My lungs burned, desperate for a fresh breath of air to keep me alive. I was reluctant to give it.
One wrong move and blood would taint the ivory fabric hugging my new curves. Not blue blood — golden blood.
It had been two weeks since I’d been tricked into marrying that manipulative cockroach of a royal prince and, on the same day, been kissed by Heliac’s future king. Ironically, I hadn’t seen any of them since.
“You’re going to faint if you keep holding your breath.”
I shifted my eyes to my left, where Piper looked at me with worried eyes.
The blue stripe in her hair had almost faded to its original blond color. I wondered if she planned to dye it golden for the wedding.
“What if I breathe and a needle pokes me?” I whispered, stiffening when the seamstress lifted my skirt to adjust the layers.
Piper chuckled. “You should really have more faith in Mara,” she said, turning back to look in the mirror.
The ivory fabric slicked around her neck, leaving her defined shoulders free to breathe. Her bodice was laced with intricate, golden embroidery that appeared like vines sprouting from the golden lotus around her belly button.
The skirt flowed like a stormy ocean, eventually turning into a modest train resembling the waves on a peaceful beach.
Her sleeves were lying on the table beside them.
They weren’t supposed to be attached to the dress. Instead, they would be fastened around her upper arm and turn into a delicate flow of airy fabric, stopping just below her fingertips.
It would appear like she had wings.
Every element, except fire, had been represented in that dress.
These dresses weren’t meant to be finished and fitted for another week. I had no doubts that the designers had a plan for incorporating that element before then.
“It’s not that I don’t trust you, Mara,” I said, carefully looking back to watch the woman’s concentrated face. “I’ve just never liked needles.”
Mara chuckled. “I have a daughter who can relate, Miss,” she said, running a thread through the hem of the inner skirt.
Twenty layers of tulle already weighed on my sore hips. Unfortunately, I knew Mara was planning on adding at least twenty more before the end of the week.
The embroidery on my dress was almost the same as Piper’s. The golden lotus in the middle and vines sprouting from its heart. However, instead of turning into leaves, my embroidery turned into windflowers.
I sighed when my eyes caught sight of the deep V-shaped neckline reaching past my chest, down to the first leaf of the lotus. Mara had promised that the embroidery would cover most of the gap, but I felt so naked.
It seemed that this dress had been more dedicated to Tarkan as opposed to Piper’s dress being dedicated to Heliac.
The thought made my stomach turn.
“—for the wedding.”
I looked down. “Sorry, Mara. I didn’t hear that first part.”
Mara chuckled and took my lace-covered hand. “My daughter is not fond of needles either. It’s a battle to sew her new clothes, but she’s still a child. You, on the other hand, might need to become familiarized with the thought of these.”
She brought the pointy end of her instrument closer to me.
I frowned uncomfortably. “Why?” I asked, clenching my hands into fists when she brought the thing to my sleeve. “Because I’m not a child? It’s not uncommon for adults to have fears.”
“I haven’t seen you run screaming from the pointy end of a blade yet,” Piper said, laughing as her seamstress lifted her arms.
“Blades aren’t the same,” I said, battling against the urge to tense my muscles. “Needles are discreet tools. They are hardly classified as a weapon, but they can do more damage than one might consider.”
The man from the train had needed my blood to activate the crystal usually hanging around my neck. That needle might as well have been poisoned, and I would never have known until I’d been lying on the ground, unable to breathe.
The crystal was currently lying among my other belongings in the corner of the room, Mara’s orders. I was lucky the thing still worked, despite the new color of my blood.
“Any adult is allowed to have fears, Miss,” Mara said, “but I wouldn’t want you to look uncomfortable on your wedding day.”
I snorted. That was too late already.
I was marrying Tarkan unless he’d finally found the courage to approach his father and argue his way around this ridiculous engagement. If he managed to fail, I would be pouting throughout the rest of my miserable life.
“I certainly don’t hope you mean that you’ll leave a few of those dreadful needles in the dress when I walk down the aisle,” I said, taking one of the cursed pins out to throw at her with a playful smile.
She grinned and grabbed another needle to replace the one I’d taken out. “Of course not, Miss,” she said, “but once you’ve recited your vows, it is tradition for the new royal couple to draw blood and place a few drops in the chalice of everlasting love.”
I froze. “To do what?”
Mara stopped messing with my skirt and leaned back. “Yes. They have a special needle—”
“They draw blood?” I asked again, very aware of the creeping snake of anxiety slithering up my naked legs.
“Will,” Piper said. “What’s wrong with a little blood? That’s how they made the crystals work, right?”
I hadn’t wanted the wedding to happen in the first place, but if they needed my blood... This marriage could not happen. It would expose me before Art was ready with his plan.
I was about to open my mouth again when the doors to the room opened.
My breath hitched when I saw who had entered.
I turned my gaze to Piper, but she looked as bewildered as I felt.
Blue and green suits worn by two of Heliac’s favorite heartbreakers gracefully drifted across the marble floor as they approached us.
I’d wondered when we’d see them again, but I hadn’t expected it to be during one of our dress fittings.
