“It’s Rylan. He’s…” I stared up at Vikter, suddenly stopping as what Hawke had said about death surfacing without warning. It was something I’d already known, but it still managed to shock me.
Death is like an old friend who pays a visit, sometimes when it’s least expected and other times when you’re waiting for her.
Death had indeed paid an unexpected visit.
“How did this happen?” Duchess Teerman demanded. The jeweled flower securing her brown hair glittered under the chandelier as she paced the room usually reserved for greeting guests. “How did someone get into the garden and come that close to taking her?”
Probably the same way someone got into the castle and killed the Lady in Wait the day before.
“The others are scouting the inner wall as we speak,” Vikter said instead. He stood behind where I sat perched on the edge of the velvet settee, half afraid that I would get blood on the golden cushions. “But I imagine the culprit came through the section that has been damaged by the jacaranda trees.”
The very same section Vikter and I used to leave the castle grounds unnoticed.
The Duchess’s dark eyes flashed with anger. “I want them all torn down,” she ordered.
“Sorry, my lady,” the Healer murmured, dabbing a damp cloth under my lip and then handing the material to Tawny, who provided him with a clean one. She’d been summoned as soon as I’d been placed in the sitting room.
“It’s fine,” I assured the silver-haired man. What had caused the reaction wasn’t what the Healer had been doing. Granted, the astringent stung, but it was what Duchess Teerman had demanded. “Those trees have been here for hundreds of years—
“And they have lived a long, healthy life.” The Duchess turned to me. “You have not, Penellaphe.” She strode toward me, the skirt of her crimson gown gathering around her ankles, reminding me of the blood that had pooled around Rylan. I wanted to pull away but didn’t wish to cause offense. “If this man had not been scared off, he would’ve taken you, and the last thing you would’ve been worried about is those trees.”
She had a point there.
Only Vikter knew what had happened—that I had managed to wound the man before he’d been signaled off. While the details couldn’t be shared because we’d run the risk of exposure, Vikter would notify the Healers in the city to keep an eye out for anyone wounded in such a manner.
But the trees…
They may have caused the deterioration of the wall, but it had been like that for as long as I could remember. There was no doubt in my mind that the Duke and Duchess knew about the wall and simply hadn’t ordered it repaired.
“How badly is she injured?” she asked the Healer.
“Superficial wounds, Your Grace. She’ll have a few bruises and some discomfort, but nothing lasting.” The old Healer’s long, dark coat hung from his stooped shoulders as he rose on stiff, creaking joints. “You’re incredibly lucky, young Maiden.”
I wasn’t lucky.
I had been prepared.
And that was why I sat here only with an aching temple and a sore lip. But I nodded. “Thank you for your assistance.”
“Can you give her something for the pain?” the Duchess asked.
“Yes. Of course.” He shuffled over to where his leather satchel sat on a small table. “I have the perfect thing.” Rooting around until he found what he was looking for, he revealed a vial of pinkish-white powder. “This will help with any pain but will also make her drowsy. It has a wee bit of a sedating effect.”
I had absolutely no intention of taking whatever was in that vial, but it was handed over to Tawny, who slipped it into the pocket of her gown.
Once the Healer had left, the Duchess turned to where I still sat. “Let me see your face.”
Exhaling wearily, I reached for the chains, but Tawny moved to my side. “Allow me,” she murmured.
I started to stop her, but my gaze caught on my hands. They’d been wiped as soon as I was placed in the sitting room, but blood had made its way under my nails, and flakes of it still dotted my fingers.
Was Rylan’s body still in the courtyard by the roses?
Malessa’s body had been in that room for hours and then removed. I wondered if she had been returned to her family, or if her body had been burned out of precaution.
Tawny unhooked the veil, carefully removing it so it didn’t tangle in the strands of hair that had escaped the knot I’d gathered it into that morning.
Duchess Teerman knelt before me, her cool fingers grazing the skin around my lips and then my right temple. “What were you doing out in the garden?”
“I was looking at the roses. I do so nearly every night.” I glanced up. “Rylan always goes with me. He didn’t—” I cleared my throat. “He didn’t even see the attacker. The arrow struck him in the chest before he was even aware that anyone was there.”
Her bottomless eyes searched mine. “It sounds like he wasn’t as alert as he should have been. He never should’ve been caught off guard.”
