them off his skin and into the air.
“Do you wonder if this is what you would have chosen for yourself?” he asked.
“Do you mean marrying you?” I asked. “Or being royal.”
He tipped a broad shoulder. “Both.”
“Yes and no,” I said. “I wouldn’t have chosen to vow to you. You’re not my type.” His brows gathered, and I smirked. “But yes, even with the incessant boredom, stresses, and annoyances that can accompany being a royal, I would still choose it.”
The question knocked my eyes to his curious ones. “I’ve lived with magic running through my veins for too long to ever go without it.”
“No,” he said, shifting closer, his gray tunic billowing over his chest, the opening collar exposing a tantalizing glimpse of his skin. “No. The other powers that being a royal grants you.”
I knew my response would probably disappoint him, hoped for it even. My smile was genuine as it sank into my cheeks. “Never. That is my favorite power of all. One I do not take for granted by wishing it away onto someone else’s incapable shoulders.”
Raiden swiped his thumb below his lush bottom lip, his eyes bright. “A true queen you will make.” Those eyes dulled then, and he looked away, taking in the panoramic view of Allureldin. The streets and streams of water that wound their way between wood and stone structures for miles until they faded into greener grass and dirt roads.
Van turned his head, inhaling strands of my hair as he sniffed. I laughed, then handed him a wildflower, laughing again when his tongue grazed my hand. “Impatient boy.” I scratched beneath his sagging chin.
“He adores you.”
I gently nudged Van’s head away and wiped my hand over my skirts. “He’s one of my only friends.”
Raiden’s question sounded like more of a statement. “You don’t have any others?”
I picked up my chain, running my fingers over the silken stems, then the velveteen petals. “Only a few. Father says friends are merely the enemy wrapped in a prettier disguise.”
“Is that why he’s had you trained for a battle that may never come?”
We may have been a continent of peace for over a millennia, but we still had warriors, trained soldiers, and armories filled with gleaming death instruments just like other kingdoms across the Gray Sea. “No, that was my mother’s bidding.” I cleared my throat, ignoring the bruise that throbbed in my chest cavity. “She was defenseless without her magic, and as you know, my father’s is such an entity that no one really stands a chance.”
“He didn’t mind that you trained?” His tone was cautious.
I laughed. “Oh yes, he punished her severely for it.”
Raiden’s expression turned granite. “How?”
I licked my teeth, then sighed. “He had his best soldiers fight her. Twenty-eight males compelled to follow his every order, even if it went against their base instincts. Every bone in her body was broken, and she lost sight in her right eye for months.”
Raiden said nothing for the longest time, and I fought the urge to fidget. “And they had to,” he guessed. “Or they’d die.”
That didn’t need answering.
He scrubbed his hands over his face. “Please tell me you weren’t forced to watch at least.”
My smile was grim, my heart a weighted beast in my chest as uninvited memories tried to resurface. I smacked them down and locked the door on the darkness. “My father does nothing in half measures.” I looped another stem, my fingers shaking. “It would behoove you to remember that.”
His eyes pressed, but I refused to look at him. He knew it was not a threat but a warning that should he step out of line, we would both pay the consequences.
When I’d finished with the chain, I stood and brushed dirt and grass from my skirts.
Van huffed, a low grumble escaping as he yawned, exposing teeth sharp enough to shred a hand to ribbons.
In my peripheral, I saw Raiden tense and leap to his feet as I rounded the beast and took his snout in my hands.