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Infiltration Sample Chapter

Zephyr

“It’s what she wants,” Cypress told me this morning. “At least you won’t be stuck in the same room with her all day. Take your breaks where you can, Zeph.”


Cypress had a point. Queen Elena isn’t my biggest fan.


Cypress made Queen Elena’s demands perfectly. Each girl will spend some time alone with Queen Elena. She will ask them questions to learn a little more about each of them and why they should be considered for this position. I am not to be in the room during any of this. Queen Elena intends to use her Polygraph magic to ensure the girls don’t lie to her. If I’m in the room, her magic won’t work. After her questions, each girl will be allowed to ask the Queen one question.


My job—my only job—is to escort each girl to her new room once she finishes the interview and try to determine the magic strength of each for a report afterward.


Now that the girls are in the palace, they are chatty. Far more than I expected. Alice tempers her curiosity, only asking me how I enjoy living in the palace and asking how Ian and Finrik—the boy recruits who traveled with us—are faring. I keep my response short.


Most of the other girls want to know about my brother. It’s natural, under the circumstance. I try to give him as many glowing marks as I can without telling lies.


If they knew Cypress was listening to them from the small lobby outside his suite, catching glimpses of them as we round the landing and continue climbing the steps, they might not ask so many questions about him.


“Is he dreamy?” Layla asks as we reach her floor. “I bet he is.”


I press my lips together. “I’m not sure how to answer that. Sorry.”


“Well, other girls talk about him, right? What do they say?”


I stop outside her door, motioning toward it. “Your room, Lady Layla.”


She pouts as she steps inside. “Not even a clue.”


“I think an air of mystery is a good thing. I need to get back.” Despite walking away, Layla continues asking questions I ignore.


She will get on Cypress’ nerves quickly. And her magic is hardly impressive. Class three, at best. Chemical manipulation, from what I can sense. Hardly an exciting magic.


Maeve is next. Her father is one of the more influential men on the island, running the farmlands. Her class is borderline four organic mutation. I’ve watched her revive dying trees and turn grassland lush.


Most of these girls have passable magic. Which only makes Paige stand out like a blazing sun in comparison.


Nora’s interview is so quick I don’t make it back downstairs before she is waiting outside the door for me. She slips her arm into mine and we climb the stairs together.


“She’s very pretty,” Nora says as we pass Cypress’ floor. Of the eight girls I’ve already escorted up, she is the only one who remains silent until we are past Cypress’ floor. She probably knows he is there.


“Who?”


Nora trills, patting my arm endearingly. “Oh please, Zephyr. I heard you hid in the treehouse to see her. Paige. The girl you brought in.”


My face heats. “It isn’t like that.”


“If you say so. Just be careful.”


We round the next landing in silence. What does she mean? Do I want to kiss Paige? Yes. So badly. Will I? No. Desire isn’t the same thing as love, and I’m not about to confuse the two.


Nora slips her arm out of mine and waves me off. “I can find my way from here. If you change your mind about her, just say the word. I’ll make sure she’s dismissed swiftly.”


“Nora…”


She rolls her eyes and nudges me away. “Go. I’m joking. I’m not about to share.”


Those five words carry me down the steps with a bit more haste. Not about to share? Is she talking about Cypress…or me?


I don’t realize Paige is next until the door opens and she stumbles out as if someone pushed her out the door.


She glares at the door, smoothing out her skirt, then spins around and jumps in alarm upon seeing me. Her hand darts to her chest, drawing my gaze to the low cut of her dress. I glance away.


“This way,” I grumble, nodding toward the steps. Thank goodness I’m in good shape. All this up and down the steps is exhausting.


“Not even going to act like a gentleman, I guess.” Paige marches past me toward the steps.

I quickly match her stride, just catching the end of a mutter. “…drawn to me.”


My heart stops. No. She can’t know that. It was a dream! Mortification heats my face.


I step ahead of her, not bothering to offer my arm as I did for the other girls. The prospect of touching her both terrifies and thrills me.


When we round the landing near Cypress, I peek through the opening. He sits in a chair by his door, glancing up from a book as we pass. He frowns and cocks his head when he sees me. What must I look like? Red as a rose. Not holding her arm. Not talking to her.


His gaze flicks to Paige, sweeping over her. If I could turn any redder, I would. I don’t want him looking at her like that. Then a hint of amusement crosses his face, and he returns attention to his book.


I peer back at Paige. Her own face is set with angry determination, as if the steps have offended her personally. If I could climb two at a time, I would. The faster she gets to her room, the faster I can get away from her.


“Zephyr, slow down,” she snaps at last as we near the final landing. “I can run upstairs as well as anyone else, but not in this.”


I freeze, hand on the railing.


Paige rounds the landing, squaring off in front of me. “Why are we racing?”


“I have a job to do. I’m doing it. But if I don’t get back down there soon, it will leave the next girl standing there waiting. So, let’s go.” I brush past, launching myself up the last flight of stairs two at a time.


She growls. A moment later, she passes me, dress shoes in her hand and skirt gathered over her arm. I have to call her to stop before she passes her floor.


Paige plants her hand on her hip, glaring at me. “I don’t know what I did to piss you off, but I would rather clear the air now.”


“Nothing. You’re in room 348. Right there.” I point at the open door, then spin to sprint down the steps.


Paige seizes my arm. Her grip is powerful even without her magic. It brings back the memory of the nightmare she rescued me from. My father whipping me. Paige arriving and turning him to ash. Her arms around me. It was just a nightmare. A nightmare fueled by a combination of worry over the questions plaguing me, my ever-lingering fear of my father even in death, and my need to be close to her. It was nothing.


So why is my heart racing? She needs to get her hands off me.


“This could be considered assault,” I say calmly.


Paige immediately withdraws her hand, paling. “Sorry. 348?” Sorrow shimmers in her umber eyes.


I swallow and nod. I hate how much that statement scared her.


Before she can stop me, I jog back down the steps, eager to put distance between us before I say or do anything stupid.

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