The dress Ekon had chosen was royal blue with a plunging neckline and asymmetrical skirt, placing Capri’s exquisite legs on display as she walked through cascading waves of organza. She wore her hair down, woven with loose braids and beads of solid gold and silver. Her high-heeled sandals were gold and silver, too, and besides a pair of nude underwear that was all she wore. Briony knew when to let her student’s beauty speak for itself, and her coming of age party was one of those occasions.
A royal guard escorted them to the upper dining hall, which needed no added décor to become a place of elegant celebration. The glass dome gave a view of the night sky; simple gold centerpieces adorned the clear glass tables, which had been moved to allow for dancing. The music playing in the background was soft and lilting, something with violins. Guests were just sitting down to dinner, drinks, and conversation.
Ekon beamed when she made her entrance. “The woman of the hour!”
The guard entered just after her with Briony. Capri was careful not to make eye contact. Getting too friendly with the men who were supposed to protect her was not a mistake she would make again.
Capri smiled demurely as the guests applauded her arrival. She approached the dais and bowed to the king. He looked at her ensemble with approval, and she noticed he’d dressed to match. She still was not permitted to sit beside him, which would have been tradition for a maiden coming of age. Instead, he stepped down to stand with her.
Her status was uncharted territory for everyone present, including Ekon, but he was a talented diplomat. Every movement seemed intentional, as if there was nothing strange or different about this party for his broken beauty. He turned to a server and was handed two glasses of champagne. It was tradition for a new lady to share her first taste of champagne with the King, and he handed her a glass. They touched them together with a delicate clink and sipped.
Capri bowed again and sat at her table in front of the dais. Next to being on the platform, it was the highest place of honor. Ekon called for dinner to be served.
Of course, Capri was already well-versed in the art of alcohol. If a Victor wanted to share a drink with his or her Prize, it wouldn’t do for her to gag on a sip of whiskey or overindulge on sweet wine. Briony held tastings regularly so that she was familiar with all kinds. Ekon knew this, but he kept up appearances.
There were plenty of people she didn’t know at the party, invited because the King wished to have them there. Then there were others, like Agatha, who caught her eye and gave a graceful wave.
Her friend, Gina, had replaced her at Ekon’s side on the dais. She’d be fifteen now. Marianne was studying her soup, lips turned down in what was becoming a trademark frown. It was an unexpected birthday gift, getting to witness Gina’s rise and the beginning of Marianne’s fall.
After dinner, Capri greeted her guests and thanked them for attending. She chatted with Agatha but glossed over the details of what Ekon had planned for her. The other woman still bore guilt for what had happened that night, and Capri wanted her to believe that she was content. Sometimes she nearly was.
Ekon rose, and the activity stopped.
“Now I would ask my newest lady for the first dance,” he said, smiling down at her.
“Of course, King,” Capri answered.
He stepped down once more, and the dance floor cleared. He pressed a button on a remote in the pocket of his jacket, and music played. The song was upbeat. His fingers grazed her bare back, and he pulled her close when the steps called for it. The tempo of the music and the choreography didn’t allow for intimacy or conversation. After the first verse, other couples joined in, and soon the floor was a sea of beautiful bodies dancing in pairs.
Ekon’s beauties weren’t allowed to dance with other men, but they danced with each other. There were some male friends or associates of the king in the mix, but anyone who stepped foot in the palace knew better than to break the cardinal rule if they wanted to remain in his good graces. They’d brought their own partners.
As the song ended, Ekon came to a halt, holding both of Capri’s slender hands in his, a smile on his handsome face. He’d exerted himself and was breathing heavily. Capri was breathless herself and had laughter on her lips. In that brief moment, she loved him again, and her heart clenched painfully. He was guileless, almost boyish. The excitement of the night made everything shimmer.
“Capri,” he said, the whispered word a commendation—and a lament.
Her smile faltered. He reached up, brown eyes focused on her mouth, and he ran the pad of his thumb across her bottom lip. Her face burned, her breath caught. She wasn’t sure how to react to the King’s anguish, and her own hurt was becoming anger. He continued to act as if this arrangement was beyond his control. He’d decided their fate.
The next song started, and he seemed to come to his senses.
“Happy birthday.” He said, smiling once more before going to the dais and bowing to Marianne.
Capri tried to put the unsettling interlude out of her mind and danced with Briony, Agatha, and some of the other ladies in turn. She realized that Gina hadn’t left the dais at all. She sat, looking poised and politely interested, remembering her schooling, in a cream-colored chiffon dress.
On a whim, Capri approached the platform and called up to her. “Gina! Will you dance with me?”
The redhead’s eyes widened. She glanced around, looking to Ekon for approval, but he was otherwise engaged with a lady whose impossibly dark skin made her look otherworldly. Aphrodite of Knidos in ebony, Capri thought.
