I walked to one of the chairs and sat on the edge as I tried to figure out what to say. Suddenly, my brain sort of spit out the only thing that came to mind. “It feels suffocating.”
Hawke drew closer. “Then why do you wear it?”
“I didn’t realize I had a choice.” I looked up at him.
“You have a choice now.” He knelt in front of me. “It’s just you and me, walls, and a pathetically inadequate supply of furniture.”
My lips twitched.
“Do you wear your veil when you’re with Tawny?” he asked.
I shook my head no.
“Then why are you wearing it now?”
“Because…I’m allowed to be without my veil with her.”
“I was told that you were supposed to be veiled at all times, even with those approved to see you.”
He was, of course, correct.
Hawke arched a brow.
I sighed. “I don’t wear my veil when I’m in my room, and I don’t expect anyone to come in other than Tawny. And I don’t wear it then because I feel…more in control. I can make—”
“The choice not to wear it?” he finished for me.
Nodding, I was more than a little stunned that he’d nailed it.
“You have a choice now.”
“I do.” But it was hard to explain that the veil also served as a barrier. With it, I remembered what I was, and the importance of that. Without it, well, it was easy to want…to simply want.
His gaze searched the veil, and a long moment passed. He then nodded and rose slowly. “I’ll be outside if you need anything.”
A strange lump formed in my throat, making it impossible for me to speak. I remained where I was as he left the room, staring at the closed door once he was gone. I didn’t move. I didn’t remove the veil. Not for a long time.
Not until I no longer wanted.
The following evening, I stood outside the Duchess’s receiving room on the second floor. It was at the opposite end of the hall from the Duke’s, and I kept my back to his room. I didn’t want to see it, let alone think about it.
Two Royal Guards stood outside Jacinda’s room while Vikter waited beside me. I’d told him that morning what had really happened during the Duchess’s and Duke’s address to the people, and how I wasn’t sure if I had actually felt something or not. He suggested that I speak with the Duchess, since the Priestess was unlikely to give me any useful information, and the Duchess, depending on her mood, was more likely to speak openly.
I just hoped she was in a talkative mood.
Neither Vikter nor I spoke in the presence of the other Royal Guards, but I knew he was concerned over what I shared. About what it could mean if it was my gift evolving, or if it was my mind.
“It could just be the stress of everything that has happened,” he’d said. “It may be better to wait until you’re sure it is your gift before alerting anyone.”
I knew Vikter worried that if it was my mind, that it would somehow be held against me, but I didn’t want to wait until it happened again. I’d rather know now if it was my gift or not so I could react better.
The door opened, and one of the Royal Guards stepped out. “Her Grace will see you now.”
Vikter remained outside as planned since knowledge of my gift was supposed to be limited to the Duke and Duchess and the Temple clergy.
I broke so many rules, it was no wonder that Hawke had seemed surprised when I wouldn’t remove my veil the night before. That’s what I was thinking as I walked into the receiving room. I filed those thoughts away as I looked around.
I’d always liked this room with its ivory walls and light gray furnishings. There was something peaceful about it, and it was also warm and inviting despite there being no windows. It had to be all the dazzling chandeliers. My gaze found the Duchess seated at a small, circular table where she was drinking from a small cup. Garbed in a gown of the palest yellow, she reminded me of spring in the capital.
She looked up, a slight smile on her ageless face. “Come. Have a seat.”
Walking forward, I took the chair across from her, noting the plate of pastries. All that was left were the items with nuts. The chocolate scones were probably the first to be devoured. The Duchess had the same weakness as Vikter.
“You wished to speak with me?” She placed the delicate, flowery cup on its matching saucer.
I nodded. “Yes. I know you’re very busy, but I was hoping that you’d be able to help me with something.”
Her head inclined, sending soft, russet-colored waves tumbling over her shoulder. “I must admit, you have me curious. I cannot remember the last time you came to me for assistance.”
I could. It was when I’d asked for my chambers to be moved to the older part of the castle, something I was sure she still didn’t quite understand. “I wanted to talk to you…” I drew in a deep breath. “I wanted to talk to you about my gift.”
