Capri spent the next two days putting on a show. She attended a luncheon with some ladies who wanted to hear all about her experience with the monsters who kidnapped her.
She remained vague, pretending it pained her to discuss details. She walked in the gardens, visited the masseuse and manicurist. She accepted condolences for the loss of her position. Briony was the only one who knew she spent her time behind closed doors wondering what would become of Brody.
More specifically, she wondered if and when she’d hear from Colin. Did he even know what was happening? Should she try to send word to him? Sitting, waiting, and hoping were torture, but risking a message also meant putting her ability to help them in jeopardy.
Instead of wringing her hands, she focused her energy on her second goal, which required finding an excuse to meet with the King. On the morning of the third day, it was Briony who brought the opportunity. It came in the form of a folded, sealed piece of paper, so like the invitations she’d received to parties in the upper dining hall when she was held in much higher esteem.
This time, when she held her breath, waiting for Briony to open it, it wasn’t excitement and anticipation she felt—it was hope and fear. Somewhere the gavel had dropped, and he was inviting her to receive judgment. They were both to see him that afternoon in order to discover their new roles within the palace.
Despite knowing they would soon be separated, Briony remained her dedicated attendant. Capri suspected that throwing herself into helping and entertaining her lady was how she kept her mind off of her own fate. She didn’t ask Capri’s opinion on her wardrobe as she usually did; instead she stood in the younger woman’s closet, biting her lip as if trying to reach a decision. She pulled out a familiar, royal blue dress.
Capri looked from Briony to the dress and back again. It was the dress she’d worn the night she turned seventeen, the night Ekon had appointed himself the first Victor.
“I’m not sure this will work the way you want it to,” she told Briony.
“I know he’s changed, but he still knows a beautiful woman when he sees one. Perhaps the reminder of your night together will…appease him.” Capri frowned at the memory, and Briony shook her head. “You have to work on that.”
“You’ve changed, too, Capri. You have to hide your thoughts.”
Capri only grew more sullen. She’d never had to hide her feelings from Brody. She felt the loss of that freedom more keenly now.
“I’m more honest,” she argued.
“Ekon doesn’t want honesty. You know that.”
Capri relaxed her face and smiled. Briony raised an eyebrow, looking amused and annoyed, and Capri knew that her expression was convincing.
“Better,” Briony conceded. Then she turned serious, clasping Capri’s hand in her own to be sure she had her full attention. “I know there is tension between the two of you. He’s a jealous man, a possessive man, and your relationship will never be the same. But this is your home. You must do what you can to make it easy on yourself.”
Capri’s once-future loomed before her. She’d live a long, empty life in the palace of Mars and then die in her sleep, a shell of the beauty she’d once been, with no other accomplishment than having once been a beauty.
Once upon a time, she’d have chosen that fate gladly. It felt like a disturbing dream now, but she couldn’t tell that to Briony.
“If you think wearing the dress is for the best, I’ll do it.”
“I do,” she said firmly.
Briony helped Capri slip into it. The garment still fit as well as it had two years before, though the bandage on her arm was in stark contrast to the rest of her fair skin. Briony found an arm cuff in silver that covered the imperfection well enough, though the friction was far from comfortable.
She sat down at the familiar vanity and Briony braided her hair, weaving the beads made of precious metal into her chestnut curls. Her attendant’s fingers lingered for a moment in the soft strands, and when Capri glanced in the mirror she saw tears in her friend’s eyes.
She reached back and covered her hand, putting all of her gratitude into a gentle squeeze. It was the last night they’d be in the roles they’d sustained for four years. If Capri let herself feel too much, this new loss might devastate her. She had to stay focused.
Briony spritzed her with scent and checked her own reflection in the mirror. Capri took a turn and straightened her shoulders. She was radiant and more than deserving of Ekon’s attention, but she just couldn’t muster the demure, worshipful look that had once come so naturally. She felt confident and powerful in her own right, and no matter what kind of pretty things Briony adorned her with, he wouldn’t like that.
“Are you ready?” Briony asked, and Capri realized the blond had been waiting for her.
She smiled, and they linked arms. “Ready.”
A guard escorted them to Ekon’s chambers and let them into a room that doubled as an office and sitting area. Capri spotted a decanter of whiskey on a shelf and was reminded of Brody. She looked away.
He wasn’t the reason she was here.
One of the king’s valets offered chairs and tea. Two guards stood at each of the three doors in the spacious room. There was furniture made of real wood, the smell of leather—luxury that few people in the kingdom had the opportunity to experience.
Briony accepted the tea but remained standing. Capri followed suit. She knew that they would make the most impact that way, their beauty on full display like exquisite mannequins.
Ekon came through one of the doors a short time later, escorted by Haddaway, who nodded to the ladies. His eyes lingered on Capri’s briefly, a warning, before he stood at a respectful distance.
