“Poison?” His mouth pulled in a smirk. “Here, let me infect you some more.”
* * *
Was it possible to live two lives side-by-side? To serve two goals that were destined to collide? To weave lies with one hand and unravel them with the other?
It was his kindness that had seduced me, and now everything else about him captivated me. I was dancing with fire and hoping not to get burned.
We returned to the party, our hands woven together, the music brighter, the food more sumptuous, invisible wish stalks tucked in our pockets. Be honest about this one thing. And I was.
Even though tables were set, dinner was an ongoing loose affair, meats brought from smoking pits, and more fare set out on long tables as the night wore on. Jase introduced me to nearly everyone there, and more than one guest mentioned their gratitude that the queen was coming for a visit and tour. The story had already evolved.
When we finally had a moment alone, Jase swooped to the side and his lips met mine, easy, and a warm flush spread across my chest. “Do you see who your friend is dancing with?” he asked.
I looked over his shoulder. It was Mason, and he didn’t look too happy with the situation. It wasn’t a dance that required much touching, a simple country jig that was common in many regions. But Synové was making plenty of missteps, and the Ballenger version had an extra hop or two. Synové playfully jabbed Mason’s ribs as they spun around. He offered a polite strained smile in return, acting like the cordial host, probably on Jase’s orders. She was radiant, her cheeks glowing with heat, her long locks shimmering in the lantern light like golden marmalade, swinging in rhythm with the zitaraes and flutes. I wished I could be her sometimes, jumping into every moment fully, her cheer covering the darkness that still lurked deep inside her.
I spotted Wren too. “I’d worry more about Aram and Samuel,” I answered. I saw them farther away on either side of Wren, one of them trying to maneuver around her ziethe every time she turned.
“They’re not safe with her?” Jase asked.
“Of course not, but they probably think that’s half the fun.”
Jase smiled and nodded in agreement.
“What about us?” he asked. “Should we join them? We haven’t danced yet.”
I had already deflected his question twice. A third time would be obvious. I couldn’t pretend that I hated to dance. I still remembered hooking my hands around his neck one night in the middle of the Jessop plain, dancing with him beneath a moonlit sky, the grass waving at our ankles, crickets accompanying the tune he hummed into my ear. I had told him I didn’t want the night to end.
Now it seemed this night never would. My ankle had grown steadily worse. It was stiff and hot and, I was certain, swollen, but I didn’t dare peek at it beneath my dress. The medicine had worn off and the pain was circling around my leg like a spiked iron, every movement taking a bite out of my flesh. Even my thigh burned now. A thin line of sweat beaded at my hairline. When Jase commented on my damp back, I responded that the evening was warm.
“All right,” I answered. “Let’s join them.” Maybe a short dance would be bearable and the subject would be dropped. No hopping, only swaying.
We had only taken a few steps toward the brightly lit square strung with lanterns when Jase stopped. “What’s wrong?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
I looked at him and wiped some damp strands of hair from my brow. I forced a smile. “It’s only these slippers. They don’t fit well—”
“Then take them off. Here, let me help you—” He started to bend down.
“No!” I said, far too loudly. Sweat trickled down my back and pain was squeezing my skull now, and it occurred to me that maybe the dogs were diseased. What if—
“Kazi.” Jase’s gaze was sober. He knew.
Pivot, Kazi. He sees your lies.
My foot gave way beneath me, and I stumbled forward but Jase caught my arm before I hit the ground. He muttered under his breath as he scooped me up—then spotted the bandage.
I stared at it in horror. It was bloody.
The wounds were seeping.
“What the hell—”
My face flashed with sickening heat, and Jase called for Tiago and Drake. He carried me down a dark path, away from the guests, ordering Drake to find the healer and Oleez. Doors slammed open against walls and a long hallway bobbed and weaved around me. Jase laid me down on a couch, then found a pillow to prop behind my head.