Gilded Ashes Page 5

“I understand that Cosmatos would leave her on your doorstep tied up in red ribbons if you so much as winked at her. As it is, he won’t let her accept even a nosegay from another man because you’re still unshackled and he takes that as a sign of hope.”

“Then rejoice, because in a fortnight I’ll be engaged and she’ll have her pick of suitors again.” Lord Anax is back to sounding polished and defiant.

“He’ll keep her on the shelf until you’re wed . . . mmm, and perhaps until your wife has survived her first birth. Cosmatos does not give up any more easily than I do.”

“He can keep her till she’s moldered into a skeleton. I still won’t marry her.”

“That’s a harsh fate to wish on a charming girl.”

“To be a skeleton is a high and honorable estate. Just ask Alcibiades.” I hear a whisper of movement, then a crinkle; I think Lord Anax has picked up the skull and removed the letter from its eye socket.

“Yes, very honorable, I see. So honorable that you use him to sort your mail. When will you get rid of that morbid thing?”

“Alcibiades, please don’t mind my father. He speaks to everyone this way.” From the tone of his voice, I imagine Lord Anax staring deep into the skull’s eyes.

“Then I’ll leave you to your best friend. Do remember that to get engaged at the ball, you will actually need to prevail upon the lady to accept you.”

Lord Anax’s voice is very dry. “I’m son and heir to the Duke of Sardis. I could walk into that ballroom naked with Alcibiades balanced on my head, and they’d still want to marry me.”

“Most likely. But if you try it, I’ll horsewhip you on the front steps.”

“Don’t worry. I will comport myself properly enough to please even you, sir.”

“I highly doubt that, but do feel free to try. Good day.”

Footsteps, and the door clicks shut. For a moment there’s silence, and I let myself indulge in a heartbeat of wild hope that Lord Anax has soundlessly followed his father out of the room. Then he sighs loudly. His boots clank against the floor. One step, two, three. He’s circling the desk.

My heart pounds. He’s going to see me, and if he’s angry, if he hurts me, if my mother can see this far—

Because I had to sneak into the palace. Because I had to help Koré instead of placate her. Because I had to hope, when I should know how useless hope has always been.

I’m an idiot.

He flings himself into his chair and hauls one foot up onto the desk. Just like I imagined.

Then he looks down and sees me.

He doesn’t look particularly lordly. Handsome, yes: he has jet-black hair and a face of aristocratic angles. Square metal glasses frame his narrow dark eyes. But no one can look very lordly with one foot on the floor and the other on a desk, staring down with his mouth open in surprise.

His mouth snaps shut. His foot lands back on the floor, his jaw tightening, and then he reaches down, grabs my arm, and hauls me out. I stand obediently, fixing my eyes on the shelves.

“You,” he says. “What are you doing here?”

I can still feel the fear, a cold, distant burn up and down my body, but there’s no time for terror now. I do what I always do when Stepmother gets angry: I mold my body in perfect submission, shoulders slumped and eyes demurely lowered, and I think myself out of existence. I am wallpaper and curtains and the jumbled papers on his desk. I am not real, I am not here, so there is nothing for him to get angry at.

He shakes my shoulder. “You know I can have you sacked.”

“I don’t work here.” I keep my voice meek. “I came to deliver a letter.” I point at the desk, where the crumpled letter sits next to Alcibiades.

“A letter? When your master could use the morning post? You’re here to spy or steal or—”

“A love letter,” I say. “From my lady.”

“Of course.” He releases me, looking disgusted. “Another young lady who saw me only once but loves me more than life itself. Or is she one of the ones who sees me almost every day and weeps in secret because I never lower my eyes to hers?”

“There are a lot of them?” I ask. I always imagined that girls with money and fathers would be less desperate.

“Oh, dozens, though your lady is the only one bold enough to write me directly. Most of them just recite poems to a nameless cruel beloved in my presence. Or they have their brothers write me letters demanding to know my intentions, since I was so profligate as to say ‘Good morning.’ So tell me: Was it love at first sight, or did I slowly grow in her heart like ivy?”

I open my mouth to tell him that Koré is not like the others, truly, she is—

What?

I am an excellent liar. It’s why there is any of my family left alive. But I’m so good because I know exactly what Mother wants to hear. I mostly know what Stepmother and Koré and Thea want as well, even if I can’t always give it to them. But this young man looming over me—who quarrels with his father but obeys him, who names a skull Alcibiades and mourns the betrothed he forced to abandon him—I have no idea what he wants to hear.

Lord Anax snorts. “Speechless? I suppose you didn’t spy long enough to know what kind of lady I prefer.”

I flinch. I’m so used to hiding my feelings, it feels wrong for someone to guess even a tiny bit of them. But he doesn’t notice what he’s done; he rattles on, each word bright and bitter. “Permit me to enlighten you. I am not going to fall in love with your mistress. I am not going to be charmed by your mistress. There is, in fact, nothing your mistress can do to make me marry her. My father has invited all the girls he deems remotely acceptable, and I intend to choose my bride utterly at random. Your mistress has no recourse except to make sacrifices to the gods, in which she’s unlikely to outdo Lord Cosmatos, but she is welcome to try.”

I cross my arms, trying not to shake. His anger isn’t at me anymore, nor is it that bad compared to Stepmother’s rages, but even this much bitterness in a voice sets my instincts screaming run.

But he hasn’t tried to punish me. I realize suddenly that he has no intention of punishing me. He’s only going to tell me how much he hates the ladies I represent; and however much he hates those ladies, he isn’t going to hurt them either. He’s going to marry one and make all her dreams come true.

He is furious and helpless, even though he’s the son of the duke, and I want to tell him the truth.

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