“I don’t think the man I saw in the garden was the Dark One,” I said to Vikter as we made our way from the sitting room, passing under the large, white banners embossed with the Royal Crest in gold. He was escorting Tawny and me back to my room. “When he said he was basically going to feast on my body parts, he referenced someone else, saying he didn’t care what he had planned. If the Dark One is behind this, I imagine the one with the plans would be him.”
“I suspect whoever was in the garden was a Descenter,” Vikter admitted, hand on the hilt of his short sword as he scanned the wide hall as if Descenters lurked behind the potted lilies and statues.
Several Ladies in Wait stood together, their voices quieting as we passed. A few placed their hands over their mouths. If they hadn’t heard what had happened, they now knew something else had occurred based on the amount of blood that stained my gown.
“We should’ve gone the old way,” I muttered. It was rare that any of them ever saw me, and to see me like this would be the gossip of the week.
“Ignore them.” Tawny shifted so she blocked most of me from view as we crossed the hall. She still carried with her the white vial that she knew I had no plans to use.
“It may be good for them to see.” Vikter decided after a moment. “What happened last night and just now could serve as a timely reminder that we are in a time of unrest. We all should be on guard. No one is truly safe.”
A shiver tiptoed its way down my spine. The numbness was still there, and all of this felt surreal until I thought of Rylan. My chest ached worse than my bruised jaw and temple. “When will…when will Rylan be put to rest?”
“Most likely in the morning.” Vikter glanced down at me. “You know you cannot go.”
The Ascended, as well as the Lords and Ladies in Wait, were not expected to attend the funeral of a guard. In fact, it was simply not done. “He was my personal guard, and he was…he was a friend. I don’t care what’s done and not done. I didn’t attend Hannes’ funeral because of protocol, and I wanted to be there.” The guilt from that still ate at me, usually at three in the morning when I couldn’t sleep. “I want to be there for Rylan.”
Tawny appeared as if she wished to argue the point but knew better. Vikter simply sighed. “You know His Grace will not approve.”
“He rarely approves of anything. This can be another thing he can add to his ever-growing list that contains all the ways I’ve disappointed him.”
“Poppy,” Vikter warned, his jaw tightening, reminding me of our argument last night. “You may continue to act as if angering the Duke is no big deal, but you know that will not lessen the weight of his anger.”
Did I ever, but that knowledge didn’t change anything. I was more than willing to deal with whatever consequences arose, just as I was when it came to me aiding those who’d been infected by the Craven. “I don’t care. Rylan died right in front of me, and there was nothing I could do. I wiped—” My voice cracked. “I wiped my blade on his clothing.”
Vikter stopped as we entered the foyer, placing his hand on my shoulder. “You did all that you could.” He squeezed gently. “You did what you needed to do. You’re not responsible for his death. He was doing his duty, Poppy. The same as if I were to die defending you.”
My heart stopped. “Don’t say that. Don’t you ever say that. You won’t die.”
“But I will die someday. I may get lucky, and the god Rhain will come for me in my sleep, but it may be by the sword or by the arrow.” His eyes met mine, even through the veil, and a knot lodged in my throat. “No matter how or when it happens, it will not be your fault, Poppy. And you will not waste one moment on guilt.”
Tears blurred his features. I couldn’t even think of something happening to Vikter. Losing Hannes and now Rylan, both who weren’t nearly as close to me as Vikter, was hard enough. Other than Tawny, Vikter was the only person in my life who knew what kept me up at night and why I needed to feel like I could protect myself. He knew more than my own brother did. It would be like losing my parents all over again, but worse, because the memories of my mother and father, their faces and the sound of their voices, had faded with the passing of time. They were forever captured in the past, mere ghosts of who they once were, and Vikter was in the now, bright and in vivid detail.
“Tell me you understand that.” His voice had softened.
I didn’t, but I nodded nonetheless because that was what he needed to see.
“Rylan was a good man.” His voice thickened, and for a moment, grief filled his gaze, proving that he wasn’t unaffected by Rylan’s death. He was just too skilled to show it. “I know it didn’t sound like I thought so when we were with Her Grace. I stand by what I said. Rylan grew too complacent, but that can happen to the best of us. He was a good guard, and he cared for you. He would not want you to feel guilt.” He squeezed my shoulder once more. “Come. You need to clean up.”
