“Thank you. A blessing upon you,” Serafina said for what felt like the thousandth time. The standard Elder-approved greeting from the White Goddess to her worshippers and guests.
Sometimes Serafina said ‘thank you for coming’ or ‘a blessing upon you and yours’, just to mix things up. But her face was sore from fake smiling by the time she had greeted all her guests. Now she just had the special service to get through. At least she knew the big surprise wouldn’t involve healings. Not with King here. It explained why the Elder Macklin had decided to combine the healings last night. Not because he was worried about tonight being too much for her, like Ian tried to say.
Ian had to have figured it out as well. Serafina hadn’t said anything to him yet. She’d give him a chance to admit he’d been wrong before she came in with ’I told you so’s. Serafina would save those for tonight, back in her room when all this was over.
Like he always did after Church events, Ian would sneak into her bedroom tonight with the music player Conrad gave him and whatever leftovers he could sneak out of the kitchen. The White Goddess was too busy to eat during these events, if she was even allowed to have whatever they were serving.
With whatever band Ian was into at the time playing quietly in the background, they would stuff their faces and rehash their evenings. Guests were pretty much always the same people and Elder Macklin kept Serafina close, so Ian normally didn’t stay by her side the entire night. Normally.
Tonight was different. There were a lot more people here, a lot more strangers, and Ian had only gotten more hyper-protective and weird as the night went on.
Not that Serafina blamed Ian for being on edge. She blamed the Elders for keeping him in the dark about the surprise tonight. They probably thought he would tell Serafina, and to be fair, he would have. But they’d literally spent his whole life hammering it in how he was responsible for her. Responsible for protecting the White Goddess so that the prophecies could be fulfilled. And then they go and blindfold Ian with some big surprise so he could be on edge all night?
Serafina hated how they treated him, hated what the Church had done to his life. But more than anything, she hated that his whole life was focused on her. Ian had only grown more intense over the past few years as his training became even more challenging and disciplined. At seventeen he was already bigger and stronger than most grown men. But his heart and his spirit had grown heavier too. Because of her.
She could feel Ian’s anxiety at her back as King led her around the room, introducing her to more strangers in an hour than she’d met in her entire life up until now. It was usually Elder Macklin parading the White Goddess on his arm at these events and where she preferred King, Ian clearly did not.
It didn’t help that Serafina had her own bad feelings about tonight, mostly centred around the big surprise. The lift in her mood at King’s appearance had been steadily declining with the setting sun.
It blazed orange through the windows, bathing the hall in pink and golden light. Services began at dark and the room was humming with an anticipation Serafina didn’t understand. Church services were boring for believers, never mind outsiders. King was being his usual self, sweet to her and rude to everyone else. Like, really rude.
“King!” Serafina protested as he dragged her away from a couple just as they were about to congratulate her for something. Turning twelve? Quote-unquote ascending to womanhood? Serafina would never know.
Not that she really wanted to talk to them. Serafina wasn’t used to socializing in large groups and she wasn’t enjoying it. Sweat dripped uncomfortably down her back under the heavy dress and the weight and pressure of the crown on top of the noise and crowd was giving her headache.
“Do you need a break, Serafina?” Ian pitched his voice louder and deeper from behind them. He looked very handsome in his fitted white suit over a pale blue shirt that brought out the bright blue of his eyes. The Elders had picked out his outfit but he’d rebelled at the shoes and worn sneakers, saying he couldn’t run in stiff leather brogues. Where Ian thought he was going to be running tonight, Serafina had no idea.
King flashed Ian a look over his shoulder before turning to Serafina questioningly.
“Yes please,” she said in a small voice. The strain of playing the White Goddess on top of the size of the crowd and the uncomfortable dress had almost completely depleted her energy.
“She hasn’t eaten, either.” Ian spoke up again.
King lifted a brow at Ian’s challenging tone. “Boone is over there and a couple of my associates I’d like you to meet,” he told Serafina. “Then we’ll go find a place for you to sit and eat something. Okay?”
King waited for Serafina’s nod and tucked her small hand into the crook of his elbow. Ian’s tension was like a tangible thing behind her.
I’m fine, calm down, Serafina soothed Ian as they resumed their progress across the room. Why don’t you go talk to Miranda? The daughter of one of the higher-up Church members. She’s been staring at you all night.
