“I don’t know.” Casteel swallowed, shaken as he stared at the creature. “But we…we have to keep going.”
“What?” I spun toward him. “We can’t leave him.”
“We have to, Poppy.” He clasped my arms. “You see what kind of bars they are?” he asked, and I looked again, my stomach hollowing. “They’re bone, and I doubt they’re the bones of a mortal. Your abilities won’t work on them, and we’re not going to be able to break through them without causing a shit ton of noise.”
“And even if we did, what would we do with him?” Casteel asked, his eyes searching mine. He took a breath, lifting his hands to clasp my cheeks. “Listen to me. I know you don’t want to leave him here. Neither do I. But there is nothing we can do right now.”
“He’s right,” Kieran said, glancing back out into the hall. “We’re not abandoning him.”
“We’re not?” I questioned.
“We know he’s here. We’ll ask for his freedom,” Casteel explained. “That becomes a part of our deal.”
“That…that is a smart idea,” I said, glancing at the cat. His eyes were closed, and his sides rose and fell rapidly.
“That’s because I’m smart.” Casteel dipped his head, kissing my brow. “I love your compassion, Poppy,” he whispered. “I really do. But we must continue.”
Heart sinking, I nodded as I stared at the creature. “We’ll be back,” I promised him, unsure if he could understand what I said or if he was even aware that we were still there.
It took everything in me to leave the room, the man’s intense stare taking up space in my mind. I didn’t think he was a wivern or a changeling, because why would the bones of a deity be needed to cage one of them?
Surely that couldn’t be… “Could Malec change forms?” I asked as we entered a narrow stairwell.
“No,” Casteel answered from in front of me. “I know what you’re thinking. That’s not him. He was not the kind of deity that could shift forms.”
Somehow, that didn’t relieve me as it should. We rounded a bend in the stairs, and Casteel opened the door slowly. “Clear,” he murmured.
We stepped out into the first floor of the castle, in a back hall. Based on the bare walls and minimal lighting, I’d bet only the servants ever used it. Quietly, we made our way toward the end of the hall where a crimson banner hung with the Royal Crest in gold. We were a few feet from the opening when Casteel cursed low and grasped my hand, hauling me behind him as he stepped forward, withdrawing a sword.
A figure stepped into the opening, coming to stand in front of the banner—a young woman with midnight hair combed back from her face and into one thick braid. Lacy black material covered her arms, upper chest, and neck, the cloth transparent except for the thicker material that ran through the lace like vines. Her tunic was fitted to her chest and stomach and flared out at her rounded hips. There were slits on either side, revealing black pants and boots that laced up to her knees.
She was no servant. If the clothing hadn’t given that fact away, the crescent-shaped blades she held at her sides would have—blades the shiny black of shadowstone.
It was also the mask painted—or inked—in a deep reddish-black. A disguise that obscured most of her features as it traveled above her eyebrows, reaching her hair, and then swept below her eyes—eyes that were such an unbelievably pale shade of silver-blue, they appeared nearly leached of color—before stretching nearly to her jaw on either side. Wings. The mask looked like the wings of a bird of prey across the olive skin of her face.
Was she a…a Handmaiden? I wasn’t sure, but I knew she was no vampry. She had emotions. I could feel them behind thick mental walls.
“Hello,” she said rather politely. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
I reached for the wolven dagger as Delano shot forward, thrusting out with his bloodstone sword—
The young woman was ungodly quick, a blur of lacy black and deep crimson as she spun under Delano’s arm, snapping up to trap his arm between hers and his body as she twisted, hooking one leg around his waist. She spun again, forcing his body to turn away from her. Within a heartbeat, she had one crescent-shaped blade under his chin and the other pressed against his stomach.
None of us moved.
I think we were all a bit stunned by what we had just witnessed.
“Let him go,” Casteel spoke in that powerful, commanding voice, the one that compelled a response. “Now.”
She looked at him. “I will when I’m good and ready.”
Shock flickered through Casteel and me. This woman wasn’t susceptible to compulsion. My heart turned over heavily.
“Now, I was ordered to not shed blood unnecessarily, something I admit I have a tiny bad habit of doing,” she told us, looking up at the hardened lines of Delano’s face as he strained against her, unable to break free of her grip—the hold of a painted woman who had to be several inches shorter than me. She held Delano in place while standing on the tips of her toes. “So, please do not even think about shifting and forcing me to make bloodshed an unfortunately necessary thing.”
“What in the hell are you?” Delano growled.
“A Handmaiden?” I suggested, thinking of the woman I knew as my mother—who could very well have been my mother by blood.
“Yes. That, and many other things.” Unpainted lips curved up in a tight smile as her gaze flicked to us. “But right now, I’m simply your friendly escort.” Her stare was unflinching as the sound of many footfalls echoed from both sides of the hall. “One of many escorts, that is.”
Within seconds, Royal Guards filled both sides of the windowless hallway, swords drawn. Among them were armored knights. There were dozens, and the knights appeared as they had in Spessa’s End. The comb atop their helmets was dyed crimson, and they wore the red-painted masks that covered the upper parts of their faces.
I exhaled raggedly.
“Let him go,” Casteel demanded, his chin dipping low. “And we’ll behave if you behave.”
Those eerie eyes focused on him, and I sensed a quick burst of tartness—a great unease—from the woman. But it was brief, and she smiled broadly then, revealing two rows of…fangless teeth. “Of course,” she replied quite cheerfully. “I excel at behaving.”
I had a feeling that was a lie.
We waited, hearts pounding, and the eather in my chest straining against my skin. I could take them all out, just like I had with the Unseen on the road to Evaemon.
“You’re going to let me go?” Delano asked, and the woman nodded. “Then you have to actually let me go.”
“I will,” she said, those eyes shifting back to me. “But you see, you have all already misbehaved, sneaking in underground.” She tsked softly under her breath, and energy pulsed through me, beneath my skin. “Going where you should not have gone.” Her flat eyes bored into mine. “Seeing what you should not have seen.”
“The man in the cage?”
Her smile faded. “Our Queen will not be very pleased by that, but I am willing to give all of you the benefit of the doubt. Especially you,” she said to me. “Do not try anything. If you do, it will not be your lives you forfeit. It will be the lives of those who were riding toward our east gates.”