There was? Priestess Analia had never told me anything. She ignored any questions about her or my Ascension.
“We do not speak of the first Maiden, Penellaphe,” she said. “It’s not that we simply choose not to. It is that we cannot.”
“The gods…forbade it?” I suspected.
She nodded as her stare seemed to penetrate my veil. “I will break the rule just once and pray that the gods forgive me, but I will tell you this in hopes that your future does not end the same as the first Maiden’s did.”
I had a really bad feeling about where this was going.
“We do not speak of her. Ever. Her name is not worthy of our lips nor the air we breathe. If it were possible, I’d have her name and her history scrubbed in its entirety.” The chair cracked under Duchess Teerman’s hand, startling me.
My heart nearly stopped in my chest. “Was she…found unworthy by the gods?”
“By some small miracle, she wasn’t, but that doesn’t mean she was worthy.”
If she hadn’t been found unworthy, then why was she never spoken about? Surely, she couldn’t have been that bad if she hadn’t been found unworthy.
“In the end, her worthiness didn’t matter.” Duchess Teerman lifted her fingers. The chair was warped, splintered. “Her actions put her on a path that ended with her death. The Dark One killed her.”
“‘After years of destruction that had decimated entire cities, leaving countrysides and villages in ruins, and ending hundreds of thousands of lives, the world was on the brink of chaos when, on the eve of the Battle of Broken Bones, Jalara Solis of Vodina Isles gathered his forces outside the city of Pompay, the last Atlantian stronghold. ’” I cleared my throat, wildly uncomfortable. Not only was that the longest sentence in the history of man, I always hated reading out loud, but especially when I had Hawke as an audience. I hadn’t looked at him since I’d started reading. Still, I was almost positive that he was doing everything in his power to remain alert and not be bored into falling asleep while standing. “‘Which sat at the foot of the Skotos Mountains—’”
“Skotos,” Priestess Analia interrupted. “It’s pronounced like Skotis. You know how it’s pronounced, Maiden. Do so correctly.”
My fingers tightened around the leather binding. The History of The War of Two Kings and the Kingdom of Solis was well over a thousand pages, and every week, I was forced to read several chapters during my sessions with the Priestess. I’d probably read the entire tome aloud over a dozen times, and I swore that each time, the Priestess changed the way Skotos was pronounced.
I didn’t say that. Instead, I took a deep, long breath and tried to ignore the almost overwhelming urge to throw the book at her face. It would do some damage. Probably break her nose. The image of her clasping her bloodied face brought forth a disturbing amount of glee.
I smothered a yawn as I concentrated on the text. Having been up most of the night thinking about what the Duchess had told me, I’d gotten little sleep.
And like I’d told Vikter, I’d gotten few answers. But it had been a relief to learn that what was happening wasn’t something that my mind was conjuring up. My abilities were maturing, whatever that meant. The Duchess hadn’t wanted to discuss it further. So, while I knew that what was happening was somewhat normal, I was also left with the knowledge that the first Maiden had done something that had put her on a path to interact with the Dark One, who’d killed her.
That wasn’t exactly reassuring.
Neither was the knowledge that the first Maiden was somehow connected to the Duke. Was that why he treated me as he did? Perhaps it had nothing to do with my mother.
I drew in a shallow breath. “‘‘Which sat at the foot of the Skotis Mountains—’”
“It’s actually pronounced Skotos,” came the interruption from the corner of the room.
My eyes widened behind the veil as I looked over to Hawke. His face was all but devoid of expression. I glanced at the Priestess, who sat across from me on an equally hard, cushion-less wooden stool.
I had no idea how old the Priestess was. Her face was bare of makeup and smooth, but I thought that she might be at the end of her third decade of life. There were no gray strands in her brown hair that was sharply pulled back and held in a bun at the nape of her neck, causing her face to remind me of the hawks that I sometimes saw perched up high in the Queen’s Gardens. A shapeless red gown covered her from just under her neck, leaving only her hands visible.
I’d never seen the woman smile.
And she was definitely not smiling now as she looked over her shoulder at Hawke. “And how would you know?” Derision dripped from her tone like acid.
“My family originates from the farmlands not too far from Pompay, before the area was destroyed and became the Wastelands we know today,” he explained. “My family and others from that area have always pronounced the mountain range as the Maiden first said.” He paused. “The language and accent of those from the far west can be difficult…for some to master. The Maiden, however, appears to not fall into that group.”
