“They found Finley this eve, just outside the Blood Forest, dead.”
I looked up from my cards and across the crimson-painted surface to the three men sitting at the table. I’d chosen this spot for a reason. I’d…felt nothing from them as I drifted between the crowded tables earlier.
No pain, physical or emotional.
Normally, I didn’t prod to see if someone was in pain. Doing so without reason felt incredibly invasive, but in crowds, it was difficult to control just how much I allowed myself to feel. There was always someone whose pain cut so deeply, was so raw, that their anguish became a palpable entity I didn’t even have to open my senses to feel—that I couldn’t ignore and walk away from. They projected their agony onto the world around them.
I was forbidden to do anything but ignore. To never speak of the gift bestowed upon me by the gods and to never, ever go beyond sensing to actually doing something about it.
Not that I always did what I was supposed to do.
But these men were fine when I reached out with my senses to avoid those in great pain, which was surprising, given what they did for a living. They were guards from the Rise—the mountainous wall constructed from the limestone and iron mined from the Elysium Peaks. Ever since the War of Two Kings ended four centuries ago, the Rise had enclosed all of Masadonia, and every city in the Kingdom of Solis was protected by a Rise. Smaller versions surrounded villages and training posts, the farming communities, and other sparsely populated towns.
What the guards saw on a regular basis, what they had to do, often left them in anguish, rather it be from injuries or from what went deeper than torn skin and bruised bones.
Tonight, they weren’t just absent of anguish, but also their armor and uniforms. Instead, they donned loose shirts and buckskin breeches. Still, I knew, even off duty, they were watchful for signs of the dreaded mist and the horror that came with it, and for those who worked against the future of the kingdom. They were still armed to the teeth.
As was I.
Hidden beneath the folds of the cloak and the thin gown I wore underneath, the cool hilt of a dagger that never quite warmed to my skin was sheathed against my thigh. Gifted to me on my sixteenth birthday, it wasn’t the only weapon I’d acquired or the deadliest, but it was my favorite. The handle was fashioned from the bones of a long-extinct wolven—a creature that had been neither man nor beast but both—and the blade made of bloodstone honed to fatal sharpness.
I may yet again be in the process of doing something incredibly reckless, inappropriate, and wholly forbidden, but I wasn’t foolish enough to enter a place like the Red Pearl without protection, the skill to employ it, and the wherewithal to take that weapon and skill and use them without hesitation.
“Dead?” the other guard said, a younger one with brown hair and a soft face. I thought his name might be Airrick, and he couldn’t be much older than my eighteen years. “He wasn’t just dead. Finley was drained of blood, his flesh chewed up like wild dogs had a go at him, and then torn to pieces.”
My cards blurred as tiny balls of ice formed in the pit of my stomach. Wild dogs didn’t do that. Not to mention, there weren’t any wild dogs near the Blood Forest, the only place in the world where the trees bled, staining the bark and the leaves a deep crimson. There were rumors of other animals, overly large rodents and scavengers that preyed upon the corpses of those who lingered too long in the forest.
“And you know what that means,” Airrick went on. “They must be near. An attack will—”
“Not sure this is the right conversation to be having,” an older guard cut in. I knew of him. Phillips Rathi. He’d been on the Rise for years, which was nearly unheard of. Guards didn’t have long lifespans. He nodded in my direction. “You’re in the presence of a lady.”
Only the Ascended were called Ladies, but I also wasn’t someone anyone, especially those in this building, would expect to be inside the Red Pearl. If I was discovered, I would be in…well, more trouble than I’d ever been in before and would face severe reprimand.
The kind of punishment that Dorian Teerman, the Duke of Masadonia, would just love to deliver. And which, of course, his close confidante, Lord Brandole Mazeen, would love to be in attendance for.
Anxiety surfaced as I looked at the dark-skinned guard. There was no way Phillips could know who I was. The top half of my face was covered by the white domino mask I’d found discarded in the Queen’s Gardens ages ago, and I wore a plain robin’s egg blue cloak I’d, uh, borrowed from Britta, one of the many castle servants who I’d overheard speaking about the Red Pearl. Hopefully, Britta wouldn’t discover her missing overcoat before I returned it in the morn.
Even without the mask, though, I could count on one hand how many people in Masadonia had seen my face, and none of them would be here tonight.
