The electric lights hidden at the top of each column reflected light onto the polished floor and the glittering array of gowns and tailcoats. But they didn't help DG feel any kinder towards the guests in the Northern Palace. She sighed and put her arms behind her back. That at least kept her from slouching in the blue velvet dress, and if she didn't slouch, she wouldn't be tempted to lean over the balcony railing until she got dizzy.
Raw, dressed in a suede suit cut like his furry one, stepped up beside her. "DG have deep thoughts for a celebration."
"Just wondering what the point is, that's all."
"To celebrate freedom from witch."
DG shook her head. "Don't get me wrong, I don't mind getting pretty or cheering up people who had a rotten time of it. But these are the same nobles who came to the Victory Ball, the Hi-DG's-alive-for-real Ball, and the Harvest Ball. The same nobles who all hid in their castles and let the witch destroy the O.Z." She glared down at the preening and dancing crowd. "I think we should expand the guest list, but then again, maybe we should spare the normal people from the display of nearly all the wealth of the Zone on a group ready to take hostage."
Raw patted her arm, covered in a blue-velvet sleeve. "They leave donations to building fund. You can spread that wealth."
"I'm not in charge of that any more." She rapidly blinked to keep the disappointment from ruining her makeup. "It was taking too much time from my other duties." Her eyes narrowed when she saw the carefully-coiffed blond man moving through the first floor crowd on the sidelines. "Damn, I think Ahamo is looking for me."
"Go to fresh air. I get drinks and go back together." DG grinned at her friend before slipping past the curtains and through the glass doors. She needed more time to compose her good little Princess face. Thank God, Raw could feel that.
The outside balcony over the frozen water had been swept clear of snow, but the icicles remained like crystal stalagmites. The expanse of stone was as big as the front porch on the farmhouse back in Kansas. None of the cold air seeped through her velvet gown. She moved to the right, so no one peering through the curtains could see her. The unfamiliar constellations twinkled in the black sky above. She looked down at the ice with a lump in her throat. Missing Kansas because there's no Orion in the sky; that's pathetic.
The doors opened and shut, but DG didn't turn around to greet Raw. He'd step next to her with a cup of hot cider.
"There you are, Princess." She shivered at the smooth voice, more slurred than the last time she had heard it, but turned.
A stone bench stood between her and the swaying, brown-haired Prince of Aurissau. "Prince Aedan." Drunker than a frat boy after the State Championship game. She stepped to the left to move around him and the bench.
Aedan matched her movement with a finger wag. "Princess Dorothy Gale, you have been avoiding me. Despite your mother's instructions."
"My mother's instructions can only go so far. She can't order me to like you." DG crossed her arms.
"And what is so wrong with me?" His arm flung out. "Especially compared to the company you kept your first week back home."
DG's face flushed. "For starters, my friends would never sneer at anyone. Don't dare sneer at them in my presence again."
Aedan sighed. "Why do you make it so hard? I'm trying to put aside the knowledge that you allowed common laborers between your legs, but you are not giving me any reason to forget."
DG's brow furrowed. Who the hell told him of all people about her boyfriends? Not that it was making him go away. "I don't conform to anyone's standards of how a Princess should behave. If it makes your ego feel better, you can blame it on my being raised on the Other Side."
His nostrils flared as his green eyes narrowed. "Everyone on the Other Side is a hypocritical slut?" he shouted as he charged. DG moved to avoid him, but her high heel slipped out from under her foot. She jerked back to not twist her ankle and Aedan grabbed her arm. "You won't even have dinner alone with me, but you let a common police officer between your legs for a whole week! I'll not suffer that, Princess!"
DG curled her right fist and slugged his jaw. "You don't have to suffer anything! Go back to Aurissau!"
His head rocked back but he straightened with a whitening face. "I will not go back without what was promised to me." His grip tightened.
She reared back to hit him, but Aedan grabbed that arm too. "I never promised you anything!" She threw her weight back to free her arms.