The moment we reached my room, Vikter checked the space, assuring that the access to the old servants’ stairs was locked. It was more than just a little unsettling to think that he felt the need to check my suite, but I figured he was operating on the better-safe-than-sorry mindset.
Before he left us, I recalled a part of what the Duchess had said. “The group the Duchess spoke about… Do you know who they are?”
“I wasn’t aware of any group.” Vikter glanced at where Tawny was carrying an armful of fresh towels into the bathing chamber. He often spoke openly in front of her, but this…all of this felt different. “But I’m not kept up to date on the comings and goings, so it’s not exactly surprising.”
“So, the Duke was just trying to avoid panic,” I surmised.
“The Duchess has always been more forthcoming, but I imagine that he probably told the Commander the truth.” His jaw hardened. “I should’ve been told immediately.”
He should’ve been, and it didn’t matter that he’d already suspected the truth.
“Try to get some rest.” He placed his hand on my shoulder. “I’ll be right outside if you need anything.”
A hot bath was quickly drawn, placed near the fireplace, and then Tawny took the soiled gown. I never wanted to see it again. I sank into the steaming water and set about scrubbing my hands and arms until they were pink with heat and friction. Without any warning, the image of Rylan appeared in my mind, the look of shock on his face as he stared down at his chest.
Squeezing my eyes shut, I lowered myself more and let the water slip over my head. I stayed there until my lungs burned and I no longer saw Rylan’s face. Only then did I allow myself to resurface. There I stayed, bruised knees tucked to my chest, until my skin puckered, and the water began to cool.
I rose from the soaking tub, pulling on a thick robe that Tawny had left on a nearby stool and padded on bare feet across the fire-warmed stone to the lone mirror. Using my palm to wipe away a bit of steam, I stared into my green eyes. My father had passed that color onto Ian and me. Our mother had brown eyes. I remembered that. The Queen had told me once that except for my eyes, I was a replica of my mother when she was my age. I had her strong brow and her oval-shaped face, angular cheekbones, and full mouth.
I tilted my cheek. The faintly red and bruised skin along my temple and the corner of my mouth were barely noticeable. Whatever the Healer had rubbed onto the skin had greatly sped up the healing process.
It had to be the same mixture I’d used to heal the welts that too often marked my back.
I pushed that thought from my head as I looked at my left cheek. That too had healed but had left a mark behind.
I didn’t look at the scars often, but I did now. I studied the jagged streak of skin, a pink paler than my skin tone, that started below the hairline and sliced across my temple, narrowly missing my left eye. The healed injury ended by my nose. Another shorter wound was higher up, cutting across my forehead and through my eyebrow.
I lifted my damp fingers, pressing them to the longer scar. I’d always thought that my eyes and mouth seemed too large for my face, but the Queen had said that my mother had been considered a great beauty.
Whenever Queen Ileana spoke of my mother, she did so with pained fondness. They’d been close, and I knew she regretted granting my mother the one thing she’d ever asked her for.
Permission to refuse the Ascension.
My mother had been a Lady in Wait, given to the Court during her Rite, but my father had not been a Lord. She had chosen my father over the Blessing of the gods, and that kind of love…it was, well, I didn’t have any experience with that. Probably never would, and I doubted most people did, no matter what their futures held. What my mom had done was unheard of. She’d been the first and the last to ever do so.
Queen Ileana had said more than once that if my mother had Ascended, she might’ve survived that night, but that night may have never come. I wouldn’t be standing here. Neither would Ian. She wouldn’t have married our father, and if she had Ascended, she would bear no children.
The Queen’s beliefs were irrelevant.
But when the mist had come for us that night, if my parents had known how to defend themselves, both might still be alive. It was why I was standing here instead of the captive of a man determined to take down the Ascended and more than willing to shed blood to do so. If Malessa had known how to defend herself, her outcome may have still been the same, but she would’ve at least had a chance.
My gaze once more met my reflection’s. The Dark One would not take me. That was a vow I would kill for and die to uphold.
I lowered my hand and then slowly turned from the mirror. I changed into a gown, leaving a lamp burning beside the door and crawled into bed. It couldn’t have been more than twenty minutes before a soft knock sounded on the adjoining door, and Tawny’s voice called out.
I rolled toward the entrance. “I’m awake.”