Under the chandelier, another card game was in progress. There were women there too, their hair twisted in elaborate updos adorned with crystals, and their clothing far less daring than the women who worked here. Their gowns were vibrant shades of purple and yellow and pastel hues of blue and lilac.
I was only allowed to wear white, whether I was in my room or in public, which wasn’t often. So, I was fascinated with how the different colors complemented the wearer’s skin or hair. I imagined I looked like a ghost most days, roaming the halls of Castle Teerman in white.
These women also wore domino masks that covered half their faces, protecting their identities. I wondered who some of them were. Daring wives left alone one too many times? Young women who hadn’t married or were perhaps widowed? Servants or women who worked in the city, out for the evening? Were Ladies and Lords in Wait among the masked females at the table and among the crowd? Did they come here for the same reasons I did?
If so, then we were more alike than I realized, even though they were second daughters and sons, given to the Royal Court upon their thirteenth birthday during the annual Rite. And I…I was Penellaphe of Castle Teerman, Kin of the Balfours, and the Queen’s favorite.
I was the Maiden.
And in a little under a year, upon my nineteenth birthday, I would Ascend, as would all Ladies and Lords in Wait. Our Ascensions would be different, but it would be the largest one since the first gods’ Blessing that occurred after the end of the War of Two Kings.
Very little would happen to them if they were caught, but I…I would face the Duke’s displeasure. My lips thinned as a kernel of anger took root, mingling with a sticky residue of disgust and shame.
The Duke was a pestilence of overly familiar hands and had an unnatural thirst for punishment.
But I wouldn’t think about him either. Or worry about being disciplined. I might as well go back to my chambers if I was going to do that.
Dragging my gaze from the table, I noted that there were smiling and laughing women in the Pearl who wore no masks, hid no identities. They sat at tables with guards and businessmen, stood in shadowy alcoves and spoke with masked women, men, and also those who worked for the Red Pearl. They weren’t ashamed or afraid to be seen.
Whoever they were, they had freedom I deeply coveted.
An independence I chased tonight, because masked and unknown, no one but the gods would know I was here. And as far as the gods were concerned, I had long ago decided that they had far better things to do than spend their time watching me. After all, if they had been paying attention, they would’ve already taken me to task over numerous things I’d already done that were forbidden to me.
So, I could be anyone tonight.
The freedom in that was a far headier sensation than I imagined. Even more so than the unripe poppy seeds provided by those who smoked them.
Tonight, I wasn’t the Maiden. I wasn’t Penellaphe. I was simply Poppy, a nickname I remembered my mother using, something only my brother Ian and very few others ever called me.
As Poppy, there were no strict rules to follow or expectations to fulfill, no future Ascension that was coming quicker than I was prepared for. There was no fear, no past or future. Tonight, I could live a little, even for a few hours, and rack up as much experience as I could before I was returned to the capital, to the Queen.
Before I was given to the gods.
A shiver tiptoed down my spine—uncertainty, along with a bite of desolation. I tamped it down, refusing to give life to it. Dwelling on what was to come and could not be changed served no purpose.
Besides, Ian had Ascended two years ago, and based on the monthly letters I received from him, he was the same. The only difference was that instead of spinning tales with his voice, he did so with words in each letter. Just last month, he wrote about two children, a brother and sister, who swam to the bottom of the Stroud Sea, befriending the water folk.
I smiled as I lifted the champagne flute, having no idea where he came up with those things. As far as I knew, it was impossible to swim to the bottom of the Stroud Sea, and there was no such thing as water folk.
Shortly after his Ascension, on the orders of the Queen and King, he’d married Lady Claudeya.
Ian never spoke of his wife.
Was he happy at all in his marriage? The curve of my lips faded as my gaze dropped to the fizzing, pinkish drink. I wasn’t sure, but they’d barely known each other before marrying. How was that long enough when you’d presumably spend the rest of your life with a person?
And the Ascended lived for a very, very long time.
It was still odd for me to think of Ian as an Ascended. He wasn’t a second son, but because I was the Maiden, the Queen had petitioned the gods for a rare exception to the natural order, and they had allowed him to Ascend. I wouldn’t face what Ian had, marriage to a stranger, to another Ascended, one who was sure to covet beauty above all else, because attractiveness was seen as godlike.
And even though I was the Maiden, the Chosen, I would never be viewed as godlike. According to the Duke, I wasn’t beautiful.
