A wave of goosebumps spread over my skin in revulsion. I recognized that voice, and I wanted to keep walking—to pretend I’d suddenly lost my hearing.
But Rylan had stopped.
If I kept walking, it wouldn’t end well for me.
Inhaling deeply, I turned to face Lord Brandole Mazeen. I didn’t see what I was sure most saw, a dark-haired man who appeared to be in his mid-twenties, handsome and tall. I saw a bully.
I saw a cruel man who had long ago forgotten what it was like to be mortal.
Unlike with the Duke, who seemed to despise me without cause, I knew precisely why Lord Mazeen found such glee in harassing me.
And it all stemmed from the vainest, most inconsequential thing possible. A year before my brother Ascended, he’d bested Lord Mazeen at a game of cards, to which the Lord had ungraciously accused Ian of cheating. I, who probably shouldn’t have even been present for the game, had laughed. Mainly because the Lord was utterly terrible at poker. From that moment on, the Lord had sought to irritate both Ian and me whenever he got the chance. It only got worse once Ian Ascended, and the Lord began to…assist the Duke with his lessons.
Clasping my hands together, I said nothing as he strode toward me, his long legs encased in black breeches. He wore a black dress shirt, and the darkness of his clothing created a striking contrast against his pale skin and lips the color of ripe berries. His eyes…
I didn’t like to look into them. They seemed fathomless and empty.
Like all Ascended, they were such a dark black that the pupils weren’t visible. I wondered what his eye color had been before he Ascended or if he even remembered. The Lord may only appear to be in his second decade of life, but I knew he’d Ascended after the War of Two Kings, along with the Duke and Duchess. He was hundreds of years old.
Lord Mazeen gave a tight, close-lipped smile when I didn’t respond. “I’m surprised to see you here.”
“She’s taking her evening walk,” Rylan replied, tone flat. “As she is allowed.”
Eyes like shards of obsidian narrowed on the guard. “I didn’t ask the question of you.”
“I’m taking my walk,” I stepped in, answering before Rylan said another word.
That unnerving, fathomless gaze shifted to me. “You’re going to the garden?” One side of his lips quirked when surprise flickered through me. “Isn’t that where you always go at this time of day?”
And it was more than a little disconcerting that the Lord was aware of that.
“She must be on her way now,” Rylan interjected. “As you know, the Maiden must not linger.”
In other words, I wasn’t allowed to interact, not even with the Ascended. The Lord knew that.
But he disregarded it. “The Maiden also must be respectful. I wish to speak with her, and I’m sure the Duke would be most disappointed to learn that she was unwilling to do so.”
My spine straightened as a wave of anger swept through me so swiftly, I almost reached for the dagger strapped to my thigh. The reaction shocked me in a way. What would I have done with it if I hadn’t stopped? Stabbed him? I almost laughed.
But none of this was funny.
His thinly veiled threat of speaking to the Duke had been effective. The Lord had backed both Rylan and me into a corner because even though I was not supposed to interact, the Duke didn’t hold Lord Mazeen to the same rules as others. If I walked away, I would be punished. So would Rylan. And while my punishment wasn’t something to take lightly, it would be nothing compared to what Rylan would face.
He could be removed from the Royal Guard, and the Duke would ensure that it was known that he had fallen out of the Duke’s favor. Rylan would soon be unemployed and therefore dishonored. It wouldn’t be the same as being exiled, but his life would become measurably more difficult.
I squared my shoulders. “I would love nothing more than to speak with you.”
A look of smugness settled on his handsome features, and I wanted nothing more than to kick him in the face. “Come.” He reached out, curling his arm over my shoulders. “I wish to speak in private.”
Rylan stepped forward—
“It’s okay,” I told him, although it really wasn’t. Looking over at him, I willed him to listen. “Truly, it is fine.”
Rylan’s jaw hardened as he stared at the Lord, and I could tell he wasn’t remotely happy about this, but he nodded curtly. “I’ll be right here.”
“Yes, you will,” the Lord replied.
Not all Ascended were like the Lord, who wielded his power and station like a poison-tipped sword, but Lord Mazeen wasn’t even the worst example.
He steered me to the left, nearly causing a servant to drop the basket she carried. He seemed completely unaware of her as he strode forward. Whatever hope I had that he planned to speak to me a few steps away ended quickly as he took us into one of the shadowy alcoves between the doors.
