“Lusa?” Kaden recovered from his shocked expression before Lusa could enjoy it. Every part of her that his eyes touched flared with an inextinguishable fire. She had to remind herself that lungs needed oxygen.
The hopelessness and betrayal of the last time she saw him resurfaced. She couldn’t forget how he’d left her in the brutal hands of Izier’s guards with an obvious death sentence awaiting her. “What are you doing here?” She made sure to put some extra scorn in her voice, glad to see the hurt look blink across his face.
“Long story. Listen, I’m sor—”
“I don’t want to hear it. I understand. A bounty hunter can’t live to be a man of his word.” She shouldered past him and walked blindly through the dining hall, making sure to keep the hem of her gown high enough so her clumsy movement wouldn’t ruin her dramatic exit. He caught up to her and tried to stop her with a touch on the arm. She jerked it away and threw a venomous look over her shoulder.
“I didn’t know that was gonna happen, I promise.” He let out a huff of air. “Looks like you came out okay.”
“So, what, that makes what you did ok?”
His brows furrowed before he glanced at a few onlookers. He grabbed her elbow, gently, and despite her resistance, guided her to one corner of the room that wasn’t as occupied. “Listen, we ain’t friends, ‘member? We had a deal. I was gonna deliver you to Izier, you were gonna get your answers, that’s it.”
His words splintered her insides and she swallowed the hurt and replaced it with anger. “Right, I understand. No apology needed. Just leave me alone.” Her voice quivered and she directed her anger toward herself. Stupid, stupid, stupid, don’t cry. She turned but he grabbed her elbow again.
Lusa stared at the floor for several heartbeats, hoping to catch her emotions from spilling over before she turned to face him. Instead, she stayed facing the other way, throat constricted from holding back tears. “What?”
“You chose to help ‘em?” Kaden’s voice was layered with something she couldn’t quite recognize.
With a deep breath, she blew out the feelings gripping her behavior and turned. “Yes. You’d rather I chose the gallows?”
His face hardened and his lips fell into a thin line. He let go of her elbow. “No.”
The fierceness of his gaze made Lusa want to run away and hide behind Glon but she stood her ground, hoping to cast just as much anger into her eyes. A bombardment of conflicting emotions fought for dominance inside of her: hate, love, anger, happiness, optimism, depression. Knuckles aching, she loosened her fists.
He sighed. “Let’s start over.”
If the Magics had been with her, they would’ve spat at such an idea. But they’d abandoned her, left her, and Lusa knew she should be grateful. Still, it was hard to ignore the impulse in the back of her mind to wrap her hands around his neck and strangle him for putting her through this.
“I don’t know if I can.” She wanted to stare into his eyes for hours, days, maybe the rest of her life. But it was impossible. Stupid. She didn’t need to place her heart in harms way by trying to attain the love of a boy—practically a man—she knew would never be interested in her. She’d been used by him, a bounty no one else had managed to get. Another notch in his reputation while she had to suffer through crawling in her own excrement and living in a black hell.
Kaden placed his hands on her shoulders, an all too familiar feeling that reeled her mind back to the streets of Lalimore. What would’ve happened if Tryston hadn’t interrupted them? Nothing, or nothing real anyway. He would have done anything to keep her from escaping. But here, at the Lady Ice festival, with his spicy, earthy smell, his face clean shaven and hair flowing freely to his shoulders, Lusa couldn’t reach the logical part of her brain that told her to get away.
“Try,” he said. When she looked away, he moved his head lower to catch her eye. “Come on, we’re gettin’ more attention than we need.” He took her wrist, pulled away from the wall and into a line of people. Curious glances forced Lusa to look at the ground. Maybe if she willed herself away, she’d somehow end up back in her room, safe, secure and hidden from all the attention.
“It’s the dress,” Kaden said. Lusa, confused at his odd statement, found his face for answers. “They’re lookin’ at you ‘cause of the dress.”
Her skin heated and she plucked through the faces in the crowd for Glon. She’d beat him for putting her in this thing. He said his sister wouldn’t notice, but he didn’t say the entire empire would. The walls of the Dining Hall spun and blurred together as Kaden moved his hand from her wrist, entwined his fingers in hers and spun her to him. She struggled to keep up.
