I flinched. “It has nothing to do with them.”
“That’s not true, and you know it. You’re trying to make up for what you were unable to do as a child.” His voice dropped so low, I could barely hear him over the breeze stirring the leaves above us. “But it’s more than that.”
“And what is that?”
“I think you want to be caught.”
“What? You really think that?” I took a step back, pulling free of his hold. “You know what the Duke would do if he ever found out.”
“Trust me, I know. It’s not likely I’ll forget any of those times I had to help you walk back to your room.” His voice hardened, and heat blasted my cheeks.
I hated that.
Hated the way I felt for something someone had done to me. Absolutely hated the heavy shame that threatened to choke me.
“You take too many risks, Poppy, even knowing it’s not just the Duke or even the Queen you’d have to answer to,” he continued. “Sometimes, I wonder if you want to be found unworthy.”
Irritation flared to life, and there was a part of me that recognized it was because Vikter was scraping at old wounds and getting too close to a hidden truth I didn’t want to delve into and uncover. “Whether I’m caught or not, wouldn’t the gods already know what I do? There would be no reason for me to take additional risks when nothing is hidden from them.”
“There is no reason for you to take any risks at all.”
“Then why have you spent the last five or so years training me?” I demanded.
“Because I know why you need to feel like you can defend yourself,” he shot back. “After what you suffered, what you have to live with, I can understand the need to take your protection into your own hands. But if I had known that it would lead to you putting yourself in situations where you risked exposure, I never would’ve trained you.”
“Well, it’s too late for that change of heart.”
“That it is.” He sighed. “And way to avoid what I just said.”
“Avoid what?” I asked, pretending ignorance.
“You know exactly what I’m talking about.”
Shaking my head, I turned and started walking. “I don’t help those people because I want the gods to find me unworthy. I didn’t help Agnes because I hoped she would tell someone, and it would get out. I help them because it’s already a tragedy that doesn’t need to be compounded upon by being forced to watch their loved ones be burned to death.” I stepped over a fallen tree limb, my headache worsening. However, it had nothing to do with my gift and everything to do with the conversation. “Sorry to ruin your theory, but I’m not a sadist.”
“No,” he said from behind me. “You’re not. You’re just afraid.”
Whipping around, I gaped at him. “Afraid?”
“Of your Ascension. Yes. You’re afraid. There’s no shame in admitting that.” He came forward, stopping in front of me. “At least, not to me.”
But to others, like my guardians or the Priests, it wouldn’t be something I could ever admit. They would see that fear as being sacrilegious, as if the only reason I’d have to be afraid would be due to something horrible and not the fact I had no idea what would happen to me upon my Ascension.
If I were to live.
I closed my eyes.
“I understand,” Vikter repeated. “You have no idea what will happen. I get it. I do, but Poppy, whether you take these unnecessary risks on purpose or not, regardless of if you’re afraid or not, the end result will not change. All you will do is incur the Duke’s wrath. That is all.”
I opened my eyes and saw nothing but darkness.
“Because no matter what you do, you’re not going to be found unworthy,” Vikter said. “You will Ascend.”
Vikter’s words kept me up for most of the night, and I ended up skipping our normal morning training session held in one of the old rooms in the all-but-abandoned part of the castle. Unsurprisingly, Vikter hadn’t knocked on the old servants’ door.
If that wasn’t evidence enough of how well he knew me, I didn’t know what would be.
I wasn’t mad at him. Honestly, I could be annoyed and irritated with him every other day, but I was never mad at him. I didn’t think he felt that I was. He just…he’d hit a raw nerve last night, and he was aware of that.
I was afraid of my Ascension. I knew that. Vikter knew that. Who wouldn’t be? Although Tawny believed that I would return as an Ascended, no one could be sure. Ian wasn’t like me. There’d been no rules imposed on him when we’d been in the capital or while we grew up here. He’d Ascended because he was the brother of the Maiden, the Chosen, and because the Queen had petitioned for the exception.
So, yes, I was afraid.
But was I purposely pushing the envelope and happy-dancing over the line in hopes of being found unworthy and stripped of my status?
That was…that would be incredibly irrational.
I could be quite irrational.