There was a slight widening of her pitch-black eyes. “I was not expecting that to be a topic. Has someone discovered your gift?”
“No, Your Grace. That’s not at all what has happened.”
Picking up the napkin from her lap, she wiped her fingers. “What, then? Please, do not keep me in suspense.”
“I think something is happening with it,” I told her. “There have been a few situations where I…I believe I felt something other than pain.”
Slowly, she placed the napkin on the table. “You were using your gift? You know the gods have forbidden you to do so. Not until you have been found worthy of such a gift are you to use it.”
“I know. I haven’t,” I lied easily. Probably a little too easily. “But, sometimes, it just happens. When I’m in a large crowd, I have trouble controlling it.”
“Has this been discussed with the Priestess?”
Good gods, no. “It doesn’t happen often. I swear, and it has only happened recently. I will double my efforts to control it, but when it happened earlier, I think I…I think I felt something other than pain.”
The Duchess stared at me, unblinking for what felt like a small eternity, and then she rose from her seat. A little unnerved, I watched her go to the white cabinet against the wall. “What do you think you felt?”
“Anger,” I answered. “During the City Council and last night, I felt anger.” I wouldn’t speak of Loren. I wouldn’t do that to her. “It was that man who...”
“Yes. At least, I think so,” I amended. “I think I was feeling anger from him.”
She poured a drink from a decanter. “Have you felt anything else that seems abnormal to you?”
“I…I think I’ve felt fear, too. When the Duke was speaking about the Craven attack. Terror is very similar to pain, but it feels different, and I thought that I might’ve felt something like…I don’t know. Excitement? Or anticipation.” I frowned. “Those two things are kind of the same thing, I suppose. In a way, at—”
“Do you feel anything now?” She turned to me, a glass of what I thought might be sherry in her hand.
I blinked from behind the veil. “You want me to use my gift on you?”
“It doesn’t matter what you thought,” she interrupted, and I stiffened. “I want you to use your gift now and tell me what, if anything, you feel.”
Despite finding her request more than strange, I did what she requested. I opened my senses, felt the cord stretch out between us, and…and connect with nothing but vast emptiness. A shiver danced over my skin.
“Do you feel anything, Penellaphe?”
Closing down the connection, I shook my head. “I don’t feel anything, Your Grace.”
The Duchess exhaled sharply through her nostrils, and then she downed her drink in one impressive gulp.
My eyes widened as my mind rapidly processed her reaction. It was almost as if she…expected me to feel something from her, but I’d never been able to. I didn’t think I ever would be able to.
“Good,” she breathed, her skirts swishing around her ankles as she turned back to the cabinet, placing the glass down.
“I was wondering if I was truly feeling something or…” I trailed off as she faced me.
“I believe your gift is…maturing,” she said, coming toward me. The bright light above her glittered off the obsidian ring on her finger as she gripped the back of the chair. “It would make sense that it would be happening as you’re nearing your Ascension.”
“So this…is normal?”
She clucked her tongue off the roof of her mouth. For a moment, it appeared as if she were about to say something, but then she changed her mind. “Yes, I do believe so, but I…I would not speak to His Grace about this.”
Tension crept into my shoulders at the thinly veiled warning. I was never sure if the Duchess knew about her husband’s…predilections. I couldn’t imagine how she could be completely blind to them, but there was a part of me that hoped she was. Because if she knew and did nothing to stop him, did it make her any better? Or was I even being fair to her? Just because she was an Ascended didn’t mean she held power over her husband.
“It would…remind him of the first Maiden,” she whispered.
Shocked, I stared up at her. I had not been expecting her to bring up the first Maiden, the one before me—the only other Maiden I knew of. “Did this…happen with the previous Maiden?”
“It did.” Her knuckles started to turn white, and I nodded. There had only been two Maidens Chosen by the gods. “What do you know about the first Maiden?”
“Nothing,” I admitted. “I don’t know her name or even when she lived.” Or what happened to her upon her Ascension.
Or why it mattered whether or not my developing gift reminded the Duke of her.
“There is a reason for that.”