I was confident that my eyes were about to pop out of my face in response to the obvious insult. I bit down on my lip to stop myself from grinning.
Priestess Analia’s already stiff shoulders jerked back as she stared at Hawke. I could practically see the steam coming out of her ears. “I did not realize I asked for your thoughts,” she spoke, tone as withering as her stare.
“My apologies.” He bowed his head in submission, but it was the poorest attempt at it because his amber eyes all but danced with amusement.
She nodded. “Apology—”
“I just didn’t want the Maiden to sound uneducated if any discussion were to arise about the Skotos Mountains,” he tacked on.
Oh, my gods…
“But I will remain quiet from here on out,” Hawke said. “Please, continue, Maiden. You have such a lovely reading voice that even I find myself enthralled with the history of Solis.”
I wanted to laugh. It was building in my throat, threatening to burst free, but I couldn’t let it. My grip loosened on the edges of the book. “‘Which sat at the foot of the Skotos Mountains, the gods had finally chosen a side.’” When the Priestess said nothing, I continued. “‘Nyktos, the King of the gods, and his son Theon, the God of War, appeared before Jalara and his army. Having grown distrustful of the Atlantian people and their unnatural thirst for blood and power, they sought to aid in ending the cruelty and oppression that had reaped these lands under the rule of Atlantia.’” I took a breath.
“‘Jalara Solis and his army were brave, but Nyktos, in his wisdom, saw that they could not defeat the Atlantians, who had risen to godlike strength through the bloodletting of innocents—’”
“They killed hundreds of thousands over the time of their reign. Bloodletting is a gentle description of what they actually did. They bit people,” Priestess Analia elaborated, and when I looked up at her, there was a strange gleam to her dark brown eyes. “Drank their blood and became drunk with power—with strength and near immortality. And those they didn’t kill became the pestilence we now know as the Craven. That is who our beloved King and Queen bravely took a stance against and were prepared to die to overthrow.”
Her fingers were turning pink from how tightly she’d balled her hands where they rested in her lap. “Continue.”
I didn’t dare look at Hawke. “‘Unwilling to see the failure of Jalara of Vodina Isles, Nyktos gave the gods’ first Blessing, sharing with Jalara and his army the blood of the gods.” I shuddered. That was also another gentle term for drinking the blood of the gods. “Emboldened with the strength and power, Jalara Of Vodina Isles and his army were able to defeat the Atlantians during the Battle of Broken Bones, therefore ending the reign of the corrupt and wretched kingdom.’”
I started to turn the page, knowing the next chapter dealt with the Ascension of the Queen and the building of the first Rise.
“Why?” the Priestess demanded.
Confused, I looked over at her. “Why, what?”
“Why did you just shudder when you read the part about the Blessing?”
I hadn’t realized my action had been so noticeable. “I…” I didn’t know what to say that wouldn’t irritate the Priestess and end with her running back to the Duke.
“You seemed disturbed,” she pointed out, her tone softening. I knew better than to trust that. “What is it about the Blessing that would affect you so?”
“I’m not disturbed. The Blessing is an honor—”
“But you shuddered,” she persisted. “Unless you find the act of the Blessing pleasurable, am I not to assume that it disturbs you?”
Pleasurable? My face flamed red-hot, and I was grateful for the veil. “It’s just that…the Blessing seems to be similar to how the Atlantians became so powerful. They drank the blood of the innocent, and the Ascended drink the blood of the gods—”
“How dare you compare the Ascension to what the Atlantians have done?” The Priestess moved quickly, leaning forward and gripping my chin between her fingers. “It is not the same thing. Perhaps you’ve grown fond of the cane, and you purposely strive to disappoint not only me but also the Duke.”
The moment her skin touched mine, I locked down my senses. I didn’t want to know if she felt pain or anything else.
“I didn’t say that it was,” I said, seeing Hawke step forward. I swallowed. “Just that it reminded me of—”
“The fact that you think of those two things in the same thought greatly concerns me, Maiden. The Atlantians took what was not given. During the Ascension, the blood is offered freely by the gods.” Her grip tightened, bordering on painful, and my gift stretched against my skin, almost as if it wanted to be used. “That is not something that I should have to explain to the future of the kingdom, to the legacy of the Ascended.”