Two Royal Guards were stationed outside the private quarters of the Duke and Duchess. There were several rooms on this floor used for greeting various members of the house and Court. Both had their own spaces and suites that connected to bedchambers, but based on where the Royal Guards stood, I knew the Duke was in the main suite.
Unease returned, slithering through my veins. For a brief moment, I’d forgotten about why I could’ve been summoned.
“Penellaphe?” Hawke said from behind me.
Only then did I realize two things. One, I’d come to a complete standstill in the hall, and I was sure that seemed odd to him. And secondly, he had called me by my name twice now instead of Maiden. He wasn’t Vikter. He wasn’t Tawny. Both of whom only called me by my name when we were alone.
I knew I should correct his use of my given name, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to, and that frightened me as much as what awaited me in the Duke’s office.
Taking a deep breath, I clasped my hands together as I straightened my shoulders and started forward.
The Royal Guards avoided eye contact as they bowed upon our approach. The dark-skinned one stepped aside, his hand on the door. He started to open it.
For some reason, I looked back at Hawke. Why, I had no idea. “I’ll wait for you here,” he assured.
I nodded and then faced forward again, forcing one foot in front of the other, telling myself that I was getting worked up over nothing.
Stepping into the suite, the first thing I noticed was that the curtains had been drawn. The soft glow of several oil lamps seemed to be absorbed by the dark wood paneling and the furniture fashioned from mahogany and crimson-hued velvet. My gaze fell to the large desk and then the credenza behind it, where several crystal bottles of various sizes were full of amber liquor.
Then I saw him.
The Duke sat on the settee, one booted foot resting on the table before him, and a glass of liquor in his hand. Chills swept through me as he looked over at me with eyes so dark, the pupil was almost indistinguishable.
It made me think that when next I saw Ian, his eyes would no longer be green like mine. They’d be like the Duke’s. Pitch-black. Bottomless. But would they be as chilling?
I suddenly realized that the Duke wasn’t alone.
Across from him was Lord Mazeen, seated in an arrogant sprawl. He held no drink in his hands, but his fingers tapped idly on his bent knee. There was a smirk on his well-formed lips, and every instinct in me screamed that I needed to run because there was no fighting what was coming.
The door clicked shut behind me, causing me to jump a little. I hated the response, hoping that the Duke hadn’t seen it, and knowing that he had when I saw him smile.
Teerman rose from the settee in one fluid, boneless movement. “Penellaphe, I am so incredibly disappointed in you.”
Cold to my very core, I drew in a short, measured breath as I watched him take a drink from his glass. I knew I had to choose my words carefully. It wouldn’t change what was to come, but it could determine the severity. “I’m sorry to have disappointed you,” I started. “I—”
“Do you even know what you have done that has disappointed me?”
Muscles in my shoulders stiffened, and my gaze darted from the silent Lord to the corner of the suite, where several, narrow pieces of reddish-brown wood were propped against a bookcase. They were fashioned from a tree that grew within the Blood Forest. When I looked back at Lord Mazeen, I saw that he was smiling. I was beginning to think that he had reported something back to the Duke, but if I was wrong about that, it would only add to my problems.
And Lord Mazeen knew this as he watched me. He gave no indication of the role he played in this. Even if his part was only to bear witness. He rarely spoke when he attended these lessons. While his silence would typically give me relief, it only heightened my anxiety now.
I forced the next words out even though they rolled off my tongue all wrong. “I don’t, but I’m sure, whatever it is, I am at fault. You’re never disappointed in me without cause.”
That was so not true.
There seemed to be times when the way I walked or how I cut my food at supper was a disappointment to the Duke. I was sure how many breaths I took in a minute could be of offense to him.
“You’re right. I wouldn’t be disappointed for no reason at all,” he agreed. “But this time, I find myself blindsided by what I have been told.”
My stomach turned over as sweat dotted my brow. Dear gods, had he learned of my time at the Red Pearl?
I’d feared that Hawke would say something, had obsessed and stressed over it. A part of me must not have wanted to believe it was possible, though, because the ripe feeling of betrayal tasted like spoiled food in the back of my throat. Hawke most likely had no idea what went down in this room, but he had to have known there would be consequences. Wouldn’t he? He probably thought I’d receive nothing more than a stern lecture. After all, I was the Maiden, the Chosen.
