Sounds of a door opening and closing, then of Bel moving around and muttering to himself. Lightning coursed through me as I realized he might, at any moment, decide to come check on me. I spun, looking around the bedroom for anything useful. There was a small table by the sofa. A sideboard held a selection of wine and liquor against one wall. There was a fireplace with a nearly dead fire. Spying the dressing room door, I headed for it. Maybe all the dressing rooms had secret passageways. The room was dark, and Bel’s clothes hung in neat rows, his collection nowhere near as large as the king’s. The room was much smaller, also, and it didn’t take long to tap on the walls and pry at moldings with no results. Swearing softly, I reentered the bedroom.
This was complicated. I didn’t want to go with that handsome snake. I wasn’t worried about my relationship with the king, except that was the main excuse for our being in the palace. Apparently, failing at turning Analie against the king, Khattmali was trying to turn the king against Analie. She must be in a terrible rush to be taking such bold, drastic measures. I returned to the couch and lay down. I rubbed my temples to ease the ache that lingered, and contemplated my next move. By the time the door to the bedroom opened, letting in a widening spray of light, I had a plan. I dropped my hands, closed my eyes, and lay still. Bel’s shadow crossed the light and as he drew near I could hear his muttered stream of curses. Had he been swearing since Khattmali left?
I sensed him approach the couch, then felt him sit on the edge. I shifted, then moaned very softly.
“Analie?” he asked, sounding very concerned. His fingers brushed against my cheek. It was all I could do not to flinch. “Are you alright? Can you hear me?”
I fluttered my eyes, then brought my hands to my face, wincing as if the light hurt. I squinted at him through my fingers. His brown hair was mussed, as if he’d been running his hands through it, and he looked so blasted worried.
“What happened?” I asked, not having to fake the croak in my voice.
“The wine,” he explained, “It was drugged. I was so frightened you wouldn’t wake up. I brought you here to recover.”
“You drugged me?”
“No!” he recoiled in horror, “I don’t know who drugged you—a rival, maybe? One of my enemies, or one of yours.”
How close he skated to the truth.
He drew a hand over his face then blew his breath out. “I’m glad you’re alright.”
I let my hands curl under my chin. Defensive, but no longer covering my face. “I feel awful.”
“I’m sure you do. My physician said it was mafeisan—just a small amount, so not deadly, just knocks you out and makes you wake up with a hell of a hangover.”
“How would I have enemies? I don’t know anyone—hadn’t met anyone before today.”
Bel’s face twisted with…sadness? I hadn’t been expecting that look. “Unfortunately, that’s not how the court works.” He paused. “Are you feeling well enough to try sitting up?”
I nodded, and he took my arm, standing to support me as I shifted into a sitting position, then reseating himself next to me at an angle, so close his knees touched mine and he could look into my face. I looked down, pretending the world was spinning and wondering if he could smell the bile on my breath. Bel watched me for a few moments before reaching to a nearby side table to retrieve a glass of water. The tray with glasses and a pitcher hadn’t been there before, he must’ve brought it in with him. I allowed myself a quick sniff of the water before drinking it. It was fresh, clear—not poisoned—and it soothed my bile scorched throat.
“You’re staying with the king?”
I nodded again, lacing my fingers around the cup.
“I’ll take you back there as soon as you feel you can walk.”
Eyes wide, I stared at him. “Thank you,” the words came out a whisper. This was his way of convincing Analie to stay with him? But, then again, as I looked at his handsome, concerned, face, I did feel a part of me warming to him. Desiring him, even. Bastard.
He turned away and poured himself some water. When he turned back he asked, “Do you love the king, Analie?”
“I do.” I blushed.
“Why?” he asked, his voice sharper than I expected.
I looked up at him, surprised.
He shook his head, as if he regretted his tone. “I’m sorry…I can easily see why the King wants you. But why would a kind girl like you be taken in by a cruel, womanizing profligate like him?”
With great effort I swallowed my incredulous retort. Inside, I chanted love makes you stupid, and said meekly, “He said he loves me.”
Chuffing out a bitter laugh, Bel stood up abruptly and crossed to the sideboard to pour himself something stronger than water. I watched him, fascinated. The best lies are mostly true, and I didn’t think this bitterness was faked.
“Analie, I know you don’t want to hear this, and I know you might not believe me, but I have to tell you: You’re sweet and beautiful, and the smartest thing the king ever did was enthrall you. But he doesn’t know how to love. He’s mad, vicious, and petty. He will make you think you are the center of the world, and you will be,” Bel stopped and tossed back his drink. “Until he’s done with you, and then you’re nothing.”
I just watched, wide-eyed.
“He’s king, and he takes whomever he pleases to his bed. He should be courting a woman of rank and nobility, not seducing her.”
By the time he turned to face me again I had tears glistening in my eyes. “Is that why you’re angry?” I whispered, choking on the words, “Because I’m not noble?”
It took a split second for him to trace his mistake, and he hurried back to the couch, contrite. He sat beside me and took my hands; I scooted away and sniffed loudly. “No, Analie, no…” he moaned, “That’s not it at all.”
I stood up quickly, the world only tilted a little, “I’ve been in this palace for months and not one soul made any attempt to be my friend except the king.” I started pacing erratically through the room. “No one wanted to be my friend, or talk to me, or anything like that. I was nothing to everyone—” I paused and glared at Bel, “Except him.”
Bel looked at me helplessly. “I’m sorry.”
“And now you tell me that he doesn’t really care for me?” I moved behind the couch, pacing between the couch and the bed so Bel had to swivel to watch me. “Why should I believe you? Who are you? Why do you care?”
“A few years ago, he took an interest in my sister.”
“I’d never seen her so happy…but then, just like that it was over,” Bel snapped his fingers. “For him, anyway. She cried for months.”
I stopped pacing. “I’m sorry.” It didn’t even matter if he was lying. There was almost certainly a girl with that story, even if she wasn’t his sister.
Bel turned away, facing front. “It’s not your fault.”
I came up to the back of the couch, hesitated, then leaned down and slipped my arms around Bel. I smoothed my hands down his muscular chest before wrapping my arms across his front and putting my head on his shoulder. He relaxed into my touch, and I felt just a twinge of guilt as I kissed his cheek so he wouldn’t notice my arms shift toward his throat. “I’m sorry, Bel. It’s just…I’m so confused. He’s been so kind. But now you tell me these things about him, and I just don’t know what to think. I thought he loved me.” I kept whispering in his ear, and if Bel ever noticed my tightening arms on his neck, he didn’t move. He didn’t move till he sagged slightly and I released the pressure on his neck. He slumped over. Quickly, I pressed my fingers to his neck, and was relieved that he was still alive.
I didn’t have much time.
Moving round to the front of the couch I struggled to reposition Bel so he was laid out on the couch, head on a pillow, as if he’d chosen to take a nap.
I found a writing set in the sitting room, and left a hastily scrawled note tucked under his hand. Then, straightening my skirts and taking a deep breath, I walked out of his chambers.