“Lady Piper,” Caiden said as he reached Piper, catching her hand and pressing his lips against her skin.
My heart stung.
Those were the same lips that had kissed me two weeks ago, only to leave me alone with unanswered questions and doubts since. He didn’t even care to look at me.
I turned my head and looked down from my pedestal to see Tarkan standing before me.
The neck of his green suit hugged his throat tightly, and I quietly wished it would tighten even more.
“Prince Calix,” I said, turning my body for me to face him like the lady I still pretended to be.
He took my hand and kissed the ring decorating my finger instead of my skin.
“You look stunning,” Tarkan said, stepping back to get a proper look at me.
I suddenly felt very naked again and extremely aware of the deep cut that hadn’t yet been covered by Mara’s future plans.
Instinctively, I brought my hands to my chest to cover up.
Mara and the other seamstress had left the room as soon as they’d seen Tarkan and Caiden enter to leave us with the privacy they thought we needed.
“I thought it brought about bad luck to see the bride in her dress before the wedding,” I said, trying hard to restrain myself from spitting the word wedding venomously into Tarkan’s smug face.
“We apologize for the lack of contact lately,” Caiden said.
I moved my gaze from Tarkan to the man still standing beside Piper — his soon-to-be wife.
It hurt seeing him over there when I still had questions I wanted him to answer for me.
Not only had he left me without a single word after confessing his love to me. He’d also left me to deal with this new, terrifying secret alone — a secret that may potentially ruin me or worse.
Art had been locked inside his study, refusing to talk to me or anyone else.
I’d only had Piper and Faye, none of who knew about my blood. They didn’t know about the kiss either, and the guilt was consuming me from within.
Caiden’s gaze met mine, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to appear angry or sad.
His, on the other hand, was easy to read.
Sorrow and guilt pierced my soul as I saw his brows crack. I might also have heard his heart skip a beat.
“I... Uh,” Caiden continued.
A comforting smile of reassurance from me might have awakened him from the otherworld of dreams, but I didn’t give it. He hadn’t earned that.
Tarkan sighed beside me.
“Our Dad has kept us occupied with the wedding preparations and other formalities that we aren’t yet allowed to discuss. We have barely been able to leave the Golden Turret, and this moment has been the first since the Crown Trials ended that we have been allowed some free time,” Tarkan explained, keeping a careful eye on his brother. “We had hoped that our father had sent you word, but it appears that’s not the case. So, we wanted to come here to apologize personally.”
So they had been spending a lot of time with their dad. That ought to have given Tarkan plenty of chances to bring up our little agreement.
“Have you spoken to the king?” I whispered to Tarkan when Piper turned around to speak to Caiden.
“Not yet,” he said.
I frowned. That was not the right answer.
“I thought we’d agreed that you’d do this,” I hissed, still watching the happy couple with careful eyes. “There is less than a week to the wedding, Tarkan. We can’t afford to wait much longer.”
Tarkan chuckled, which made my eyes turn to him. “Did you see Atlas’ face when he looked at you?”
The hairs on my nape rose as my blood started to boil.
“Caiden has nothing to do with this,” I said, lifting my gown to bend down so I could hiss at him. “This is about you and me. And if you ever want to see me leave this castle with your dignity still intact, I suggest you go to your dad right now.”
I wanted to hit him when I heard him snort. “I missed your spiteful tongue, Aldwyn.”
His playful grin grew wider.
“Tarkan,” I hissed and stepped forward.
My stomach flipped when my foot caught a layer of the dress that Mara hadn’t fixed, and I dove directly into the arms of my enemy.
“You’re certain you haven’t missed me too,” he asked, his face just a few inches from mine as his breath warmed my cheek.
His hands tightened around my waist as I buried my nails into his shoulders.
“Watch out for the needles, Tarkan,” I whispered. “I wouldn’t want your dirty blood to taint the nice dress that Mara has spent weeks sewing for our wedding.”
“How considerate of you.”
Still slightly frowning, I turned my eyes to look at Piper, and my chest grew tighter.
Piper had placed her hand on Caiden’s shoulder and was looking at us with an amused expression.
Caiden’s expression was the direct opposite. His entire body was tense. His muscles moved under his suit, and I believe I could trace a blue vein popping right above his suit’s neck.
I pressed my teeth together when I realized how this looked from their point of view.
“Let’s give the two lovebirds a little privacy, Atlas,” Piper said, pushing Caiden forward so she could step down without ruining her dress. “I want to discuss a few wedding details with you anyway.”
My heart started racing. I did not want to be left alone with this First-blood hating scum.
I inhaled sharply when Tarkan’s grip around me tightened, pressing the cold side of a needle against my skin.
“It almost sounds as if you don’t want to be alone with me,” Tarkan said once Piper closed the door behind them.
I sent him a disapproving glare. “That’s because I don’t want to be alone with you.”
He chuckled. “Am I supposed to be hurt?”
I rolled my eyes, not wanting to go down that road. “You can let go of me now,” I said, stepping down from the pedestal so I wouldn’t fall when he removed his hands from me.
“Why would I do that?”
An icy chill tickled my spine when Tarkan leaned closer.
