It was also evidence of high treason and disloyalty to the Crown.
I’d accidentally discovered what Vikter took part in when I was fifteen. He’d left one of our training sessions in a hurry one morning, and sensing that something was going on based on the mental pain the messenger had been throwing off, I’d followed.
Obviously, Vikter hadn’t been pleased. What he was doing was considered treasonous, and being caught wasn’t the only danger. However, I’d always been disturbed by how these things were typically handled. I demanded he allow me to help. He had said no—repeated it probably a hundred times—but I had been relentless, and besides, I was uniquely suited to assist in such matters. Vikter knew what I could do, and his empathy for others had aided my desire to help.
We’d been doing this for about three years now.
We weren’t the only ones. There were others. Some were guards. A few were citizens. I never met any. For all I knew, Hawke could be one.
My stomach dipped and then rolled before I shoved any thoughts of Hawke out of my mind.
Vikter quietly rapped his knuckles on the door and then returned his gloved hand to the hilt of his broadsword. A couple of seconds later, hinges creaked as the old battered door shuddered open, revealing the pale, round face, and red, puffy eyes of a woman. She might’ve been in her mid to late twenties, but the tense pinch to her brow and the lines bracketing her mouth made her appear decades older. The cause of her worn appearance had everything to do with the kind of pain that cut deeper than the physical and was caused by the smell wafting out of the building from behind her. Under the thick, cloying smoke of earthy incense, was the unmistakable sour and sickeningly sweet scent of rot and decay.
Of a curse.
“You’re in need of aid?” Vikter spoke low.
The woman fiddled with the button on her wrinkled blouse, her weary gaze darting from Vikter to me.
I opened my senses to her. Soul-deep pain radiated from her in waves I couldn’t see, but it was so heavy, it was almost a tangible entity surrounding her. I could feel it slicing through my cloak and clothing and scraping against my skin like rusty, icy nails. She felt like someone who was dying but hadn’t suffered a single injury or disease. That was how raw and potent her pain was.
Fighting the urge to take a step back, I shuddered inside my heavy cloak. Every instinct in me demanded that I put distance between us, get as far away as possible. Her grief formed iron shackles around my ankles, weighing me down as it tightened around my neck. Emotion clogged my throat, tasting like…like bitter desperation and sour hopelessness.
I pulled back my senses, but I had opened myself up for too long. I was tuned into her anguish now.
“Who is that?” she rasped, her voice hoarse with the tears I knew had swelled her eyes.
“Someone who can help you,” Vikter answered in a way I was all too familiar with. He used that calm tone whenever I was seconds away from acting out in anger and doing something entirely reckless—which, according to Vikter, was way too often. “Please. Allow us to enter.”
Fingers stilling around the button below her throat, she gave a curt nod and then stepped back. I followed Vikter inside, scanning the dimly lit room, which turned out to be a combined kitchen and living space. There was no electricity in the home, only oil lamps and fat, waxy candles. That wasn’t exactly surprising to see, even though electricity had been provided to the area of the Lower Ward, to light the streets and some of the businesses. Only the wealthy had it inside their homes, and they would not be found in the Lower Ward. They’d be closer to the center of Masadonia, near Castle Teerman and as far from the Rise as possible.
But here, the Rise loomed.
Drawing in a shallow breath, I tried not to focus on how the woman’s grief painted the walls and floors an oily black. Her pain had gathered here, among the knick-knacks and clay plates, quilted blankets with frayed edges and tired furniture. Clasping my hands together under the cloak, I took another breath, this one deeper, and looked around.
A lantern sat on a wooden table, next to several sticks of burning incense. Surrounding the brick hearth were several chairs. I zeroed in on the closed door on the other side of the fireplace. My hooded head tilted as I squinted. On the mantel, closest to the door, was a narrow spike of a blade the color of burgundy in the low light.
This woman had been prepared to handle this herself, and with the way she felt, that would be disastrous.
“What is your name?” Vikter asked as he reached up to lower the hood of his cloak. He always did this. Showed his face to comfort family or friends, to put them at ease. A lock of blond hair fell across his forehead as he turned to the woman.
I did not reveal myself.
“A-Agnes,” she answered, her throat working on a swallow. “I…I heard about the white handkerchief, but I…I wasn’t sure if anyone would come. I wondered if it was some kind of myth or a trick.”
