Home > The Shadows Between Us(6)

The Shadows Between Us(6)
Author: Tricia Levenseller

A group of ladies sits by the creek, sharing the newest gossip. Three gentlemen stand huddled together under one of the cherry trees, teacups in hand, laughing over something one of them said. A few couples have branched off from other groups. I watch a pair of courting ladies walk with hands clasped together, the hoops of their skirts touching. Really, the ladies at court could do with some fashion advice from me. I hope I will start some new trends.

With all the courtiers distracted by their current companions, no one takes notice of my arrival yet.

I make a show of walking toward the refreshment table, letting my eyes wander in search of the king, when something barrels into me from behind.

I nearly lose my footing, but I catch myself, though a huge pressure impedes my overskirt.

A reprimand is already on my lips as I turn, but I’m brought up short.

There’s a dog panting before me.

At least I think it’s a dog. It also has a startling likeness to a bear. In both size and color.

“Hello,” I say, bending over and holding out my hand.

The dog takes a few sniffs before nudging my fingers with its nose. An invitation to pet it if I’ve ever seen one.

I’ve always wanted a dog, but my father forbade it because he has such a terrible reaction to them.

I stroke it—him, I correct after a quick look down to confirm the sex—behind the ears.

“Good boy,” I say, “though I’d appreciate it if you got off my skirt.”

He lies down, covering even more of my skirt, his wet nose digging into the fabric.

“What are you doing, silly creature?” I adjust myself to avoid losing my balance and end up bumping into something with my foot.

A ball the size of an apple. Hidden beneath my skirts. I reach down for it.

“Oh, is this what you’re looking for?” I ask.

The dog jumps to a standing position, tail wagging, finally freeing my skirt. I cock back my arm, throw the ball as far as I can, and watch the giant mongrel race after it.

And then, out of the corner of my eye, a wisp of shadow.

The king is watching me. His shadows darken once our eyes meet, swirling more thickly about his form. I wonder if they change with his thoughts. If I could learn to read them if I studied them long enough.

He stands in the shade cast by one of the trees, leaning his frame against the trunk. Today he has his hair brushed back from his forehead, and I can’t begin to guess what sorcery manages to hold the strands in place with such volume. He wears a long-sleeved black dress shirt, matching gloves, a waistcoat of deep blue brocade, and a black cravat.

I hadn’t realized I’d been smiling at the dog until I feel my features shift into surprise.

And then I watch the dog trot over to the king and drop the ball at his feet.

With a quick adjustment, I right my overskirt and sweep toward the king, stopping when I’m five feet away. I cross my arms over my chest.

“Is that your dog?” I accuse, even though I already know the answer.

“Good boy, Demodocus,” the Shadow King says, picking up the ball and tossing it away again. Demodocus races after it once more. To me, he says, “You have a good arm.”

“And you have impressive aim.”

He lifts a brow. “Surely you’re not accusing me of intentionally throwing the ball at you.”

“That’s exactly what you did.” But why? “If you wanted my attention, all you had to do was ask for it. Though I’m disinclined to give it now that I know you practically ordered your dog to tackle me.”

The corners of his mouth turn up. “It wasn’t your attention I wanted. I was curious to see how you would react to Demodocus.”

“Why?” I ask, baffled.

Demodocus gallops toward us before dropping the ball at the king’s perfectly polished shoes. He raises it in a black-gloved hand before hurling it toward a group of ladies sitting in chairs along the creek. Demodocus streaks in front of them, racing to catch his prize, and a volley of shrieks rises into the air.

The king arches his neck slightly, as though this proves his point. Whatever that may be.

“You react well to the unexpected,” he says at last. “And you like animals. That’s two things I didn’t know about you before.”

“And you are devious.” Siccing his dog on unsuspecting ladies.

“Now surely you’d already guessed that about me,” he says, pushing off from the tree. He steps into the light, and I step backward with the movement, keeping the appropriate distance. His grin grows as he looks me up and down.

“Something funny?” I ask.

“I’m merely admiring your attire once again. Tell me, is the corset not meant to go underneath the blouse?”

“It’s not a corset. It’s merely styled after one. I like the way the laces look. Why hide them?”

The king takes a moment to digest that. “You are going to cause all kinds of trouble in my court.”

I can’t tell if he’s worried or amused by that.

“Just look at how you’ve already changed things. If you will excuse me.” He turns to the side. “Demodocus! Come, boy!”

Demodocus reaches the king, and the two take off at a brisk jog through the trees, shadows streaking after the king like a comet.

Already changed things? But whatever could he mean?

I put my back to where the king disappeared and instead focus on the other forms in the garden.

Oh.

The ladies at court—they’re dressed in head-to-toe black. Not a speck of green in sight.

They’re imitating me from last night. How did I not notice this immediately?

I caught the eye of the king. He asked me to dance, and now he was seen talking with me in the orchards. People are staring openly at me now. And—

And a group of older lords and ladies is walking toward me. There are five of them, each somewhere in their forties or fifties, I expect. They look important. I can tell by the way they don’t spare glances at anyone else around them, the way individuals move for them to pass.

And in the way other people who were about to approach me halt to let these five reach me first.

“Lady Alessandra Stathos, isn’t it?” the man at the front of the group asks, holding out a hand. “My name is Ikaros Vasco. I am the head of the king’s council.”

I offer my hand, and he bows over it with a head of hair more white than brown. Lord Vasco has aged well, save for wrinkles about his eyes.

“Yes. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lord Vasco.”

He doesn’t bother to introduce the rest of his companions, who must be the other advisers to the king.

“I’m afraid I don’t know much about you,” he says when he rights himself. “Second daughter to an earl. Never seen in society until last night. Although there are a few gentlemen at court who claim to know you, having done business with your father.”

He’s looked into me. Gone digging into my background. Of course he did. It’s his job to know everything he can about those whom the king spends his time with. The real question is, was the king the one who ordered my past looked into? Or is the council acting on its own?

“I’m afraid you have the law to blame for that,” I answer honestly. “My sister just became engaged. I wasn’t permitted to attend events until recently. The only people I’ve had a chance to meet are those whom my father does business with.”

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