“Rylan was very skilled,” I said. “The man was hidden—”
“Your guard was so skilled that he was felled by an arrow?” she asked softly. “Was this man part ghost that he made no sound? Gave no warning?”
My back stiffened as I thought of the sound the man had made and how it hadn’t resembled anything human. “Rylan was alert, Your Grace—”
“What have I told you?” Her delicately arched brows lifted.
Struggling for patience, I took a shallow breath. “Rylan was alert, Jacinda,” I amended, using her first name. She sporadically required this, and I never knew when she would want me to use the name or not. “The man…he was quiet, and Rylan—”
“Was unprepared,” Vikter finished for me.
My head cranked around so fast it sent a flare of pain across my temple. Disbelief seized me.
Vikter’s blue eyes met mine. “He enjoyed your evening strolls in the garden. He never thought there would be a threat, and unfortunately, became too complacent. Last night should’ve changed that.”
Last night had changed that. Rylan had been scanning the grounds constantly. My shoulders slumped, and then my brain switched gears. Ian. “Please don’t say anything to my brother.” My gaze swung between the Duchess and Vikter. “I don’t want him to worry, and he will even though I’m fine.”
“I will need to inform the Queen of what has happened, Penellaphe. You know this,” she replied. “And I cannot control who she tells. If she feels Ian needs to know, she will tell him.”
I sank further into myself.
Her cool fingertips touched my cheek, my left one. I turned back to her. “Do you understand how important you are, Penellaphe? You are the Maiden. You were Chosen by the gods. Ascensions of hundreds of Ladies and Lords in Wait, all across the kingdom, are all tied to yours. It will be the largest Ascension since the first Blessing. Rylan and all the Royal Guards know what is at stake if something were to happen to you.”
I liked the Duchess. She was kind, nothing like her husband, and for a tiny moment there, I thought she was actually worried about me as a person, but it was what I signified that concerned her the most. What would be lost if something were to happen to me. It wasn’t just my life, but the future of hundreds of those who were about to Ascend.
The worst part was the twinge of sadness when I should’ve known better.
“If the Descenters were to somehow stop that Ascension, it would be their greatest triumph.” She rose, smoothing her hands over her gown. “It would be such a cruel strike against our Queen and King and the gods.”
“You…you think he was a Descenter, then?” Tawny asked. “That he wasn’t trying to take her for ransom?”
“The arrow used on Rylan was marked,” Vikter answered. “It carried the Dark One’s promise.”
Air lodged in my throat as my gaze swung to Tawny’s. I knew what that meant.
From Blood and Ash
We Shall Rise.
It was his promise to his people and his supporters, to those scattered across the kingdom, that they would rise once more. A promise that had been scrawled across vandalized storefronts in every city and had been carved into the stone shell of what had remained of Goldcrest Manor.
“I must be blunt with you,” the Duchess said, glancing toward Tawny. “And I trust that what I’m about to say won’t become whispers on the lips of others.”
“Of course,” Tawny promised as I nodded.
“There is…reason to believe that the assailant from last night was an Atlantian,” she said, and Tawny sucked in a sharp breath. I had no reaction to the news since Vikter and I had already suspected as much. “It’s not news we want spread widely. The kind of panic that could cause…well, it would do none of us any favors.”
I glanced at Vikter and found him watching the Duchess closely. “You think that was who came for me tonight? The same man responsible for Malessa’s death?”
“I cannot say if it was the same man, but we do believe the one responsible for the disgraceful treatment of our Lady in Wait was a part of a group that visited yesterday,” she explained, walking toward the credenza along the back wall. She poured herself a clear drink from the glass decanter. “After the castle was checked for any persons who didn’t belong, we believed that the perpetrator had left, and that the act was to show how easy it was for them to gain access. We believed that the immediate threat had passed.”
She took a sip of her drink, her lips twitching as she swallowed. “Obviously, we were wrong. They may no longer be in the castle, but they are in the city.” She faced me, her already alabaster skin even paler. “The Dark One has come for you, Penellaphe.”
I shuddered as my heart skipped a beat.
“We will protect you,” she continued. “But I would not be surprised if once the King and Queen learn of what has happened, they take drastic steps to ensure your safety. They could summon you to the capital.”