“Wait, I don’t dance.” Lusa tried prying her fingers free, but his other hand found her waist and braced her.
“I’ll go slow for ya.” He smirked, a mischievous glint in his eyes. Of course she wanted this, but was it real? Lusa wasn’t sure what to believe anymore. She felt as if she were falling from the top of a citadel, flutters rushing through her, heating her blood, magnifying doubt and self-consciousness.
His fingers laced with hers, his warm hand on the small of her back guided her, and his breath brushed the top of her hair. Whatever she’d been about to say dissolved on her tongue and she concentrated on matching his moves so as not to look a bigger fool in front of these people. Step in and step out. Side step, twirl, then back to Kaden. Out of all the dance moves, that was her favorite, when he’d pull her in close after her gown flared out, touching the tips of other gowns filling the dance floor. The others were distant, far away. The only person around was Kaden, his almond-brown eyes taking her in. Capturing her.
It wouldn’t last. Lusa kept repeating this in her head until she decided she didn’t care. Having this euphoric feeling for one night would be worth whatever pain she’d have to endure when the dream ended.
“By the way,” he said when he pulled her close after another spin. “Glad ya managed to find a bathhouse.” That heart-throbbing crooked smile brightened his features and Lusa could’ve died right then and there and been okay with it.
She found her voice with some effort. “Right, yeah, I wouldn’t be caught in here otherwise.” She cleared her throat, remembering Glon. Peering over Kaden’s shoulder, she tried to spot her prison guard or body guard—she wasn’t quite sure yet—out of the mass of blue clothes and laughing crowds. When she couldn’t find him, she found Kaden studying her face and knew there was no way to hide the flushness.
“Who ya lookin’ for?”
Another side step. She prepared herself for the spin, but a misstep with her heels left her tripping over her feet. Kaden stepped into her fall and pulled her to him, catching her and turning the ungraceful move into a dip. Her hair swept the floor and his grin made her laugh. Pulling her back up, he held her against him, closer.
“My guard,” she said. “I have a feeling I need to get back to my room. He only brought me here to eat.” Glon would actually encourage her to stay all night, the more she thought about it, but her logic won against her heart. Tired, she still hadn’t gone over the things Arcturius had wanted her to read. If she went on this mission blindly, it’d be her last. She wanted to roll her eyes at herself. Earlier, she’d refused to accept her fate as Izier’s savior, but with Kaden it seemed it was her lot.
“I’m goin’ with you,” he said.
Lusa smiled. “It’s okay he’s one of the nice ones.”
Kaden shook his head. His intense gaze made her less relaxed. “No, I mean to Glorion.”
“Where?” She searched his face. Had she missed something?
“You agreed to help Izier, right?” He looked as confused as she felt and then his words started making some sense. She should’ve read those books instead of losing a day to sleep.
“Oh, yeah.” She got lost in the sparkles of his silver buttons, the candlelight from the chandelier above giving them an orange hue. Her mind wrapped around his words and she found his face again. It was etched with concern. “Why?”
He paused. “To make sure ya don’t try ‘n run.”
That all too familiar feeling of prickling around the eyes returned before she knew what was happening. Lusa swallowed the knot in her throat. Right, of course, that’s what this was all about. With as much grace and elegance she could gather under the circumstances, Lusa unwrapped herself from Kaden and nodded. “That makes sense.” She wanted to curl into a ball and lose herself to the tears trying to break through her emotional barrier. Lusa had to remember she’d agreed to this being an outcome.
“I should go,” she said.
The music returned, though she knew it had always been there, playing majestically in the background. The dancers shimmered into view again, their laughter and voices reverberating through the Hall and finding her ears. With her heart on the verge of bursting, she maneuvered through the crowd as best she could without pushing. The urge to break into a run and knock the rest of the people down drove her to walk faster, and left her to forget excusing herself.
“Take me to my room,” she said to Glon when she found him. She ignored the curious lines that creased his forehead.