I kept reading.
Upon the appearance of fangs, the next phase of their maturity begins, wherein they begin to thirst. As long as their unnatural demands are met, their aging slows dramatically. It is believed that a year to mortals is equivalent to three decades to an Atlantian. The oldest known Atlantian was Cillian Da’Lahon, who saw 2,702 calendar years before his death.
Meaning that an Atlantian could appear to be in their twenties, but in reality, they would be over a hundred years old, possibly even closer to two hundred or more. But they still aged, unlike the Ascended, those Blessed by the gods, who stopped at whatever age they were when they received the Blessing. Only the oldest of the Ascended appeared older than someone in their thirties, and they could live for an eternity.
However, both the Atlantians and Ascended still lived an unfathomable amount of time, the closest thing to immortality—to the gods.
I couldn’t even fathom living that long. I gave a little shake of my head and kept reading.
At this time, the Atlantians are capable of passing on the ill-spirits in their blood to mortals, creating a violent and destructive creature known as a Craven, who share some of the physical traits of their creators. This curse is passed through a poisonous kiss…
A poisonous kiss wasn’t referencing two lips coming into contact with one another. The Atlantians did what the Craven did, albeit not as…messily. Atlantians bit and drank the blood of mortals, something they had to do to survive.
Their enormous lifespans, strength, and healing abilities all stemmed from feeding off mortals, their primary food source. I shuddered.
It had to be an Atlantian that had bit and fed from Malessa, which explained how there was no apparent bloodshed, and why she had looked so incredibly pale.
What it didn’t explain was why the Atlantian had then snapped her neck, effectively killing her before the curse could spread. Why wouldn’t the Atlantian allow her to turn? Then again, the bite wasn’t exactly in a place that could easily be hidden. The bite itself was the warning to all who saw it.
An Atlantian was deep within our midst.
Closing the book, I carefully placed it back on the stool, thinking about how my Ascension would occur on my nineteenth birthday and how the Atlantians reached a certain majority around that age. It wasn’t exactly surprising. After all, our gods had been their gods at one time.
But the gods no longer supported the Atlantians.
Making my way out of the room, I started for the kitchens when my gaze landed on the room Malessa had been found in. I needed to go back to my chambers before the staff became active, but that wasn’t what I did.
I crossed the space and went to the door, finding it unlocked when I turned the handle. Before I could really think about what I was doing and where I was, I slipped inside, grateful that the wall sconces cast a soft glow throughout the room.
The settee was gone, the space bare. Accent chairs remained, as did the round coffee table with some sort of floral arrangement neatly placed in the center. I crept forward, unsure of what I was even looking for, and wondering if I’d even know if I found it.
Other than the missing furniture, nothing seemed out of place, but the room felt oddly cold, as if a window had been open, but there were no windows on this side of the banquet hall.
What had Malessa been doing in here? Reading a book or waiting for one of the other Ladies in Wait or perhaps Lady Isherwood? Or had she snuck in here to meet with someone she trusted? Had she been blindsided by the attack?
A shiver danced down my spine. I wasn’t sure what was worse—being betrayed or blindsided.
Actually, I did know. Being betrayed would be worse.
I stepped forward, stopping short as I glanced down. Something was behind the leg of one of the chairs. Bending down, I reached under the chair and picked up the object. My head tilted as I ran a thumb over the smooth, soft white surface.
It was…a petal.
My brows knitted as the scent reached me. Jasmine. For some reason, my stomach roiled, which was odd. I normally liked the smell.
Rising, I looked to the vase and found the source. Several white lilies were spaced throughout the arrangement. No jasmine. Frowning, I looked down at the petal. Where did this come from? I shook my head as I walked over to the bouquet, placing the petal in with the rest of the flowers as I gave the room one last look. There was no blood on the cream carpet, something that would’ve definitely stained if it had spilled.
I had no idea what I was doing. If evidence had been found, it had been removed, and even if it hadn’t been, I didn’t have experience in this. I just wanted to be able to do something or to find anything that would put our worst fears to rest.
But there was nothing to be done or found here other than what was most likely reality, and what did I believe about truth? That it often could be terrifying, yes. But with truth came power.
And I was never one to hide from the truth.
I’d made it back my room that morning without any issues and ended up remaining in it the entire day, which wasn’t exactly all that different from any other day.
Tawny had stopped by briefly, until one of the Mistresses summoned her. No one was sequestered, but I thought that the attack would at least slow down the preparations for the Rite.