I should’ve known.
He swept aside thick, white curtains and all but pulled me into the narrow space where the only source of light was a small sconce above a thickly cushioned chaise. I had no idea what the purpose of these half-hidden rooms was, but on more than one occasion, I’d found myself trapped in them.
I stepped back, a little surprised that the Lord allowed it. He watched me, the smirk returning as I positioned myself so I was close to one of the curtains. He sat on the chaise, stretching out his legs as he folded his arms across his chest.
Heart thumping, I chose my words carefully. “I really cannot linger. If someone were to see me, I would be in trouble with Priestess Analia.”
“And what would happen if the good Priestess of the Temples were to hear you were lingering?” he asked, his body appearing loose and relaxed, but I knew better.
Appearances could be deceiving. The Ascended were fast when they wanted to be. I’d seen them move in a manner that made them nothing more than a blur.
“Would she report such misbehavior to the Duke?” he continued. “I do so enjoy his lessons.”
Disgust was a weed taking root inside me. Of course, he enjoyed the Duke’s lessons. “I’m not sure what she would do.”
“It might be worth discovering,” he mused idly. “At least, for me.”
My fingers curled inward. “I don’t wish to displease the Duke or the Priestess.”
His lashes lowered. “I’m sure you would not.”
A sharp, stinging pain radiated out from where my nails dug into my palms. “What is it that you wish to speak to me about?”
“You didn’t ask your question appropriately.”
Searching for restraint and calm, I was grateful for the veil. If he could see my face in its entirety, he’d know exactly what I was feeling.
Which was red-hot, burning hatred.
I didn’t know why the Lord found such great entertainment in harassing me. Why he found such enjoyment in making me uncomfortable, but he’d been this way the last several years. He was worse toward the servants, though. I’d heard the whispered warnings to new staff. Avoid gaining his attention or his displeasure. No matter what, there was a limit to how far he could go with me. With the servants, I didn’t believe he felt there was even a line to cross.
I lifted my chin. “What would you like to discuss with me, Lord Mazeen?”
A hint of a cold smile appeared. “I realized it had been a while since I last saw you.”
It had been sixteen days since he’d last cornered me. So, not long enough.
“I’ve missed you,” he added.
“My Lord, I must be on my way—” I sucked in a sharp breath as he rose. One second, he was stretched out on the chaise. The next, he was directly in front of me.
“I’m insulted,” he said. “I told you I missed you, and your only response was to say you must leave? You wound me.”
The fact that he’d said nearly the same words Hawke had uttered no more than two nights ago didn’t go unnoticed. Neither did the vastly different reactions I had to them. While Hawke had come across teasing, Lord Mazeen spoke the words as a warning. I wasn’t charmed. I was revolted.
“It wasn’t my intention,” I forced out.
“You sure?” he asked, and I felt his finger against my jaw before I even saw him move his hand. “I have the distinct impression that was exactly your intent.”
“It wasn’t.” I leaned back—
He curled his fingers around my chin, holding my head in place. When I took my next breath, I thought his fingers smelled like…a flower, musky and sweet. “You should try to be more convincing if you wish me to believe that.”
“I’m sorry if I’m not as convincing as I should be.” It took great effort to keep my voice steady. “You shouldn’t be touching me.”
He smirked as he trailed his cool thumb along my lower lip. The sensation of thousands of tiny insects skittering over my skin followed. “And why is that?”
The Lord knew exactly why.
“I’m the Maiden,” I said, nonetheless.
“That you are.” He trailed his fingers down my chin over the scratchy lace that covered my throat. His hand continued, brushing over my collarbone.
My palm practically burned with the need to feel the hilt of the dagger against it, and my muscles tensed with the knowledge and skill to react—to make him stop. A tremor coursed through me as I fought the desire to fight back. It wouldn’t be worth what would happen. I kept telling myself that as his fingers slid down the center of my gown. It wasn’t just the fear of punishment. If I showed what I was capable of, the Duke would learn that I had been trained, and I doubted it would take any large leap of logic to determine that Vikter was responsible. Yet again, whatever I faced would be nothing compared to what Vikter would.
But I could only tolerate so much.
I took a step back, putting distance between us.