:: previous – Grim Ranch
I imagine myself snuggled under my duvet, feeling its warmth on my naked body after a fresh bath.
Mm… A peaceful slumber with no concerns of the crown sounds perfect. Just what I need.
Soon, Winter. Soon.
“Ugh. Finally getting out of here. Thank goodness.”
As I lock my office door, I hear whispers in the distance.
I look around the corner and find Advisor Mourning talking with two guards loitering at the private entrance to the Crown House.
It’s silent around me, but I can’t hear what they’re saying from where I’m standing.
Ahead of them, headlights shine through the picture windows, illuminating the men’s faces. A fancy car… It creeps to a stop in front of the building.
Who’s that? It’s almost eleven.
There’s a pillar up ahead that looks wide enough to provide cover. I remove my heels and carefully tiptoe across the marble floor. Grasping the icy smooth surface, I hide behind the pillar while I listen.
Car doors open and close.
Chatter. Someone laughs like they’re having the time of their life.
A buzzer sounds with an incredible roar. Southern wins! Southern wins! What a tense sudden death overtime–Eastern defeated! An announcer screams. Someone’s listening to the game.
Another car door closes.
“Miss Summer Diamond.” Mr. Drake announces without his usual sunny enthusiasm.
“Good Evening, Miss Diamond.” Dayen puts on his schmoozing act. “A pleasure indeed.”
I look around the pillar and see the back of Summer Diamond’s wavy blonde hair. She’s dressed for a specific type of evening in her black leather jacket, tight blue skirt that hardly covers her derriere and sky-high heels she seduces the floor with in each precise step. Even from my hiding spot, the soft vanilla scent of her always sold out perfume greets me.
In quiet haste, she’s led down the hall by Mr. Drake and both crown guards.
Headed for our King.
Staying behind, Dayen stands in the center of the hall, watching them go.
My pocket mirror slips from my purse before I can catch it, shattering on impact against the marble.
“Ma’am?” Dayen asks in the distance.
I run my finger over the hand painted red lily on the outside. A slender crack divides the flower into two. Slowly, I open the mirror and see a tired, shattered woman inside.
I look up, eye level with Dayen’s black boots standing in front of me. He’s so close I can smell the fresh shoeshine.
He leans down, eye level with me. “Rose said you left for the day.” His voice is gentle. “What happened there?”
I sigh and shove the mirror into my purse. “Nothing.”
I rise for the exit, accompanied by the jingle of broken glass. Outside, I see Miss Diamond’s driver still parked out front, monitored carefully by multiple crown guards. The car isn’t on, and the headlights are off, which means she’ll be here a while.
“Winter.” Dayen calls with urgency in his voice.
Our eyes connect the second I turn.
“Is there something wrong?”
I can’t stand that question, especially when I know he knows what’s wrong.
I march back to the pillar where he still stands. Thanks to a struggling wall sconce nearby, we’re drenched in murky gold darkness.
“Why is she here?” I snap.
“Well, ma’am…” His voice lowers to a soft whisper. “Our King… as you know, has many needs.”
I roll my eyes. “Wants.”
“Needs. Like any other man.”
“I don’t care about that. What about the hourglass? The budget? That recent hack? Resolut roared through the walls the other day forbidding everyone from talking about her–and I heard the anaconda in Crown Affairs was slain?”
“Yes. Our King did it himself. One bite.”
“You say that like you’re proud of him.” I snap. “What if this atmospheric phenomena is about her? More and more I feel like the snake woman was a warning… Plus, that family still seeks answers–”
He narrows his eyes. “Lower your voice.”
I do, but it only infuriates me more when he tells me what to do.
“All of Aeterna is desperate to see and hear from their King. I’ve yet to see him myself and I’m unsure he’s stable to make a trip to Black Mountain, let alone make a speech there! I’ve been in my office for hours reading trash those so-called speechwriters submitted. They’re writing crap because they don’t understand their King without hearing or seeing him. How can anyone capture the voice of a recluse? A ghost?”
“Stop saying my name. I’m lying every day to cover Resolut’s absence. You are too. But now he has enough time to fuck the lead actress from Redemption of the Accountant?”
“As you know, the King and Miss Diamond share a history.”
“Ancient history. This is loose lips central. A visit from Miss Diamond after hours is impossible to keep secret. I bet the cooks can smell her perfume in the cherry strudel now.”
“A lovely fragrance that only enhances the mood of this gloomy Crown House.”
“They’re likely cooking up gossip to feed Gabriel Bones he’ll challenge me with at the next press briefing.”
“The lips you are referring to have taken an oath of silence. Yours included.”
“Not according to Crown Affairs. What did that message you tried to hide from me the other day say? Whispers saturate the District… The terms sham, secret, and conspiracy–”
Dayen steps up to me and I fall into the pillar, hitting the back of my head.
“Stop saying my name.”
His face twists–I don’t know if it’s irritation or his thinking face.
“Your animosity with me these last few days…” His muddy green eyes rest on my lips, his face kinder. “It isn’t about that one morning, is it?”
We stare each other down in stone silence.
He opens his mouth to speak, then quiets and nods as if there’s nothing more to be said.
Sigh… I thought we put this behind us.
“Dayen, I was upset. Vulnerable. Mistakes were–”
“Mistakes?” His voice is so low I can barely hear him. “Were they?”
His dark-gloved hand falls to my waist, sending an icy chill through my dress. The leather creaks as his grip tightens, and I look down, watching my chestnut hair sweep across his black uniform.
“We made a mistake.” I nod, firm on the matter.
He moves his hands behind his back as he steps away from me.
“Well, I believe you are tired, ma’am.” His tone is cold and clipped. “Good night.”
He walks away.
He turns around, staring at me with a bored expression, as if I’m terribly exhausting.
“We’re not done here–”
He cuts me off and walks away, not giving a damn…