I followed Dorian’s nod, my gaze landing on a slender woman. Her thick, brown hair fell in waves over her pale, round shoulders and tumbled over the bodice of her black, satin dress. Somehow, I’d expected something more predatory from Dorian’s alleged nemesis, something like my uncle Gabriel’s story about the monstrous mage-lady who ate children, but Eleanor was beautiful.
“I see you have similar taste in dyes,” I said.
For a few seconds, Dorian looked utterly bewildered. Then, he laughed. “It’s not that. In Reverie, when a parent dies, it’s proper to observe a year-long mourning period. You wear black for the first ten months, and for the last two, you’re allowed to add gray and lilac. My mother isn’t worth nearly that level of devotion, but unfortunately, I have a reputation to uphold.”
“How did she die?” I asked.
“She fell down the stairs and broke her neck. Or something like that.”
He said it as casually as if he’d been discussing the weather.
“You don’t believe she fell?” I asked.
He didn’t sound especially bothered with the possibility that someone might have killed his mother. Maybe he’d done the deed himself. I looked nervously towards Eleanor and wondered how she felt about her mom’s death.
“Should I be worried about Eleanor?” I asked.
“She’s a very dangerous woman.”
“You’re dangerous, too,” I pointed out.
“So I am. But Eleanor is always looking to stab someone in the back. I’d at least do you the courtesy of stabbing you from the front,” Dorian replied.
As if she’d heard him from across the room, Eleanor headed straight to us.
“Don’t you have somewhere to be, Wynter?” Dorian asked.
He was right, so I headed away, drifting into the crowd. Viviane or Alexander. Where were they? There were so many people that it was impossible to find anyone. I’d never stolen jewelry off a person before, but I had an idea of how I wanted to do it. Distraction was key. All I had to do was spill a drink down the front of Viviane’s dress, draw attention to her reaction and steal the necklace right under everyone’s nose. Or if I got lucky, Viviane would go to clean herself up and take it off. But it was still a huge risk. What was so special about this necklace? Why did Dorian even want it, and why risk everything just a game to him.
I drifted to the wall and stood there, scanning the crowd. Finally, I found Alexander and headed towards him. My heart raced. Just ask him to dance. It wouldn’t be that difficult. Alexander saw me and ended his conversation with a blonde woman wearing a purple gown. I took a deep breath.
“Good evening,” I said.
Now that I knew he was a prince, it made talking to him much more awkward.
“Good evening,” he said.
“Would you like to—”
“Dance?” he asked. “With you?”
Maybe Dorian had been wrong. Maybe Alexander would humiliate me in front of all these people.
“Yes,” I replied.
He put an arm around the small of my back and drew me in closer. “Can I tell you a secret?” he whispered. “I hate dancing.”
“Me too,” I said.
“Why don’t we talk instead?”
“Um…sure,” I said.
Without warning, Alexander grabbed my wrist and pulled me along behind him. I stumbled at first, but then followed him out of the ballroom and down a long, dark corridor. This was a trap of some kind, but I didn’t know how to avoid it.
We reached the end. I pulled my wrist away, but Alexander’s hand shot out, corning me against the wall. He was even more handsome from close up, and his blue eyes were staring directly into mine with an intensity that took my breath away. I tried to say something, but all my thoughts scattered and fell apart.
“This is what you wanted, isn’t it?” he murmured.
“What are you talking about?” I asked nervously.
“You get all dressed up, attend a fancy ball, and hope to seduce a prince into a dark corner. Don’t think you’re the first to try.”
I sucked in a quick breath. I looked at his broad shoulders and then away.
“Why would I want to seduce you?”
“Why wouldn’t you? Unless you honestly think you’ve got what it takes to become a mage.”
“I passed the test, didn’t I?”
“Did you?” he asked. My breath hitched. Did he know I’d cheated? Had he seen the device?
“Besides, you’re not that plain looking, even if you do come from the Lower Realms. I’m surprised, however, you don’t smell like trash.” He leaned in close, sniffing slowly at my neck.
Asshole! I pushed him off, shaking, but he caught my wrist and spun me into his arms.
“Relax,” he whispered, “I’m just using you to rile up Viviane. It takes her down a peg, I don’t like her getting too sure of herself. It’s a little game we play. Ah, there she is, right on schedule.”
I broke free of his embrace, just in time to see Vivian come around the corner. I stepped away quickly from Alexander, leaning against the far wall.
“There you are,” Viviane’s voice drifted to us. My gaze dropped to her throat; there was the necklace. I was furious with the way Alexander had treated me, and I wanted nothing more than to run back to the safety of the main gala. But I’d come for the necklace, and it was right in front of me. It would be easier to steal away from the party.
“Whatever are you two whispering about?”
“I was just telling Wynter how dangerous magic is,” Alexander replied.
Viviane’s green eyes widened. “Why, that reminds me! I never finished telling you what happened to the last mage from Argent. I think it’s terribly tragic.”
Something bad was coming. I just knew this was going to be some terrible, morbid story. But I played along anyway.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Well,” Viviane said, “He was a prodigy at the Academy, until the day he went mad. Couldn’t handle the pressure. He started hearing voices, talking to himself. Finally, he slit a noblewoman’s throat. I heard he tossed pieces of her dismembered body off the edge, before leaping to his death. People say you can still hear them calling to each other at night on the outskirts of Reverie.”
“That’s not true,” I said uncertainly.
Viviane sighed and shook her head. “You really don’t know anything, do you?” she asked. “You’re hopeless.”
“It doesn’t matter how much I know,” I said. “It matters only what I’m willing to learn.”
“That was almost profound,” Viviane replied. “Did you steal it from my uncle? He likes to make people think he’s profound.”
Hisses struck my ears. At first I thought I’d triggered the device accidentally, but the noise was coming from down the hall.
“We should head back,” Alexander said.
“You might be right,” Viviane said. “Mother is so overprotective sometimes. Just a moment, I need to finish my drink first.”
She stepped closer to me, until we were face to face, and then she slowly emptied her champagne glass down my dress. I gasped as the cold, sparkling liquid dripped beneath my corset.
“There,” she smirked. “All done.”