Lord Mazeen tilted his head and then chuckled softly. Instinct sparked, and I moved to step out from the curtain, but I hadn’t been fast enough. He caught me by the hip and turned me. There wasn’t even a second to react as his arm clamped around my waist, and he hauled me back against him. His other hand remained where it was, between my breasts. The contact of his body against mine, the feel of it, sent a wave of revulsion through me.
“Do you remember your last lesson?” His breath was icy against my skin just below the veil. “I can’t imagine you’ve forgotten.”
I hadn’t forgotten a single one.
“You didn’t make a sound, and I know it had to hurt.” His grip tightened on my waist, and even in my all-too-limited knowledge of things, I knew what I felt against me. “Admittedly, you’ve impressed.”
“Thrilled to hear that,” I gritted out.
“Ah, there it is,” he murmured. “There’s that tone unbecoming of the Maiden. The very same one that has gotten you into trouble a time or two—or a dozen. I was wondering when it would make an appearance. I’m sure you also remember what happened the last time it came out.”
Of course, I remembered that, too.
My temper had gotten the best of me. I’d snapped back at the Duke, and he’d struck me hard enough that I’d lost consciousness. I came to, only to feel like I’d been run over by a horse and finding the Duke and the Lord sprawled out on the settee, both appearing to have drunk a bottle’s worth of whiskey while I lay on the floor. For days, I’d felt like I’d come down with the flu. I imagine I had a bit of a concussion.
Still, seeing the shock widen the Duke’s otherwise emotionless gaze had been worth it.
“Perhaps I will go to the Duke myself,” he mused. “Tell him how disrespectful you’ve been.”
Fury boiled my blood as I stared at the gray stones of the wall. “Let me go, Lord Mazeen.”
“You didn’t ask nicely enough.” His hips pressed against me, and my skin flushed with rage. “You didn’t say please.”
There would be no way I’d say please. Consequences be damned, I’d had enough. I was not his toy. I was the Maiden, and while he was incredibly faster and stronger, I knew I could hurt him. I had the element of surprise on my side, and my legs were free. I widened my stance as I felt something damp and wet against my jaw—
A scream tore through the alcove, startling the Lord enough that he loosened his hold. I tore free and spun to face him, my chest heaving as I slipped my hand through the slit in my gown, to the hilt of the dagger.
The Lord muttered something under his breath as the screams came again, high-pitched, and full of terror.
Taking advantage of the distraction, I darted out from behind the curtain instead of unsheathing the dagger and slicing off what I was sure was the Lord’s most prized possession.
The Lord threw aside the curtains as he stormed out, but the screams were bringing others rushing into the banquet hall. Servants. Royal Guards. There was nothing more Lord Mazeen could do now. Through the veil, my gaze met his. I knew it. His nostrils flared. He knew it.
The screams came again, ringing out from one of the nearby rooms, drawing my attention. Two doors down, the door was open.
Rylan was at my side. “Pen—”
I skirted his reach and headed toward the sound. What happened in that alcove with the Lord fell to the wayside as my fingers curled around the handle of my dagger. Screams were never a good sign.
A woman rushed out—the servant who’d been carrying the basket. Her face leached of all color as her hand opened and closed against her throat. She backed away, shaking her head.
I reached the room at the same time Rylan did and looked inside.
I saw her immediately.
She was lying on an ivory-colored settee, her pale blue gown wrinkled and bunched around her waist. One arm dangled limply off the side, her skin the shade of chalk. I didn’t have to open my senses to know she felt no pain.
That she’d never feel anything again.
I lifted my gaze. Her head rested against a pillow, neck twisted at an unnatural angle and—
“You shouldn’t see this.” Rylan grabbed me, and this time, I didn’t move out of his reach. I didn’t stop him as he turned me away, but I already saw.
I saw the deep puncture wounds.
Rylan promptly escorted me right back to my room while Lord Mazeen stood in the doorway, flanked by several others, his gaze fixed on the dead girl. I wanted to push him aside and close the door. Even if it weren’t for the state of her undress, with so much flesh exposed, it was a lack of dignity tossed aside for morbid curiosity.
She was a person, and while what was left behind was nothing more than a shell, she was someone’s daughter, sister, friend. More than anything else, people would talk about how she was found, with the skirt of her gown shoved up, and the bodice gathered at the waist. No one else needed to bear witness.