He released her and slapped her face. Losing her balance, she fell back. He grabbed again, and the decorative lace trim ripped off her blue velvet bodice. DG landed on the balcony's stone floor, catching herself with her free hand. She wrenched her left arm, but Aedan's hold tightened. He slapped her again, the other cheek this time, knocking her pinned-up hair loose. "I must promise you something? Didn't anyone tell you that makes you a whore?" DG kicked but her leg tangled in the skirts before contacting the Prince. He evaded her punch as he grabbed both her upper arms. Aedan slammed her against the wall next to the glass doors. She wheezed, trying to get air back into her lungs. "The Viewer wouldn't know, the Headcase wouldn't remember, and the Tin Man wouldn't tell. Not with how long he had been without a woman."
DG shook her head. Aedan pressed up against her, hindering her breathing deep enough to tell him that hadn't happened. The grip on her arms tightened. "And you deny me the pleasure of your body!" He threw her against the railing. Her arms spun like pinwheels to stop her tumbling.
Aedan grabbed her skirt and its seams tore, but her legs stayed on the right side of the balcony railing as her upper body stopped moving. The ground spun in front of her eyes, moving further away. Her gloved hands wrapped around icicles underneath her to pull up. The ice broke free of the stone instead.
She felt the cold on her legs the same time he caressed her thighs. He pinned her hips to the railing, and pushed the fabric up to her waist. "You want promises, Princess? I promise you will beg for more of this." His hands ripped her panties and the useless remains fell down her leg. "All the whores I've had love what I do."
DG choked. Tears stung her cheeks as Aedan squeezed her ass. Her hands landed on the stone banister. He shoved down her chest and head. She screwed her eyes shut to block the swirling vertigo. There was nothing to grab if she fell again. "Don't do this," finally made it out of her mouth.
Aedan leaned over her, driving her hip bones into the railing. She smelled the alcohol on his breath. "And I promise to do what your mother was too weak to do." His knee pushed between her thighs. "Let's see this Tin Man tempt you from the grave."
Her eyes sprang open as something colder than the air rolled over her. "You won't lay a finger on Wyatt Cain!" Energy blasted out of her, sending Aedan flying into the air. She twisted away from her view of the ground and fell to her knees. Aedan tumbled through the air, heading for the front side of the balcony. No past the railing, DG's breath caught in her throat when she saw his trajectory. The Queen's treaty was probably as dead as the Prince would be once he hit the ground.
Raw dropped the mugs as he lunged. He caught the young man's arm and swung him to land on the balcony floor instead. The Viewer's shocked gasp changed to a savage snarl as he yanked his hand back. The young man climbed to his feet. "Never hurt DG!" Raw's ungloved hand curled into a fist and slammed into Aedan's face. The Prince's hands and feet flew out from under him as the punch rocked him back.
DG's panic reached a new crescendo. Now he would add Raw to his list of people to hurt, and what would her mother do if this destroyed the treaty? Raw was the only one left! This wouldn't keep Cain safe! She clawed her way over the stone bench to reach them. Raw turned to her, his angry face shifting to concerned.
Aedan took advantage of Raw's distraction and scrambled away on all fours. Raw whirled again and kicked. His moccasin-covered foot slammed into Aedan's ass. The Prince flew into the Northern Palace through the open glass door. DG's head swum and everything started going black.
Raw's arms hugged her. A warm soothing that made it easier to breathe filled her. "Can't stay here, DG. Go find help." He helped her stand up on the wobbly heels.
She kicked them off. "Need to get flats." After all this and I'm worried about my wardrobe! She giggled and clutched Raw's arm. The remains of her panties had caught on her stocking's garter belt. She stopped giggling and blotted her tears with her gloved hands. "They can't see me. Not now. Not like this."
"Go to rooms first. I take you." Raw steered her into the back hallway away from the ball crowd. She clutched his arm to not run. "DG safe now."
"I'm not worried about me!" She panted to stop shouting. "He said he'd kill Cain."
"Prince no hurt Cain. How could you think that?"
"He's a prince; he could hire someone!" Her breathing accelerated again.
He squeezed her arm. "DG calm down."