Gina stood and descended, but her reluctance was obvious. Hurt slipped through Capri’s euphoria again. She’d thought Gina would be pleased to spend time with her. Masking emotion had been an important part of her studies, and she retained her grace despite the pang of injured pride. They began moving to the beat. The girls’ muscles were tense beneath her freckled skin. She couldn’t look Capri in the eye. They continued at a friendly distance; to anyone else all seemed well.
“You don’t have to dance with me,” Capri told Gina softly. “I won’t be upset.”
The redhead looked up then, and Capri was surprised to find fear in her brown depths. She stopped moving to focus on her.
“What in the System is wrong?”
Gina swallowed. “Aren’t you angry?” she asked.
Capri’s brow furrowed in confusion. She glanced up at the table as if it held the answers. Ekon had returned to drink a glass of ale and was now watching them dance together with poorly-concealed pleasure. Then she caught sight of Marianne’s glower, and she understood. Gina thought she must hate her for stealing Ekon away.
“Oh,” she murmured. “That ship took off a long time ago. I’m happy for you.”
Gina relaxed, and they danced the next song as well. The younger girl gushed about how well Ekon treated her, how excited she was to serve him, and Capri listened enthusiastically. Her own rose-colored glasses were gone, but she wouldn’t ruin this for her friend. For Gina, this was a dream come true, as it had once been for her.
The song ended, and she and Gina parted ways. Briony whisked her away to the ladies’ room to touch up her hair and fix her dress, keeping her a vision of perfection throughout the cutting of the cake.
Soon, it was time for the last dance. It would be something upbeat to keep the feeling of elation alive as the courtiers returned to their rooms. Capri had Briony’s hand in hers, ready to pull her onto the dance floor.
But to her surprise, a melancholic love song began over the speakers, and Briony let Capri’s fingers slip from hers. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end. Ekon was behind her, demanding the last dance as well as the first. The last dance always went to the lady he’d be sleeping with, and they both knew it wouldn’t be her.
Still, the sweet strains of the music curled through her body like mulled wine, and she knew that this dance would not be casual.
She turned to her king. There was no predetermined choreography, and most of the people on the dance floor were true couples. Anyone who danced it without being romantically involved likely soon would be. But Capri barely noticed any of them. The King held her gaze and her body, moving in a way that spoke of his vast experience with the female sex.
Anger, resentment, reverence, and arousal all vied for dominance within Capri, heightening her senses and making her feel as if she may need to choose between fight or flight. Outwardly, of course, she was the perfect partner, matching him move for move, graceful and sensual, giving into his silent demands without question.
He was, after all, her King.
Ekon held her hand in his and kept his other on her lower back. His eyes were dark with passion, and his mouth formed the charming grin Capri had once dreamed about. She forced herself to relax, to slip into the guise of the confident seductress that would soon mean her survival.
“Do you know how much the winning bid was?”
Ekon’s husky voice caught her off guard. She hadn’t thought he was looking for conversation.
“Do I get a share?” Capri asked lightly. “It doesn’t really concern me otherwise.”
The King laughed. “Maybe you will, if I receive a positive report from your Victor.”
“I’ll do my best, King.”
Ekon looked past her for a moment, toward the dais, and a frown flickered across his full lips. Capri caught sight of Marianne’s scowl and suppressed her own smile. Ekon brought his eyes back to hers, probably thinking she’d missed the exchange.
“She must be very good in bed,” Capri said.
She was being impertinent, but Ekon only seemed amused. They both knew she didn’t have much to lose by speaking out of turn.
“Are you wondering why she’s my favorite?”
Capri gave a delicate shrug. “There are others as beautiful. I doubt she’s a great conversationalist.”
Ekon smiled, but this time it was tinged with sadness. He reached out to tuck a curl behind her ear, and she felt her cheeks burn. She’d hoped the conversation would ease the strange tension between them, but it seemed to intensify it.
“Be fair to me. You would have replaced her at my side tonight.”
For a moment, she forgot herself, and she felt sorry for him. Then her anger returned with a vengeance. The only thing holding him back was his own hubris, and now her entire future had become twisted into some sick imitation of what it was supposed to be. She’d gone from a rising favorite to a whore all at the whim of the man holding her so tightly. He believed in his own decree so fully she doubted he even realized he was manipulating her.
If she hadn’t been sure of her feelings about Ekon before, she was now.
“If you must know, she does please me in bed.” Ekon’s voice returned her to the present. “She’s also a fine opponent in chess.”
“Chess?” Capri was surprised. “Really?”
“Yes. Somehow she always manages to capture my queen.”
Capri laughed, continuing the charade. She glanced back at Marianne and met her stony gaze evenly. Marianne’s head wasn’t empty, after all.
Something about that unsettled her.