I hadn’t been given a chance, though.
And now Castle Teerman was on virtual lockdown as each and every space in the one hundred plus rooms was searched for either the culprit or more victims.
Pacing in front of the fireplace, Tawny worried the tiny pearl buttons of her bodice. “It was a Craven,” she said, the deep violet gown swishing about her legs. “It had to be a Craven.”
I glanced over at Rylan, who leaned against the wall, arms crossed. Normally, he didn’t stay inside my room, but tonight was different. Vikter was assisting with the search, but I imagined he’d be back soon.
With my veil removed, Rylan’s gaze met mine. He’d seen that girl. “Do you think it was a Craven?”
Rylan said nothing.
“What else could it have been?” Tawny turned to where I sat in the chair. “You said yourself she was bit—”
“I said it looked like a bite, but it…it didn’t look like a Craven bite,” I told her.
“I know you’ve seen what a Craven can do.” She sat across from me, her fingers still twisting the pearl just as Agnes had done to the button on her blouse. “But how can you be sure?”
“The Craven have four elongated canines,” I explained, and she nodded. This was common knowledge. “But she only had two marks, as if…”
“As if two sharp fangs had penetrated her throat,” Rylan finished. Tawny’s head whipped in his direction.
“What if it was a cursed? Someone who hadn’t fully turned yet?” she asked.
“Then it would look like either normal teeth marks or a bite from a Craven,” Rylan answered, shaking his head as he stared out the window toward the Rise. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
I had to agree with him. “She…she was pale, and it wasn’t just the shroud of death. It was like she had no blood in her, and even if it were a two-fanged Craven—” My nose scrunched. “It would’ve been…messier and not so precise. She looked like…”
“Looked like what?”
My gaze dropped to my hands as the image of the woman reappeared. She’d been with someone, willing or not, and as far as I knew, Craven weren’t interested in anything but blood. “It just looked like someone had been in that room with her.”
Tawny sat back. “If it wasn’t a Craven, then who would do something like that?”
There were many people in and out of the castle—servants, guards, visitors…the Ascended. But that didn’t make sense either. “That wound appeared to be right over her jugular. There should’ve been blood everywhere, and I didn’t even see a drop of it.”
“That…that is more than just a little strange.”
I nodded. “And her neck was clearly broken. I know of no Craven that would do that.”
Tawny folded her arms around herself. “And I don’t want to know of any person capable of that.”
Neither did I, but we all knew that people were capable of all manner of atrocities, and so were the Ascended. After all, they too had been mortal at one time, and the capability for cruelty seemed to be one of the few traits some carried over.
My thoughts wandered to Lord Mazeen. He was cruel, a bully, and based on our latest interaction, I suspected that he could be much worse. But was he capable of what was done? I shuddered. Even if he were, why would he do it, and how? I didn’t have an answer for that.
There was only one thing I could think of that could do that, but it seemed too unreal to believe.
“Did you…did you recognize her?” Tawny asked softly.
“I didn’t, but I have to think she was a Lady in Wait or perhaps a visitor based on her gown,” I told her.
Tawny nodded silently, returning to twisting the pearl on her bodice. Silence crept into the space, and Vikter arrived not long after, stepping into the room to speak quietly to Rylan. I scooted to the edge of my seat when he stepped away from Rylan, sighing as he sat on the edge of the chest that rested at the foot of my bed.
“Every inch of this castle was searched, and we found no other victims or Craven,” he said, leaning forward. “Commander Jansen believes the grounds are safe.” He paused, squinting as he lifted his gaze. “Relatively speaking, that is.”
“Did you…did you see her?” I asked, and he nodded. “Do you think it was a Craven attack?”
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” he replied, repeating what Rylan had said.
“What would that even mean?”
“I don’t know,” he stated, rubbing his hand against his forehead.
My attention zeroed in on him, noting how he massaged the skin above his brow and how he’d squinted when he looked to where we sat near the oil lamps. Sometimes, Vikter got headaches. Not like the ones I got after opening up my senses or using my gifts too much, but far more severe, where light and sound made him nauseous and his head pulse.
I opened up my senses and immediately felt the sharp pounding ache behind my eyes. I quickly severed the connection, and it was like visualizing a cord connecting me to him being snipped in two. The last thing I wanted was to end up with another throbbing headache keeping me up.