I frowned again. “Because you resent me almost as much as I resent you,” I said, trying to push myself away from him.
He didn’t let go.
“Did you see the expression Atlas tried to hide when you fell into my arms?” Tarkan asked, looking back at the door behind which they were probably standing.
“No,” I lied, concerned that Tarkan was enjoying this a little too much.
Tarkan looked back with a tense smile. “Too bad. It was quite amusing. He must really be fond of you.”
Blood drained from my face when Tarkan pulled me into his chest. “I think we might have to renegotiate the terms of our agreement,” he said, his warm breath tickling my ear. “It’s possible I’m not completely against marrying you if it means I’ll get to Atlas so painfully frustrated every time he sees us together.”
“You wouldn’t,” I said. Unfortunately, my words didn’t sound as confident as I would’ve liked.
“You clearly underestimate me, Aldwyn,” Tarkan said, pulling back to have a better look at me. “As I said during Atlas’ birthday: you intrigue me. I’d rather spend my life with you than with some boring woman who has been chosen for me. And the thought of watching you and Atlas while you become mine, and Miss Weldon becomes Atlas’ one week from now will be an added bonus.”
He bared his teeth as his lips pulled back into a wicked smile.
“Have you forgotten about the things you did to me?” I asked, pressing my palm against his chin to turn his face away from me. “I’m sure your father will reconsider this arrangement once he learns how hard you’ve tried to make me leave the competition against his will.”
Tarkan grabbed my wrist and wrapped his other arm around my waist. “I do remember that little threat of yours. However, you seem to be forgetting about your relationship with Atlas. If the old man hears that his favorite son has been snuggling with someone other than his suitors, I’m sure he will see past my rebellion. I simply tried to make sure Atlas didn’t stray from the ancient traditions.”
My hands turned cold, and my body rigid.
He didn’t know what had happened in Caiden’s bedroom. He couldn’t.
“That didn’t happen,” I whispered, unable to move.
“It didn’t?” Tarkan added, looking up as if he was trying to remember the past. “Well, I’m sure my father would believe otherwise when he confronts Atlas.”
Caiden already hated lying to his father. I didn’t dare to think how he would react if he was confronted by his father directly.
The door opened again.
“Oh, sorry!” Piper exclaimed when she saw Tarkan and me entangled in each other’s arms.
My eyes widened when my eyes met Caiden’s.
His gaze was empty as if his soul had left his body.
“Good,” Tarkan whispered into my ear. “Remember that face when you say yes to spend eternity by my side.”
Then he finally let go. It was a miracle I didn’t fall limply to the ground.
“Come, Brother!” Tarkan exclaimed, wrapping his arm around Caiden’s shoulder to pull him away. “I think we have occupied these ladies for long enough. I’m sure they’re busy, and I believe dear old father is waiting for us in his office.”
Caiden didn’t protest when they disappeared into the hallway.
This was it. I was going to marry that bastard...
“Have you missed him?” Piper asked as she skipped closer to my rigid body. “I surely missed Atlas. He’s always so polite and so kind. I can’t believe I’m actually marrying him!”
I forced a smile upon my lips.
Piper was an innocent in this wretched game. She had won the Crown Trials fair and square, and I hated lying to her, but I couldn’t stay. Not after what Tarkan had just dumped on me.
“I’m sorry, Piper,” I said, pulling back. “I— I have to go. There is something I need to do, but I’ll find you later.”
Piper’s smile disappeared. “Something to do? But, Will—”
“I’m sorry,” I said again, walking toward the door that Mara was hiding behind. “I’ll find you in your room!”
Mara quickly got me out of my wedding dress and into regular clothes so I could leave.
I hadn’t been to the Battle Arena since the end of the Crown Trials because there had been too much to do. Also, I’d been afraid to hurt myself and spill blood somewhere prying eyes would find it. But right now, I needed to punch something.
The sound of my heels clicking against the floor echoed through the halls.
I’d almost reached the Parlor, which meant there were only a few corners left before I reached the Battle Arena.
Thankfully, my powers were still intact despite my golden blood. I could still wield the wind and manipulate the waves of sound, although my powers sometimes acted a little strange. It was hard to put into words, but it sometimes felt as if something else was trying to take over.
The dress I was wearing wasn’t fit for battle. I knew I would feel Faye’s wrath once I entered my room with the fabric torn to pieces, but my room was too far away for me to even consider changing into something proper. I just wanted to vent.
The door of a Thousand Worlds caught my eye and made me slow down.
The intricate patterns of the white wood stood out despite the white walls surrounding it. It was hard to believe that I once hadn’t noticed it existed.
I stepped back when I thought about the time Caiden had brought me there and admitted to having kissed Piper.
Salty water began burning my eyes.
I didn’t want to spend eternity in this castle, and I especially didn’t want to spend it with Tarkan, where I would watch Caiden and Piper together every day.
Everything felt like a huge mess right now, and I didn’t know how I was going to fix any of it.
The only one who might have some of the answers was Art, and I didn’t know when he would be ready to come out of his lair.
I sighed and turned around to continue my journey toward the Battle Arena when I felt something warm wrap around my wrist and pull me back to disappear behind the secret door.