The king was dressed in trousers, a collared shirt, and a long blue jacket. He offered the pair a small smile. For a moment, he looked like the old Ekon, the one who hadn’t realized his dynasty could come crashing down around him at any moment. But his grin was wry, and though appreciation gleamed in his eye, caution was stronger.
“You both look lovely this evening.”
He let his eyes stay on Capri, and she knew that he was remembering their night together, just as Briony had planned. She hid her revulsion.
“Please sit,” he said smoothly. His words weren’t a request, and they obeyed their king.
Capri sipped her tea and watched him carefully. Ekon had been angry at their last meeting. He’d recovered his composure, but she knew his feelings toward her weren’t changed. He demanded the attention of nearly fifty women and girls, she’d slept with as many men and women at his request, and he would treat her as if she alone were impure.
“I trust you’re getting used to being back?” Ekon asked Capri.
Capri could see right through the polite words to the question he was really asking: I trust you’ve been behaving.
“Yes, thank you,” she responded.
“This tea is delicious,” Briony said, and Ekon rewarded the blond with a genuine smile. He had a soft spot for her. He’d looked at Capri that way before she’d slept with a man from whom he was unable to profit.
“It’s a special blend, imported from China Territory. I’ll have some sent to your room.”
“That’s very kind, King. Thank you.”
He cleared his throat and turned his attention back to the both of them. “I’m afraid other obligations won’t allow me to linger long, so I’ll cut to the chase.”
“We understand.” Briony spoke softly and inclined her head gently. Once more, Capri forced herself to follow suit, appearing pleasant and curious and nothing more.
“Marianne is in need of a new lady, and you are both in need of a new position.”
Briony opened her mouth to speak. Capri knew she would volunteer for the position, to save her the misery of being stuck serving the wretched cow, but she interrupted quickly with a derisive snort.
Ekon’s attention snapped back to her, and his eyes narrowed. Still, he remained in control, his tone patient and pleasant. Capri was afraid of inciting his anger, but this was why she’d come. If there was ever a time to act confident, it was now.
“What do you find so funny, Capri?” he asked.
“Nothing, King. I’m just not surprised.” She kept her tone flippant and glanced at her manicured nails.
Briony caught her eye and gave her a look that said very clearly: Shut up! Capri kept her attention on Ekon, who seemed to be choosing his words carefully.
“You never liked her,” he said.
“There’s not much to like.”
Briony splashed tea on her dress, trying desperately to end the conversation. “Oh, dear!” she exclaimed.
But neither Ekon nor Capri acknowledged her, letting a valet help her clean the skirt.
“What is it about her you find so threatening?” he asked.
His tone was curious, but the smirk on his lips told her he was looking for a reaction, and much to her chagrin, he got it. Capri’s pride flared, and her nostrils with it. That was all, but it was enough. His expression changed to one of satisfaction and he sat back in his chair, taking a long sip of tea.
“You’ll be Marianne’s new lady, Capri, and move into the adjoining room tomorrow. She’s been ill as of late, and it’s made her…disagreeable. However, I expect her to be ready when I call and to make an appearance at the memorial. You’ll make sure of that. I don’t want unfounded rumors concerning her condition and whereabouts.”
“Of course, King,” Capri agreed, allowing her bright façade to falter slightly. It worked in her favor now for Ekon to think she was unhappy with the situation.
Briony had given up and merely sat there, watching the exchange, the spiced tea growing cold in her hands. Ekon rose, and he held out a hand as if he wished to help Capri rise. She set down her tea, smiled demurely, and took his hand. He helped her to her feet—and then pulled her in hard, pressing her against him to whisper in her ear. She was caught off guard and gasped at the sudden closeness, recoiling slightly before she could stop herself.
She glanced at Haddaway, who looked displeased by his king’s behavior, but he wouldn’t make a move to stop him.
“You don’t want me in that way,” he murmured in her ear.
She didn’t answer. She didn’t need to. She only held her breath and waited for him to release her, but he wasn’t done yet. He slid a hand down her arm, squeezing the cuff slightly and making her wince. He breathed in the scent of her hair and then looked into her eyes once more.
“Marianne’s illness can get in the way of our amorous activities.”
Capri swallowed but held his gaze. “It’s a good thing there are so many available young ladies. I am well aware that I am too sullied for you.”
He released her, and she stepped back. She was ready to flee, but she had to wait to be dismissed.
“I am still entitled to you if I want you,” he reminded her in such a gentle tone that she almost didn’t register the threat it encompassed. “Don’t forget that. You may go. I’ll speak with Briony alone.”
Capri glanced at her friend, who looked so scared and hurt on her behalf, and tried to offer a reassuring smile. Then she turned and left the room while she was still able to walk straight-backed, head held high.
As soon as the elevator door closed behind her, she stopped fighting and let herself slide to the floor, feeling all of the fear and loathing she’d forced back when Ekon had pressed their bodies together.
When the door opened again, she was standing, and no one could tell that she had broken down.