“It’s no trick.” Vikter may be one of the deadliest guards in the entire city, if not the kingdom, but I knew when Agnes looked up into his blue eyes, all she saw was kindness. “Who is ill?”
Agnes swallowed once more, the skin around her eyes puckering as she briefly squeezed them shut. “My husband, Marlowe. He’s a Huntsman for the Rise, and…and he returned home two days ago—” Her breath caught, and she exhaled heavily. “He’d been gone for months. I was so happy to see him. I’d missed him terribly, and with each day, I feared he’d perished on the road. But he came back.”
My heart squeezed as if it had been caught in a fist. I thought of Finley. Had he been a Huntsman, a part of this group that involved Marlowe?
“He seemed a little under the weather at first, but that’s not uncommon. His work is exhausting,” she continued. “But he started…he started to show signs that night.”
“That night?” Only a small note of alarm had crept into Vikter’s tone, and my eyes widened with a whole cartload more dismay. “And you waited until now?”
“We hoped it was something else. A cold or the flu.” Her hand fluttered back to the buttons. Threads were beginning to show along the wooden discs. “I…I didn’t know until last night that it was something more. He didn’t want me to know. Marlowe is a good man, you understand? He wasn’t trying to hide it. H-he planned to take care of himself, but…”
“But the curse would not allow it,” Vikter finished for her, and she nodded.
I glanced back at the door. The curse progressed differently for everyone. It took hold for some in a matter of hours, while for others, it could take a day or two. But I knew of no cases that went beyond three. It had to be only a matter of time before he succumbed, possibly hours…or minutes.
“It’s okay,” Vikter assured her, but it truly wasn’t. “Where is he now?”
Pressing her other hand to her mouth, she jerked her chin toward the closed door. The sleeve of her blouse was stained with some dark substance. “It’s still him.” Her words were a little muffled. “He’s…he’s still in there. That’s how he wants to go to the gods. As himself.”
“Is there anyone else here?”
She shook her head, letting out another ragged breath.
“Have you said your goodbyes?” I asked.
The woman jerked at the sound of my voice, her eyes widening. My cloak was rather shapeless, so I imagined she was surprised to hear that I was female. A female would be the last thing anyone expected in situations like these.
“It’s you,” she whispered.
Vikter didn’t. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw his hand return to the hilt of the sword.
Agnes moved suddenly, and Vikter went to unsheathe his weapon, but before he or I could react, she collapsed to her knees before me. Bowing her head, she folded her hands under her chin.
My eyes widened under the hood as I slowly looked at Vikter.
He arched a brow.
“They spoke of you,” she whispered, rocking in short, jerky movements. My heart might’ve stopped. “They say you’re the child of the gods.”
I blinked once and then twice as tiny goosebumps pimpled my skin. My parents were flesh and blood. I was definitely not a child of the gods, but I knew many people of Solis saw the Maiden as such.
“Who has said this?” Vikter asked, shooting me a look that said this was something we’d be talking about later.
Agnes lifted tear-stained cheeks, shaking her head. “I don’t want to get anyone in trouble. Please. They didn’t speak to spread rumors or ill will. It’s just that…” She trailed off, her gaze drifting toward me. Her voice dropped to barely a whisper. “They say you have the gift.”
Someone had definitely been talking. A subtle shiver curled its way down my spine, but I ignored it as the woman’s pain pulsed and flared. “I’m no one of importance.”
Vikter inhaled noisily.
“Agnes. Please.” Under the cloak, I tugged off my gloves, placing them into a pocket. I slipped my hand through the opening of the heavy folds, offering it to her as I stole a quick glance at Vikter.
His eyes narrowed on me.
I was so going to hear about this later, but whatever lecture I was bound to receive would be worth it.
Agnes’s gaze dropped to my hand, and then slowly, she lifted her arm and placed her palm against mine. As she rose, I curled my fingers around her cool hand, and I thought of the golden, sparkling sand surrounding the Stroud Sea, of warmth and laughter. I saw my parents, their features no longer clear but lost to time, fuzzy and undefined. I felt the warm, damp breeze in my hair, the sand under my feet.
It was the last happy memory I had of my parents.
Agnes’s arm trembled as she took a sudden, heavy breath. “What…?” She trailed off, her mouth going lax as her shoulders lowered. The suffocating anguish retracted, collapsing into itself like a matchstick house in a windstorm. Her dampened lashes blinked rapidly, and rosy color infused her cheeks.