As the Maiden, the Chosen, a veil usually covered my face and hair at all times, all except for my lips and jaw.
I doubted Phillips could recognize me solely on those features, and if he had, none of them would still be sitting here. I would be in the process of being dragged back, albeit gently, to my guardians, the Duke and Duchess of Masadonia.
There was no reason to panic.
Forcing the muscles along my shoulders and neck to ease, I smiled. “I’m no Lady. You’re more than welcome to talk about whatever you wish.”
“Be that as it may, a little less morbid topic would be welcomed,” Phillips replied, sending a pointed look in the direction of the other two guards.
Airrick lifted his gaze to mine. “My apologies.”
“Apologies not needed but accepted.”
The third guard ducked his chin, studiously staring at his cards as he repeated the same. His cheeks had pinkened, something I found rather adorable. The guards who worked the Rise went through vicious training, becoming skilled in all manner of weaponry and hand-to-hand combat. None who survived their first venture outside the Rise came back without shedding blood and seeing death.
And yet, this man blushed.
I cleared my throat, wanting to ask more about who Finley was, whether he was a guard from the Rise or a Huntsman, a division of the army that ferried communication between the cities and escorted travelers and goods. They spent half the year outside the protection of the Rise. It was by far one of the most dangerous of all occupations, so they never traveled alone. Some never returned.
Unfortunately, a few who did, didn’t come back the same. They returned with rampantly spreading death snapping at their heels.
Sensing that Phillips would silence any further conversation, I didn’t voice any of the questions dancing on the tip of my tongue. If others had been with him and had been wounded by what most likely had killed Finley, I would find out one way or another.
I just hoped it wasn’t through screams of terror.
The people of Masadonia had no real idea exactly how many returned from outside the Rise cursed. They only saw a handful here and there, and not the reality. If they did, panic and fear were sure to ignite a populace who truly had no concept of the horror outside the Rise.
Not like my brother Ian and I did.
Which was why when the topic at the table switched to more mundane things, I struggled to will the ice coating my insides to thaw. Countless lives were given and taken by the endeavor to keep those inside the Rise safe, but it was failing—had been failing—not just here, but throughout the Kingdom of Solis.
Death always found a way in.
Stop, I ordered myself as the general sense of unease threatened to swell. Tonight wasn’t about all the things I was aware of that I probably shouldn’t be. Tonight was about living, about…not being up all night, unable to sleep, alone and feeling like…like I had no control, no…no idea of who I was other than what I was.
Another poor hand was dealt, and I’d played enough cards with Ian to know there was no recovering from the ones I held. When I announced that I was out, the guards nodded as I rose, each bidding me a good evening.
Moving between the tables, I took the flute of champagne offered by a server with a gloved hand and tried to recapture the feelings of excitement that had buzzed through my veins as I’d hurried through the streets earlier that evening.
I minded my business as I scanned the room, keeping my senses to myself. Even outside of those who managed to project their anguish into the air around them, I didn’t need to touch someone to know if they were hurting. I just needed to see someone and focus. What they looked like didn’t change if they were experiencing some sort of pain, and their appearance didn’t change when I concentrated on them. I simply felt their anguish.
Physical pain was almost always hot, but the kind that couldn’t be seen?
It was almost always cold.
Bawdy shouts and whistles snapped me out of my own mind. A woman in red sat on the edge of the table next to the one I’d left. She wore a gown made of scraps of red satin and gauze that barely covered her thighs. One of the men grabbed a fistful of the diaphanous little skirt.
Smacking his hand away with a saucy grin, she lay back, her body forming a sensual curve. Her thick, blonde curls spilled across forgotten coins and chips. “Who wants to win me tonight?” Her voice was deep and smoky as she slid her hands along the waist of the frilly corset. “I can assure you boys, I will last longer than any pot of gold will.”
“And what if it’s a tie?” one of the men asked, the fine cut of his coat suggesting that he was a well-to-do merchant or businessman of some sort.
“Then it will be a far more entertaining night for me,” she said, drawing one hand down her stomach, slipping even lower to between her—
Cheeks heating, I quickly looked away as I took a sip of the bubbly champagne. My gaze found its way to the dazzling glow of a rose-gold chandelier. The Red Pearl must be doing well, and the owners well connected. Electricity was expensive and heavily controlled by the Royal Court. It made me wonder who some of their clientele was for the luxury to be available.