“If it wasn’t a Craven, then are there any suspects?” Tawny asked.
“The Duke believes it was the work of a Descenter.”
“What?” I demanded as I rose.
“Here? In the castle?” Tawny cried.
“That is what he believes.” Vikter lifted his head as I walked over to him, his gaze wary.
“And what do you believe?” Rylan asked from where he still stood by the door. “Because I’m unsure how a Descenter could’ve managed to inflict wounds like that without leaving blood.”
“Agreed,” Vikter murmured, watching me. “There would be no way to clean something like that up, especially not when the victim had been seen less than an hour before.”
“So, why would the Duke insist it was a Descenter?” Tawny queried. “He’s not unintelligent. He would have to realize that, too.”
I casually placed my hand on the back of Vikter’s neck as I reached for a small fur quilt. His skin was warm and dry as I thought of the beaches and my mother’s laugh. I knew his pain was eased the moment he took a deep, shuddering breath.
“I’m unsure why the Duke believes this, but he must have his reasons.” Vikter’s gaze was grateful as I slipped my hand away and walked back to the chair, placing the throw in my lap.
Tawny looked over at me and then took a deep breath before she refocused on Vikter. “Do you know who she was?”
Sitting straight, he was definitely more clear-eyed when he spoke again. “She was identified by one of the servants. The victim’s name was Malessa Axton.”
The name was unfamiliar to me, but Tawny whispered, “Oh.”
I twisted toward her. “Did you know her?”
“Not well. I mean, I know of her.” She gave a small shake of her head, sending several curls free from her twist. “I think she came to Court around the same time as I did, but she was often with one of the Ladies who lives on Radiant Row. I think it’s Lady Isherwood,” she added.
Radiant Row was the nickname given to the row of homes closest to the castle and to Wishers’ Grove park. Many of the opulent houses were owned by the Ascended.
“She was so young.” Tawny lowered her hand to her lap. “And she had so much to look forward to.”
I reached out with my senses and found that her sadness echoed my own. It wasn’t the deep pain of loss that came when it was someone you knew, but the sorrow that accompanied any death, especially such a senseless one.
Rylan asked Vikter to step outside. After a few moments, Tawny excused herself to return to her room. I managed to stop myself from touching her. I knew if I did, I would take her pain, even though I’d done it before without her realizing. I ended up at the window, staring at the steady glow of the torches beyond the Rise when Vikter reentered.
“Thank you,” he said as he joined me by the window. “The ache in my head was starting to get the best of me.”
“Glad I could help.”
“You didn’t have to. I have the powder the Healer made for me.”
“I know, but I’m sure my gift brought you much faster relief without the dizziness and sleepiness,” I said. Those were only two of the many side effects that brownish-white powder often caused.
“That is true.” Vikter fell quiet for several moments, and I knew his thoughts were as troubled as mine.
I had a hard time believing that it had been a Descenter, even though I imagined something like an ice pick could’ve made those wounds. However, the possibility of stabbing someone in the jugular and not getting blood everywhere seemed very unlikely, but even more baffling was the motive. What did creating those types of wounds indicate that was of any benefit to their cause? Because the only thing I knew that could make those kinds of wounds went against everything the Descenters believed in.
“Rylan spoke to me.”
I looked over at Vikter with raised brows. “Yes?”
His sea-colored gaze flickered over my face. “Rylan told me about Lord Mazeen.”
My stomach sank as I looked away. It wasn’t as if I had forgotten my run-in with the Lord, but it simply wasn’t the most concerning or traumatic thing to have happened in the last couple of hours. “Did he do anything, Poppy?” he asked.
A suffocating, stinging heat crept into my face, and I pressed my cheek to the windowpane. I didn’t want to think about this. I never did. Nausea churned, and there was this…weird embarrassment that made my skin feel sticky and dirty. I didn’t understand why I felt that way. I knew I’d done nothing to gain the Lord’s attention, and even if I had, he was still in the wrong. But when I thought about how he felt entitled to touch me, I wanted to scratch at my own skin.
And I didn’t want to think about how I’d been grateful for the servant’s screams, having no idea what the cause had been.
I pushed all of that aside so it could later come to the forefront, most likely when I was trying to sleep. “He did nothing other than be an annoyance.”