She stopped in the middle of the hall and took deep breaths. Raw waited for her. The Viewer was seething, even though he showed none of it in his touch or voice.
"DG, Raw!" Glitch turned the corner behind them. "Everyone is looking for you." He tilted his head, taking in the torn blue gown pooling at her feet and her disheveled hair. "What happened?"
"I was sick and had a disaster in the bathroom," DG said quickly. Raw closed his mouth without saying anything and turned his gaze on her. She focused on the green embroidery on Glitch's white dress coat. It matched Az's green and white dress. "I didn't eat today and then I had drinks at the party. Cover for me, Glitch, please?"
He smiled sympathetically. "We've all been there. I think they still tell horror stories about my first ball. I'll give your excuses. Take care of her, Raw."
"Shall." The Viewer tugged her along the hallway without talking until they stood behind the closed doors of her sitting room. "Should not have lied to Glitch."
She peeled off her gloves. "I can't ruin the treaty."
"No treaty more important than DG. Must tell guards. Prince must be punished."
"No." Guilt spiked through her. "This treaty will make things better in the O.Z. I can't ruin everything again." The O.Z. had suffered enough thanks to her actions. If fixing things meant a drunken asshole needed to paw all over her, she could do that. Hell, it was probably the one duty she actually had experience with.
He helped her unlace the dress without her asking. "Tell Jeb and Glitch. They will fix."
She pressed the dress against her chest as she quivered. "He was drunk, Raw."
"Makes no difference! Prince attacked you."
"I'm not marrying him. That should be punishment enough."
"Not DG's fault. Don't let Prince hurt you."
"He didn't get a chance to hurt me. So nobody needs to know." She slipped into her bathroom to finish undressing with shaky hands.
"You're the first one I've told," DG continued without looking at Cain. "A week after Raw left, the Queen told me I needed to spend more time with Aedan. I told her it wasn't a good idea if she wanted the treaty to succeed." She swallowed hard. "And she said the treaty wasn't important, but getting me married was and she didn't want me to settle for less than a prince. So I told her to find another one. She told me to stop being difficult."
Cain's arms tightened around her body. "That explains the ball from hell painting." His hand stroked her hair as she burrowed her face into his chest.
"I forgot you saw those." She squeezed her eyes shut, but tears still leaked. "They weren't all bad."
"I never said they were bad. The one of the healed Papay tree would look right nice over a fireplace." He rolled onto his side, moving her with him, and turned her face up to his. "Don't cry, my darling girl. If you hadn't painted, I don't think you would've lasted an annual."
"I was more worried about you."
His fingers stroked her face until she opened her eyes. "Did you think I'd be ashamed of that too?"
"No, I thought you'd get the death penalty for shooting Aedan."
"It's very tempting." His lips twitched. "Nobles haven't changed at all since I left the Sin District."
DG hugged him as his hands rubbed her tense body. "I don't follow."
"When I finished training, I was assigned to patrol the Sin District. Most people had been born and bred there and knew what kind of life they were getting into. But noble bastards used it as a dumping ground for girls they pulled out of the countryside when they were tired of them. " He chuckled, "A few of us on both sides of the law found the girls and got them home or in a better situation before the Sin District ate them alive. I went further and arrested the bastards when I could, regardless of title and rank."
Cain volunteering a story of his past helped her forget her pain. "DeMilo helped you, didn't he?"
"How'd you guess?"
"I figured he was your informant or something. He didn't fight that hard when we took his wagon."
He chuckled again. "Yep. It was an interesting six annuals. But I pissed off the wrong people and my superiors yanked me off patrols. The Mystic Man needed new blood for his protection detail, and he offered the spot to me since I didn't care about the pretensions of other people. That lasted until the end."
She squeezed him. "I like that about you too."
"You need to get it back." His calm blue eyes met her puzzled ones. "You never took gruff from anyone, including me. They threw you in the court and you forgot your sass."
"The Shaman was right. I got scared and stopped fighting."
He pulled her closer. "You fought Aedan."
"Not very well. I ran away."
"You don't have to run away. Not with me at your side." His hands stroked her body. "I'll never throw you away, DG."