I was a tragedy.
Without realizing it, my fingers brushed the scratchy lace of the left side of the mask. I jerked my hand away.
A man I recognized as a guard rose from a table, turning to a woman wearing a white mask like I was. He extended a hand to her, speaking words too low for me to hear, but she answered with a nod and a smile before placing her hand in his. She rose, the skirt of her lilac-hued gown falling like liquid around her legs as he led her from the room toward the only two doors accessible by guests, one at either end of interconnecting chambers. The right went outside. The left door led upstairs, to more private rooms where Britta had said all manner of things occurred.
The guard took the masked woman to the left.
He’d asked. She’d said yes. Whatever it was they did upstairs, it would be welcomed and chosen by both, regardless of whether it lasted a few hours or a lifetime.
My attention lingered on the door long after it had closed. Was that another reason I had come here tonight? To…to experience pleasure with someone of my choosing?
I could if I wanted to. I’d overheard conversations between the Ladies in Wait, who weren’t expected to remain untouched. According to them, there were…many things a woman could do that brought pleasure while retaining their purity.
I hated that word, the meaning behind it. As if my virginity determined my goodness, my innocence, and its presence or lack thereof was somehow more important than the hundred choices I made every day.
There was even a part of me that wondered what the gods would do if I went to them no longer an actual maiden. Would they overlook everything else I did or didn’t do simply because I was no longer a virgin?
I wasn’t sure, but I hoped that wasn’t the case. Not because I planned to have sex now or next week or…ever, but because I wanted to be able to make that choice.
Though, I wasn’t quite sure how I’d find myself in a situation where that option would even arise. But I imagine there’d be willing participants who’d want to do the things I’d heard the Ladies in Wait speaking about here at the Red Pearl.
A nervous flutter beat in my chest as I forced myself to take another sip of the champagne. The sweet bubbles tickled the back of my throat, easing some of the sudden dryness in my mouth.
Truth be told, tonight had been a spur-of-the-moment decision. Most nights, I couldn’t fall asleep until it was nearly dawn. When I did, I almost wished I hadn’t. Three times this week alone, I woke from a nightmare, with my screams ringing in my ears. And when they came like this, in clusters, they felt like a harbinger. An instinct much like the ability to sense pain, screaming out a warning.
Drawing in a shallow breath, I glanced back to where I’d been looking before. The woman in red was no longer on the table. Instead, she was in the lap of the merchant who’d asked what would happen if two men won. He was inspecting his cards, but his hand was where hers had been heading earlier, delved deep between her thighs.
Biting down on my lip, I pulled away from where I stood before my entire face caught on fire. I drifted into the next space that was separated by a partial wall, where another round of games was being played.
There were more guards here, some I even recognized as belonging to the Royal Guard, soldiers just like those who worked the Rise but who protected the Ascended instead. This was why the Ascended also had personal guards. People had tried to kidnap members of the Court before for ransom. No one was usually hurt too seriously in those situations, but there had been other attempts that stemmed from far different, more violent reasons.
Standing near a leafy potted plant that sported tiny, red buds, I was unsure of what to do from there. I could join another card game or strike up a conversation with any of the numerous people who lingered around the tables, but I wasn’t all that good at making small talk with strangers. There was no doubt in my mind that I’d blurt out something bizarre or ask a random question that would make little sense to the conversation. So that was off the table. Maybe I should head back to my chambers. The hour had to be growing late and—
A strange awareness swept over me, starting as a tingling sensation along the back of my neck and intensifying with every passing second.
It felt like…like I was being watched.
Scanning the room, I didn’t see anyone paying much attention to me, but I expected to find someone standing near. That was how potent the feeling was. Unease blossomed in the pit of my stomach. I started to turn toward the entrance when the soft, drawn-out notes of some sort of string instrument drew my attention to the left, my gaze landing on the gauzy, blood-red curtains that swayed gently from the movement of others in the establishment.
I stilled, listening to the rise and fall of the tempo that was soon joined by the heavy thump of a drum. I forgot about the feeling of being watched. I forgot about a lot of things. The music was…it was like nothing I’d heard before. It was deeper, thicker. Slowing, and then speeding up. It was...sensual. What had Britta, the servant, said about the kind of dancing that took place at the Red Pearl? She’d lowered her voice when she spoke of it, and the other maid Britta had been speaking to had looked scandalized.