I nodded, although that seemed a little too far from the truth, but I was okay with lying. What could Vikter do with the truth? Nothing. He was smart enough to know that.
A muscle throbbed in his jaw. “He needs to leave you alone.”
“Agreed, but I’m able to handle him.”
I didn’t really want to think about how close I came to doing something utterly unforgivable. If I had unsheathed my dagger and used it, there would have been no hope for me. But, gods, I wouldn’t have felt a drop of guilt over it.
“You shouldn’t have to,” Vikter replied. “And he should know better.”
“He should, and I think he does, but I don’t believe he cares,” I admitted, turning so I rested against the ledge of the window. “You know I saw her in that room. I saw how she was…left. It made me think that she was with someone, either willingly or not.”
He nodded. “The Healer who looked at her body believed there had been some level of physical relations before her death, but he didn’t find any signs that she had been fighting. No dried blood or skin under her nails, but no one can be sure.”
I pressed my lips together. “I was thinking that it wouldn’t make sense for a Descenter to leave wounds like that, even if they were able to do it without it being…messy. What kind of message does that even send? Because the only thing that can do what was done to her is…”
Vikter’s gaze met mine. “An Atlantian.”
Relieved that he said it and not me, I nodded. “The Duke has to know that. Anyone who saw those wounds would have to think that and question why a Descenter would mimic something that could easily be attributed to an Atlantian.”
“That’s why I don’t think it was a Descenter,” he said, and pressure clamped down on my chest. “I think it was an Atlantian.”
A Descenter moving freely through Castle Teerman was concerning, but the possibility of an Atlantian being able to gain access without anyone being the wiser was something truly terrifying.
I wanted to find something that would provide some sort of evidence that Vikter and I were being paranoid, so at the crack of dawn, when the castle was at its quietest, and Rylan guarded the room outside, I snuck down to the main floor and past the eerily quiet kitchen.
Once the sun rose, I didn’t have to worry about running into Lord Mazeen or any Ascended.
Entering the banquet hall, I headed to the left, to the second door, where I often met with Priestess Analia for my weekly lessons. As I stepped inside, I glanced across the dimly lit hall to the room where Malessa had been found.
The door was closed.
Tearing my gaze from it, I quietly shut the door and hurried over to the bare wooden chair, spying the book I never foresaw myself reading of my own volition.
Mainly because it seemed as if I’d read The History of The War of Two Kings and the Kingdom of Solis about a million times. I carried it over to the lone window and quickly cracked it open, holding it in the faint beam of sunlight. I carefully thumbed through the thin pages, knowing if I were to tear one, Priestess Analia would be most displeased. I found the section I was looking for. It was only a handful of paragraphs that described what Atlantians looked like, their traits, and what they were capable of.
Unfortunately, all it did was confirm what I already knew.
I’d never actually seen an Atlantian—at least, I didn’t think I had, and that was the problem. Atlantians looked like mortals. Even the extinct wolven, who had once lived alongside the Atlantians in Atlantia, could easily be mistaken for mortals, even though they had never been. The Atlantians’ ability to blend in with the populace they were known to subjugate and hunt made them deadly, expert predators. One could walk right past me, and I wouldn’t know. Neither would the Ascended. For some reason, the gods hadn’t taken any of that into consideration when they initiated the Blessing.
Scanning the paragraphs, one word stood out, causing my stomach to dip. Fangs. Although I knew what it would say, I read the sentences anyway.
Between year 19 and 21, those of blooded Atlantian descent leave the vulnerable state of immaturity, wherein the ill-spirits in their blood become active. Noted during this period is a disturbing increase in strength, and the ability to recover from most mortal wounds as they continue to mature. It is also to be noted that before the War of Two Kings and the extinction of the wolven, a bonding ritual was performed between an Atlantian of a certain class and a wolven. Not much is known is about this bond, but it is believed that the wolven in question was duty-bound to protect the Atlantian.
For a true Atlantian, two upper canines will form fangs, becoming elongated and sharpened, but they will not be overly noticeable to the untrained eye.
I thought of the two puncture wounds on Malessa’s neck. An Atlantian’s fangs may not be as overgrown and noticeable as a Craven’s, but the Duke could order the mouths of everyone in the castle to be checked.
Admittedly, that would be invasive.