“To what do I owe the pleasure, my queen?”
I spun around. Zad stood before the towering glass doors, his feet bare and his gray tunic loose. He swept a hand through his long hair, but it was futile. The auburn strands fell back in place to curtain his cheeks.
With leaden feet, I moved toward him, the bag hanging from my shoulder weighing much more than it should. As I dragged my eyes from the lord to his large home, I noticed that even though it was made of glass, you couldn’t actually see inside. My own reflection and the star-sprinkled sky stared back at me.
“We need to talk.” I glanced around, then met his curious gaze. “Inside. I received a rather alarming delivery this morning.”
Zad’s lips twisted. For a moment that caused my breath to quake, he just stared. Finally, he straightened from where he’d been leaning against the open door. “You needn’t worry about unwelcome ears. There is no one here who’d betray me.”
I snorted, sweeping past him inside when he gestured so. “What makes you so sure of yourself?”
“Besides the fact that I pay them handsomely?” He left the doors open, seemingly amused as my mouth hung open, my eyes hungry as they took in everything beyond the small foyer. “I haven’t hired anyone new in years. My people and friends know it’s a death sentence to betray me.”
I was too busy taking in the night sky through the walls and the slanted gaps in the ceiling to be jealous—gaps between the grass, dirt, and gardens above. “This is magical,” I said, moving down the hall.
“By all means, show up unannounced and just make yourself at home.”
I ignored his dry tone, my boots scuffing soft on the charcoal speckled marble floor as I peeked inside as many rooms on the first floor as I could.
A sitting room decorated in whites, blacks, and grays. A study near the kitchen dressed in dark wood and leather upholstery. An entertaining area, housing two large black velvet chaises with orange and silver throw pillows, and three armchairs with black and brown fur blankets draped over them. A fire was dancing in the giant black crystal hearth. Ancient paintings of glittering landscapes and half-naked winged females lined some of the stark white walls.
Standing on the black woven rug, I turned and traipsed past Zad back down the hall, bypassing a bathing room riddled with dark tiles and red towels to the kitchen at the opposite end.
Two males were laughing as they wiped pots and pans and rehung them above the counter. They froze when they saw me standing there, absorbing the brick and wood and wide expanse of the room.
“Majesty.” Quickly, they bowed. A blond male said, “Uh, can we get you something?”
“I’m fine.” I turned to leave, and my face smacked right into a hard chest. “Oof.”
For a moment, I just inhaled the smell of cloves and mint.
Then Zad’s hands gripped my shoulders and pulled me back. “If you’re done exploring, I’d like to get to the point of this visit.”
“So rude.” I huffed, tearing away and heading to the dark wooden stairs. “I’ve yet to see upstairs.”
He grabbed my hand and tugged me back down them, and I groaned as he pulled me back down the long hall to a small sitting room. I sniffed at the stiff white-on-white armchairs and tables, and the small fireplace. “The other room seems nicer.”
“That room is for guests.”
“Is that not what I am?” I turned to him.
“You’re many things, Audra, but a guest is not one of them.” Gently, he pulled my satchel from my shoulder. “What’s going—” His head jerked. “Darkness be damned, what is that fucking smell?”
I would’ve smirked at his comical reaction if not for the contents of the satchel. Instead, I flopped into an armchair, kicked my boots off, and grinned when he scowled. They were crusted with dust and dirt, and left a nice little mark or two on the white fur rug.
“Just open the bag and look in the box,” I said, then yawned, my eyes closing as I heard him open the lid. I didn’t want or need to see the contents again, though it was the least I could do.
I opened my eyes. “I asked him to rule in my stead,” I said, rolling my lips. “In a land filled with those who shun and hate me. I asked him to do his best, and he did, but his best wasn’t good enough.”
With a blank expression, Zad set the lid back on the box, then placed it down on a table farthest away from the crackling fire. “They’re goading you.”
I knew that. “They’ve tortured him. They’re still torturing him.”
“That is why you’re here?”
I frowned. “Does my presence in your home really bother you that much?”
Zad rubbed his stubble-lined chin, sighing as he strode to the fireplace and braced his hands upon the mantel. “Audra, I’m not sure what you want me to do.”