“Beauty,” he murmured. His hands settled on her waist and his gaze raked hungrily over the rest of her body, like he was undressing her with his eyes.

“You are looking different this afternoon,” he remarked, taking her hand and pulling her toward the bed.

“I… feel different,” she said, following him. Her voice was surprisingly steady for someone who had been a trembling wreck less than an hour ago.

“Why is that?” Cyrus wondered.

“Today I… I realized how much I miss you when you’re gone.” As the two sank down on the mattress, she reached out and stroked his cheek timidly with her fingers. “And I realized that… I’m unhappy without you.”

She leaned in and this time kissed his lips. From the pleasant surprise that crossed Cyrus’ face, I was sure that was the first time she had ever done that to him willingly. He pushed her back on the mattress and lay beside her, his arms snaking around her and locking her flush against him. I felt quite amazed that he seemed to actually believe her words. After everything he’d done to her, I thought he’d be suspicious at this change of mood. I could only assume that, when it came to women, his ego was bigger than his brain.

Watching them make out for the next few minutes was sickening, knowing how much Nuriya must be despising every second. But she was putting on a good act. By the time Cyrus surfaced again, he was quite breathless, blood rising to his lips.

Nuriya, still lying on her side, propped her head up with her elbow and traced her right hand down his muscled chest. “I was also thinking that… that maybe we could make the wedding sooner.”

Cyrus' eyes lit up. His face broke out in a wide smile. “Of course,” he said. “If that’s what you wish. We shall have it within a week! Never mind all the extra luxury and rituals we’d have time to plan by waiting longer. I’m not so concerned with any of it as I am with seeing you… all of you… for the first time.” His eyes glistened with lust.

I couldn’t miss the gulp in Nuriya’s throat, but it seemed that Cyrus was too preoccupied to notice.

“I was thinking even sooner,” Nuriya said sweetly.

Cyrus stared at her. “Sooner than a week?”

“Yes,” she said, and then she averted her eyes, playing bashful.

“How soon?” he pressed, clearly enjoying himself immensely.

She pressed her lips against his again in a deep, long kiss before whispering, “Tonight.”

“Tonight?” Cyrus actually laughed. “Well, if that is what the love of my life wishes, then… It shall be done.” He kissed her again before leaving her side and gliding out of bed.

“Then we have only hours to prepare. It will not be the grandest wedding by far… but believe me, Nuriya, it will be the truest.” His eyes lingered on her adoringly, and I found myself wondering whether there was indeed a part of him that loved her. Just not a large enough part to stop him from destroying her life…

“I will leave to begin preparations at once!” he announced, already moving toward the door. “And I will send some servants up to help you dress.”

With that, he hurried out of the room.

As Nuriya gazed after him, I could see the fear rising up behind her eyes.

Poor woman. She looked like a lamb. A lamb ready for slaughter.

Ben

Once Cyrus was safely gone, I solidified myself before Nuriya. I promised her that all would be okay—even though it was a promise I didn’t even know that we could keep. I told her to go along with everything, keep playing the part, and that I would come for her. She nodded, and it killed me to see how much faith she placed in me.

Then I had to leave, almost bumping into a group of servants entering through the door on my way out. I hurried along the palace corridors back to Horatio’s apartment. When I returned to the sitting room where I had left them, Horatio and Aisha were still sitting here, close to each other and deep in conversation.

Their eyes shot toward me. I hurriedly explained to them that I had been successful in getting through to Nuriya, and that Cyrus had agreed to make the wedding this evening.

As if to make my point, a loud bell began to ring outside. Then came a voice, booming through the very walls of the palace:

“Royal wedding in five hours! King Cyrus will wed his beloved Nuriya!”

I swallowed hard.

Aisha swallowed harder.

Tonight. Everything hung on tonight. If this failed—for one or more of the many reasons that it could and should fail—then that would be it. Sherus would come after me, Lucas, Kailyn and the other three Underworld escapees… We had to pull this off. We just had to.

I waited tensely with Horatio and Aisha during the hours before the wedding as we continued to discuss our harebrained scheme. It felt like the more we discussed it, the more holes we saw in it, until our conversation ended up petering out. We’d discussed what we could. Now all that was left was to do it.

About half an hour before the wedding was due to start, I left for the grand court, where Horatio had told me the wedding would take place, while Horatio headed in the opposite direction, Aisha the mouse in his pocket. We had agreed that he would take Aisha back to the desert, and she would return to Lake Nasser where my family and the dragons awaited. There she would fetch the dragons, who were due to play a part in our plan later this evening… assuming they agreed. If the shifters did, they would be essentially striking out any goodwill that the dragons and the Drizans had accumulated over God knew how many years. Though it didn’t seem like they had many favors left anyway, so they hopefully wouldn’t be much worse off.

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