Obviously, that was a silly thought. I doubted the Earth shaking would get in the way of the Rite.
I spent a lot of time thinking about what had happened to Malessa. And the more I thought about why the Duke would lie about the attacker being a Descenter, the more it started to make sense. Just like Phillips, the guard from the Rise, hadn’t wanted to talk about Finley’s death to stop panic and fear from taking root and spreading.
But it didn’t explain why the Duke wasn’t being honest with the Royal Guard. If there was an Atlantian among us, the guards needed to be prepared.
Because while the Ascended were powerful and strong, the Atlantians were too, if not more.
Shortly before dusk, Rylan knocked on my door. “You want to try for the garden? I thought I would ask.”
“I don’t know.” I glanced at the windows. “You think it will be okay?”
Rylan nodded. “I do.”
I really could use the fresh air and time away from my own thoughts. It just seemed… I wasn’t sure. As if it weren’t even twenty-four hours after Malessa had been killed, yet it was like any other evening.
“You don’t have to stay in here,” Rylan said, and I glanced back to him. “Not unless that’s what you want to do. What happened last night, with the poor girl and with the Lord, has nothing to do with what you find joy in.”
A small smile tugged at my lips. “And you’re probably tired of standing in the hall.”
Rylan chuckled. “Possibly.”
I grinned as I stepped back. “Let me get my veil.”
It took only a few minutes for me to don the headdress and become ready. This time, there were no interruptions as we made our way to the garden. However, there were servants who did the stop-and-stare thing, but as I continued down the path of one of my favorite places on the grounds of the castle, my worries and obsessive thoughts slipped away like they always did. While I was in the sprawling garden, my mind calmed, and everything and anything ceased to nibble away at me.
I wasn’t thinking about Malessa and the Atlantian who’d gained access to the castle. I wasn’t haunted by the image of Agnes holding her husband’s limp hand or what had happened in the Red Pearl with Hawke. I wasn’t even thinking about the upcoming Ascension and what Vikter had said. In the Queen’s Garden, I was simply…present instead of being caught up in the past or the future full of what-ifs.
I wasn’t sure why the gardens were called what they were. As far as I knew, it had been a very long time since the Queen had been to Masadonia, but I guessed the Duke and Duchess had named it after her as some sort of homage.
Never once while I lived with the Queen had I seen her step foot in the lush gardens of the palace.
I glanced over at Rylan. Normally, the only threat he may face was an unexpected rain shower, but tonight, he was more alert than I’d ever seen him in the garden. His gaze continuously scanned the numerous pathways. I used to think these trips bored him, but never once had he complained. Vikter, on the other hand, would’ve grumbled about literally anything else we could’ve been doing.
Come to think of it, Rylan might actually enjoy these outings, and not just because he wasn’t standing in the hall outside my room.
A cool wind whipped through the garden, stirring the many leaves and lifting the edge of my veil. I wished I could remove the headdress. It was transparent enough for me to see, but it did make traveling at dusk and beyond in low-lit places a bit difficult.
I made my way past a large water fountain that featured a marble and limestone statue of a veiled Maiden. Water poured endlessly from the pitcher she held, the sound reminding me of the rolling waves, crashing in and out of the coves of the Stroud Sea. Many coins shimmered under the water, a token to the gods in hopes that whatever the wisher wanted would be granted.
I neared the outer most parts, which fed into a small but thick outcropping of jacaranda trees that camouflaged the inner walls that kept Castle Teerman separated from the rest of the city. The trees were tall, reaching over fifty feet, and in Masadonia, bold, lavender-colored, trumpet-shaped flowers blossomed all year round. Only during the coldest months, when snow threatened, did the leaves fall, blanketing the ground in a sea of purple. They were breathtaking, but I appreciated them not just for their beauty but also for what they provided.
The jacaranda trees hid the crumbling section of the wall that Vikter and I often used to leave the grounds unseen in order to access Wisher’s Grove.
I stopped in front of the mass of intertwined vines that crawled up and over interlocking wooden trellises as wide as the jacaranda trees were tall. Glancing up at the rapidly darkening sky, I then fixed my gaze ahead.
Rylan came to stand behind me. “We made it in time.”
The corners of my lips tilted up before my grin faded. “We did tonight.”
Only a few moments passed, and then the sun conceded defeat to the moon. The last rays of sunlight pulled away from the vines. Hundreds of buds scattered over the vines trembled and then slowly peeled open, revealing lush petals the shade of a starless midnight.