Men and women of different classes who didn’t look upon the Tulises with distaste, but had instead stared at the dais, unable to hide their displeasure and bitterness. Had some of them handed over third sons and daughters to the Priests, or would they soon be watching their second sons and daughters go to Court after their Rite.
Had the Duke and Duchess noticed those stares? I doubted they did, but I was sure the Royal Guards had.
As Vikter had said, this was a time of unrest, and it was spreading. I didn’t think all could be blamed on the Descenters. Some of the fault could be laid at the feet of the natural order of things—to the Rite, which was beginning to feel unnatural when extenuating circumstances such as the Tulises’ plight were ignored.
Could it be changed? The way things were done? That was another thing that had kept me awake. Surely, the gods had enough sons and daughters to serve them. They had the entire kingdom, and maybe it could become a case-by-case basis when it came to those who served the gods at the time of their Rite. Many parents were honored to have their children do so, and for some, a lifetime in servitude to the gods was a far better life than the one they would’ve had if they remained at home. Could I change the order of things once I returned to the capital, before I Ascended? Did I have that kind of power? Surely I had more than the Ladies and Lords in Wait, as I was the Maiden. I could speak to the Queen on behalf of the Tulises, and if I ended up returning from the gods as one of the Ascended, I could continue petitioning for change.
I could at least try, which was more than the Duke and Duchess were willing to do. That was what I’d decided before I’d finally drifted off to sleep, only to wake a few hours later to meet with Vikter.
“You sound like you need a nap,” Tawny commented as she secured the final chain of the veil.
“If only I could do just that.” I sighed.
“I have no idea how you can’t nap during the day.” She stepped to my side, tucking the ends of the veil so the length fell down the center of my back. “Give me any comfy chair and—”
“You’ll be out cold in minutes. It makes me so jealous.” I slipped my feet into white slippers with all-too-thin soles. “Once the sun comes up, I can’t sleep.”
“That’s because you can’t stand to be idle,” she responded. “And sleeping requires a certain amount of idleness, which is something I excel at.”
I laughed. “We all have to be good at something.”
She shot me a look just before a sharp rap sounded, and then Vikter’s voice rang out. Heading for the hall door, I groaned even though I had expected his arrival. I was due to meet with Priestess Analia for prayers, but in reality, the time was generally spent with the Priestess criticizing everything from my posture to the wrinkles in my gown.
“If you want to make a run for it, I’ll tell Vikter you jumped out the window,” Tawny offered.
I snorted. “That would only buy me a five-second lead time.”
“True.” Tawny reached the door before me, all but throwing it open. The moment I saw Vikter’s face, I tensed. Deep grooves of tension bracketed his mouth.
“What happened?” I asked.
“You’ve been summoned to meet with the Duke and Duchess,” he announced, and knots of dread formed.
Tawny sent me a quick, nervous glance. “What for?”
“I believe it has to do with who will replace Rylan,” he said, and instead of feeling relief like I knew Tawny did given how her shoulders loosened, my unease grew.
“Do you know who?” I followed him out into the hall.
He shook his head, sending a lock of sandy blond hair across his forehead. “I haven’t been told.”
That wasn’t exactly uncommon, but I would think that since Vikter would be working closely with whoever replaced Rylan, he’d be one of the first to know.
“What about Priestess Analia?” I asked, ignoring the raised brows that Tawny directed at me as she fell into step beside me. And, yes, I was surprised that I was asking since jumping out a window would almost be preferable to spending an afternoon listening to all the things that were wrong with me. But a bad, anxious feeling had taken root in my stomach.
“She’s been advised there will be no session this week,” Vikter answered. “I’m sure you’re disappointed to hear that.”
Tawny stifled a giggle as I stuck my tongue out at Vikter’s back. We made our way to the end of the otherwise vacant wing of the castle and headed to the narrow hallway that accessed the main staircase. The wide stone steps fed into a large foyer where servants dusted statues of Penellaphe and Rhain. The eight-foot-tall, limestone statues stood in the center of the circular space and were cleaned every afternoon. How there could even be a speck of dust or dirt on any part of the statue was beyond me.
The foyer led to the front of the castle, where the Great Hall, sitting rooms, and atrium were located. However, Vikter led us to the right of the statues, through the archway adorned with lush, green garland. The large banquet table designed to seat dozens was cleared of all except for the golden vase in the center, containing several long-stemmed, night-blooming roses. Air catching in my throat, my gaze latched on to the roses as we skirted the table, walking toward one of the doors to the right that had been left ajar. The sight of the flowers, the scent….