You’re kidding right? Ian scoffed disbelievingly. You think I’m going to leave you alone now to go flirt with some girl?
Serafina didn’t know why he sounded so offended. Why not? I’m with King.
Exactly, he said grimly.
You said you trusted him not to let anything bad happen to me.
I said I trusted him not to let you get hurt, Ian corrected.
Whatever. Same thing. Serafina tsked impatiently. You’re being dumb.
King peered down at her. “Something bothering you?”
Careful not to look back at Ian, Serafina shook her head. “I’m just getting tired.”
“We’ll get you off your feet soon,” King promised. “Look, there’s Boone.”
To anyone who didn’t know him, Boone looked bored leaning against the foot of the White Goddess mural on the back wall of the Church. It depicted her standing under a huge moon in a field of long grasses, the wind blowing back her hair and her eyes closed in a weird, creepy expression of joy. The whole thing was creepy, actually. Serafina hated it.
Boone stood with the two men he and King had arrived with, listening to their conversation as he scanned the room with his usual paranoid vigilance. Ian was bad, but Boone literally never relaxed. Not in front of Serafina, anyway.
“Well, well.” Boone straightened from his lazy slouch as they approached. Beside him, the two men stopped talking to stare. “The Beauty and the Beast.”
One of the handful of movies Serafina had been allowed to watch. She adopted a thinking pose. “Wouldn’t that make you LeFou?”
Boone didn’t get it, but one of the strangers laughed and pulled out his phone. He tapped it a few times and showed Boone his screen, then turned it to show King.
“Looks about right,” King said. Serafina giggled at Boone’s outraged expression.
“I gave you a compliment,” he complained, looking as forlorn as he was capable of, which wasn’t very. Serafina giggled again.
“I’m sorry. You look nice too,” she said kindly. “I’ve never seen you dressed up before.” Boone’s dark, well-cut suit was a far cry from the tracksuits and t-shirts he normally wore.
“Feels like I’m choking to death,” he grumbled, tugging at his collar.
King rolled his eyes. “Serafina, this is Hamish Bolt and Sawyer Underwood.” He drew her attention to indicate the two men in turn. They were tall and muscular and probably would have seemed gigantic standing next to anyone but King. “Gentlemen—” He paused, his eyes glittering with pride. ”This is Serafina.”
“The honour is ours,” said Hamish Bolt, bowing his head briefly.
“Um...thank you.” There was an obsequious note in his voice Serafina didn’t expect from an outsider to the Church. It made her uncomfortable.
The one called Sawyer bared his teeth in a smile. “Congratulations.”
It was unclear to Serafina whether he was congratulating her on turning twelve, or King for...what? Knowing her? Either way, it was weird.
“Thank you,” Serafina said politely. “This is Ian Jones,” she added tartly when King left him out of the introductions. Again.
The strangers’ eyes widened at the look of disapproval she levelled in King’s direction. Boone coughed back a laugh. “Yes, King, where are your manners?”
“Of course. My apologies.” King’s lips twitched. “Ian and Serafina grew up here together,” he told his friends. “He’s been acting as her guardian when I’m unavailable.”
Serafina frowned. King made it sound like he was her guardian, and Ian was only helping out. Behind her, Ian bristled and she could have sworn she heard him grind his teeth.
“Ian, Hamish and Sawyer wanted a cigarette before the service begins,” King continued smoothly. “Would you please escort them to the garden?”
Ian pointed to a corridor across the busy hall. “It’s right through there.”
“I said escort.” King’s calm tones held an unmistakeable note of command. “I’m going to take Serafina to have something to eat as promised.”
Just go and come right back, Serafina mindlinked Ian when he hesitated.
“Sure.” Ian nodded to the men reluctantly. “No problem.” He sent Serafina a meaningful look. Tell me where he takes you.
“Everything all set up?” King asked Boone as Ian led the two men away.
Boone glanced at Serafina before responding. “Yup. On your end?”
King nodded. “Just got to get my girl fed.”
Serafina flushed as her stomach rumbled loudly right on cue, making the men laugh before they parted ways. King’s giant hand spanned her entire lower back as he gently guided her across the crowded room. He was acting normal but there was something different about King’s touch tonight, like a current of energy humming through the heavy beaded fabric of her dress. Just another weird thing about tonight.
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