Like when I saw a spider, I behaved as if it were the size of a horse with the cold calculation of an assassin. That was irrational. But being found unworthy meant exile, and that was also a death sentence. If I were afraid of dying upon Ascension, then getting myself exiled didn’t exactly improve the situation.
And I was afraid of dying, but my wariness of the Ascension was more than that.
It wasn’t my choice.
I had been born into this, in the same way that all the second sons and daughters were. Even though none of them seemed to dread their future, it wasn’t their choice either.
I hadn’t been lying or trying to cover up a hidden agenda when I helped Agnes or exposed myself to Marlowe. I did that because I could—because it was my choice. I trained to use a sword and bow because it was my choice. But was there another motive behind sneaking off to watch fights or swimming naked? Visiting gambling dens or lurking in parts of the castle forbidden to me and listening in on conversations that I wasn’t supposed to hear? Or when I left my chambers without Vikter or Rylan just so I could spy on the balls held in the Great Hall and people-watch in Wisher’s Grove? What about the Red Pearl? Letting Hawke kiss me? Touch me? All of those things that I’d done, I did because they were my choice, but…
But could it also be what Vikter had suggested?
What if, deep down, I wasn’t just trying to live and experience everything I could before my Ascension? What if I was, on some kind of unconscious level, trying to ensure that the Ascension never happened?
These thoughts troubled me throughout the day, and for once, I wasn’t all that restless in my confinement. At least not until the sun began to set. Having dismissed Tawny hours before supper since there was no reason for her to sit around while I did nothing but morosely stare out the windows, I finally got annoyed with myself and yanked open the door.
Only to find Rylan lounging across the hall.
I drew up short.
“Going somewhere, Pen?” he asked.
Rylan was the only one who called me that. I liked it. I let go of the door, and it slowly inched back, bumping my shoulder. “I don’t know.”
He grinned at me as he ran a hand over his light brown hair. “It’s time, isn’t it?”
Glancing behind me to the windows, I saw that it was dusk. Surprise flickered through me. I’d wasted an entire day in self-reflection.
Priestess Analia would be thrilled to hear that, but not the reasons. Either way, I wanted to punch myself in the face.
But it was time. I nodded and started to step out—
“I think you’re forgetting something,” he said, tapping a finger on his bearded cheek.
Good gods, I’d almost walked out into the hall without it or a hood. Other than my guardians—the Duke and Duchess—and Tawny, only Vikter and Rylan were allowed to see me without my veil. Well, the Queen and King could, and Ian was permitted, but obviously, they weren’t here. If anyone else had been in the hall, they would’ve possibly fallen over in a dead faint.
“I’ll be right back!”
His grin increased as I whipped around and hurried back into the room, slipping the veil over my head. It took a little more than a couple of minutes to clasp all the little chains so it was secured in place. Tawny was so much faster at it than I was.
I started back out—
“Shoes, Pen. You should put some shoes on.”
Looking down at myself, I let out a very unladylike groan. “Gods! One moment.”
Totally scatterbrained, I toed on my well-worn shoes, which were nothing more than satin and a thin leather sole, and then reopened the door.
“Having a bad day?” Rylan mused as he joined me in my room.
“Having a weird day,” I countered, heading for the old servants’ access. “A forgetful one.”
“It must be for you to not realize the time.”
Rylan was right. Unless something was going on, both he and Vikter were always ready for me just before dusk.
Our pace was quick as we hurried down the narrow, dusty staircase. It emptied out into an area beside the kitchen, and while we took the old access to avoid being seen as much as possible, it wasn’t completely avoidable. Kitchen servants stopped mid-step as Rylan and I passed them, their brown garb and white caps making them nearly indistinguishable from one another. I heard a basket of potatoes hit the floor and the harsh, biting reprimand. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw blurred faces bow their heads as if they were praying.
I swallowed a groan while Rylan did what he always did and pretended that there was nothing off about their behavior.
You’re the child of the gods.
Agnes’s words came back to me. The only reason they thought that was because of the veil and the paintings and various artworks representing the Maiden.
That and how often it was that they didn’t see me.
We started toward the banquet hall. From there, we could enter the foyer and be able to access the Queen’s Garden. There’d be more servants, but there really wasn’t any other way to access it from within the castle that didn’t require scaling a wall. We made it halfway past the long table when one of the many doors on either side opened behind us.