I could practically smell the blood.
Tawny lightly touched my shoulder, drawing my attention. I exhaled, forcing a smile. Her worried gaze lingered as Vikter opened the door to one of the Teermans’ many office spaces in the castle, this one used for less intimate meetings. My gaze swept the room, and my heart stopped.
It wasn’t because the Duke sat behind his black-painted desk, his pale head bent as he scoured whatever paper he held in his hand. Nor was it because the Duchess stood to the right of his desk, speaking with Commander Jansen. What caused the reaction was the dark-haired young man standing beside the Commander, dressed in black and armored in leather and iron.
My lips parted as my heart tumbled all the way to the pit of my stomach while Tawny came to a sudden stop, blinking rapidly as if she’d just walked into the room to find one of the gods. Slowly, she looked over at me, and the corners of her lips turned up. She looked curious and amused, and I was sure if she could see my face, I likely looked like I was five seconds from bolting from the room.
In that moment, I really wished I’d told her about Hawke and the Red Pearl.
I couldn’t think of another reason why Hawke would be here with the Commander, but I desperately clung to the hope that Vikter had been wrong, and it had nothing to do with Rylan’s replacement. But what other reason could there be?
A sudden new fear took root. What if Hawke had discovered that it was me at the Red Pearl? Oh, my gods. That seemed improbable, but wasn’t Hawke becoming my guard just as unlikely? My heart seemed to restart and was now in a race with itself.
The Duke looked up from his paper, his coolly handsome face giving me no indication of what was about to occur. “Please, close the door, Vikter.”
The stately room stood out in too-vivid detail as Vikter moved to obey the request. The Royal Crest painted in gold on a white marble wall behind the Duke was blinding, and the bare walls were in stark contrast to the black chair rails that ran along the length and width of the room. There was only one chair besides the one the Duke sat in. That was a plush, cream-colored wingback chair that the Duchess usually occupied. The only other seating options were polished limestone benches placed in three neat rows.
The room was as cold as the Duke, but it was far better than the chamber he usually preferred. The one I’d been summoned to far too often.
“Thank you.” Teerman nodded at Vikter, his smile close-lipped as he lowered the paper to the desk. His black, fathomless eyes flicked to where I stood, just inside the door. His mouth tightened as he motioned me forward. “Please sit, Penellaphe.”
Legs oddly numb, I forced myself to cross the short distance, wholly aware of Hawke’s gaze tracking my every step. I didn’t need to look to know that he watched. His gaze was always that intense. I sat on the edge of the middle bench, folding my hands in my lap. Tawny took the bench behind me, while Vikter moved to stand to my right so he stood between me and the Commander and Hawke.
“I hope you’re feeling well, Penellaphe?” the Duchess said as she sat in the chair beside the desk.
Hoping that I was only asked simple yes and no questions, I nodded.
“I’m relieved to hear that. I was worried that attending the City Council so soon after your attack would be too much,” she said.
For once, I was beyond grateful for the veil. Because if my face were visible, there’d be no hiding how ridiculous that concern was. I’d been bruised. Not seriously injured or shot through the chest with an arrow, as Rylan had. I would be fine—I was fine. Rylan would never be okay.
“What happened in the garden is why we’re all here,” the Duke took over, and muscles all along my neck and back began to tense. “With the death of…” His fair brow pinched as disbelief whirled through me. “What was his name?” he asked of the Duchess, whose forehead creased. “The guard?”
“Rylan Keal, Your Grace,” Vikter answered before I blurted out his name.
The Duke snapped his fingers. “Ah, yes. Ryan. With Ryan’s death, you are down one guard.”
My hands curled into fists. Rylan. His name was Rylan. Not Ryan.
No one corrected him.
“Again,” the Duke added after a pause, a faint twist of his lips forming a mockery of a smile. “Two guards lost in one year. I hope this isn’t becoming a habit.”
He said it as if it were somehow my fault.
“Anyway, with the upcoming Rite, and as you draw closer to your Ascension, Vikter cannot be expected to be the only one keeping a close watch on you,” Teerman continued. “We need to replace Ryan.”
I bit the inside of my cheek.
“Which, as I am sure you realize now, explains why Commander Jansen and Guard Flynn are here.”