I would receive a dressing down.
But I doubted Hawke had any idea that the Duke’s lessons were not…normal.
Teerman took a step toward me, and all my muscles tensed up. “Remove your veil, Penellaphe.”
I hesitated for only the span of a few heartbeats, even though it was not uncommon for the Duke or the Duchess to request such a thing while in their presence. They didn’t like speaking to half a face. I couldn’t blame them, but normally, the Duke made me keep it on when Lord Mazeen was present.
“You do not want to test my patience.” His grip had tightened on his glass.
“I’m sorry. It’s just that we…we are not alone, and the gods forbade me from showing my face,” I said, knowing full well that I’d done this before, but in situations vastly different.
“The gods will not find fault in today’s proceedings,” the Duke interrupted.
Of course, not.
Willing my hands steady, I lifted them and undid the fine clasps of the veil near my ears. The headdress immediately loosened. Keeping my gaze lowered as I knew he preferred, I slipped it off, over where my hair had been bound in a simple knot at the nape of my neck. My exposed cheeks and brows prickled. Teerman came forward, taking the veil from me and placing it aside. I clasped my hands and waited. I hated doing so.
But I waited.
“Lift your eyes,” he demanded softly, and I did just that. His ebony gaze slowly tracked over my features, inch by inch, missing nothing, not even the wisps of burnt copper hair that I could feel curling against my temple. His perusal lasted an eternity. “You grow more beautiful each time I see you.”
“Thank you, Your Grace,” I murmured, revulsion bubbling in my stomach. I knew what was coming next.
The tips of his fingers pressed into the skin under my chin, tilting my head to the left and then to the right.
He clucked his tongue. “Such a shame.”
And there it was.
I said nothing as my focus shifted to the large oil painting of the Temples, where veiled women knelt before a being who was so bright, he rivaled the moon.
“What do you think, Bran?” he asked of the Lord.
“As you said, such a shame.”
I didn’t give a Craven’s ass what Lord Mazeen thought.
“The other scars are easy to hide, but this?” The Duke sighed almost sympathetically. “There will come a time when there will be no veil to hide this unfortunate flaw.”
I swallowed, resisting the urge to pull away when his fingers left my chin to trail down the two ragged indentations that started at my left temple and continued downward, skirting my eye to end just beside my nose.
“Do you know what that new guard of hers said?”
The Lord didn’t speak, but I imagined he shook his head no.
“He said she was beautiful,” the Duke answered. “Half of her is truly stunning.” There was a pause. “You look so much like your mother.”
My gaze flew to his in shock. He knew my mother? He’d never—not once—mentioned that before. “You knew her?”
His eyes met mine, and it was hard to stare into the never-ending darkness. “I did. She was…special.”
Before I could even question that, he said, “You do realize that the guard wouldn’t have said otherwise? Wouldn’t have spoken the truth.”
I flinched as my chest hollowed.
Having spotted the reaction, the Duke’s smile returned. “I suppose it’s some small blessing. The damage to your face could’ve been far worse.”
The damage could’ve included a missing eye, or worse, death.
But I didn’t say that.
My gaze shifted back to the painting, wondering how his words could still sting after all these years. When I was younger, they’d hurt. His words had cut deep. But the last couple of years, there’d been nothing but numb resignation. The scars were not something I could change. I knew that. But today, they sliced through me as they had when I was thirteen.
“You do have such pretty eyes.” He removed his fingers from the scars and pressed one to my lower lip. “And a well-formed mouth.” He paused, and I swore I could feel his gaze lower and linger. “Most will find your body pleasing.”
Bile clogged my throat and crawled across my skin like thousands of spiders. Only by sheer will, was I able to hold myself completely still.
“For some men, those things will be enough.” Teerman dragged his finger across my bottom lip before lowering his hand. “Priestess Analia came to see me this morning.”
My heart started to slow as confusion surfaced. The Priestess? What could she possibly have to say about me?
“Do you not have anything to add?” Teerman asked, raising one pale brow.
“No. I’m sorry.” I shook my head. “I don’t know what Priestess Analia would have to say. I last saw her a week ago, in the second-floor parlor, and all seemed fine.”
“I’m sure it did since you only spent half an hour there before leaving unexpectedly,” he said. “I was advised you didn’t once pick up your embroidery set, nor did you engage in any conversation with the Priestesses.”