Closing my eyes, I inhaled the faintly sweet aroma. They were at their most fragrant upon opening and then again at dawn.
“They are quite beautiful,” Rylan commented. “They remind me—” His words ended in a strangled grunt.
Eyes flying open, I spun around, and a scream of horror knotted in my throat as Rylan staggered backward, an arrow protruding from his chest. A look of disbelief marked his features as he lifted his chin.
“Run,” he gasped, blood trickling from the corner of his lips. “Run.”
“Rylan!” I rushed to his side, throwing an arm around him as his legs crumpled. His weight was too much, and when he fell, I went down with him, my knees cracking as they hit the pathway. The impact didn’t register as I pressed my hands around Rylan’s wound, trying to stanch the flow of blood. I opened my senses to him, expecting to feel pain. “Rylan—”
Whatever words I was about to say died on my tongue, tasting of ash.
I…I felt nothing, and that wasn’t right. He’d have to be in so much pain, and I could help that. I could take his pain, but I felt nothing, and when I looked at his face, I didn’t want to see what I saw. His eyes were open, gaze fixed yet unseeing on the sky above. I shook my head, but under my hands, his chest didn’t move.
“No,” I whispered, blood turning to ice and slush. “Rylan!”
There was no answer, no response. Underneath him, a pool of blood spread across the walkway, seeping into the symbols etched into the stone. A circle with an arrow piercing the center. Infinity. Power. The Royal Crest. I pressed down on his chest, my trembling hands soaked with blood, refusing to believe—
A footstep echoed like thunder behind me.
I twisted at the waist. A man stood a few feet from me, a bow at his side. A hooded cloak shielded his face.
“You’re going to do as I say, Maiden,” the man spoke in a voice that sounded like churning gravel. “And then, no one will be hurt.”
“No one?” I gasped.
“Well, no one else will be hurt,” he amended.
I stared up at the man, and…and Rylan’s chest still didn’t move under my palms. In the back of my mind, I knew it would never rise again. He’d been dead before he even hit the ground. He was gone.
Pain, so sharp and so real, cut through me. Something hot hit my veins and poured into my chest, filling up the empty space. My hands stopped trembling. The grip of panic and shock lessened, replaced by rage.
“Stand,” he ordered.
I rose carefully, aware of how my gown, tacky with Rylan’s blood, stuck to the knees of my thin leggings underneath. My heart slowed as my hand slipped into the slit along the gown’s side. Was this the same person who’d killed Malessa? If so, he was an Atlantian, and I’d have to be quick if I had any hope.
“We’re going to walk out of here,” he said. “You’re not going to make a sound, and you’re not going to give me any trouble, are you, Maiden?”
My fingers closed around the smooth, cool handle of the dagger. I shook my head no.
“Good.” He took a step toward me. “I don’t want to have to hurt you, but if you give me any reason, I will not hesitate.”
I remained completely still, the heat of my fury building in me, brimming to the surface. Rylan had died because of me. That was his duty as my personal guard, but he was dead because this man thought he could take me. Malessa had possibly been assaulted and then murdered, and for what?
If he was an Atlantian or a Descenter, he wouldn’t use me for ransom. I’d be used to send a message, just like the three Ascended who had been kidnapped from Three Rivers. They were returned in pieces.
At the moment, I didn’t care what the man’s agenda was. All that mattered was that he’d killed Rylan, who found the night-blooming roses just as beautiful as I did. And he might’ve been the one to kill Malessa, leaving her body on display in such a careless, disrespectful way.
“This is good,” he cajoled. “You’re behaving. That’s smart of you. Keep being smart, and this will be painless for you.” He reached for me—
Unsheathing the dagger, I shot forward, dipping under his arm.
I sprung up behind him, fisting the back of the man’s cloak. I thrust the dagger into his back, aiming where Vikter had taught me.
Even caught off guard, he was quick, lurching to the side, but he wasn’t fast enough to avoid the dagger altogether. Hot blood gushed as the blade sank deep into his side, missing his heart by mere centimeters.
He yelped in pain, the sound reminding me of a dog. Jerking the dagger out, a vastly different sound tore from his throat. A rumbling growl that raised the tiny hairs on my body and kicked my instinct into overdrive.
That was such an…inhuman sound.
My grip on the dagger tightened as I moved to shove it deep into his back once more. He swung around, and I didn’t see his fist until pain exploded along my jaw and at the corner of my mouth, affecting my aim. I tasted something metallic. Blood. The dagger sliced into his side, cutting deep, but not deep enough.
“Bitch,” he grunted, slamming his fist into the side of my head this time.
The blow was sudden, stunning. Staggering back, lights danced across my eyes as the corners of my vision turned dark. I almost went down, managing to stay on my feet by sheer will alone. If I fell, I knew I wasn’t getting back up. Vikter had also taught me that.
Blinking rapidly, I tried to clear the lights from my vision as the man whirled on me. The hood of his cloak had fallen back. He was young, probably only a handful of years older than I, and his dark hair was shaggy. He pressed his hand to his side. Blood seeped out between his fingers. It was coming out of him fast. I must’ve hit something vital.
His lips peeled back in a feral snarl as his gaze lifted to mine. Even in the moonlight, I could see his eyes. They were the color of frosted water. A pale, luminous blue.
“You will pay for that,” he growled, voice even more abrasive, as if his throat were filling with pebbles.
I braced myself, instinct telling me that if I ran, he would give chase like any predator would. And if I got close again, my aim had better not be off. “Take one more step toward me, and I won’t miss your heart a third time.”
He laughed, and a chill swept through me. It sounded too deep, too changed. “I’m going to enjoy tearing your skin off your weak, fragile bones. I don’t care what he has planned for you. I will bathe in your blood and feast on your entrails.”
Fear threatened to take root, but I couldn’t cave to it. “That sounds delightful.”
“Oh, it will be.” He smiled then, teeth smeared with blood, and he took a step toward me. “Your screams—”
A sharp, piercing whistle came from somewhere deep in the trees, silencing him. He stopped, his nostrils flaring. The sound came again, and he seemed to vibrate with rage. The skin around his mouth went white as he took a step back.
My grip was steady on the dagger, but a tremor started in my legs as I watched him, refusing to blink.
He picked up the fallen bow, wincing as he straightened. His gaze met mine once more. “I’ll be seeing you again real soon.”
“Can’t wait,” I gritted out.
He smirked. “I promise I’ll make damn sure that smart mouth of yours is rewarded.”
I doubted it was the kind of reward I’d be eager to receive.
Backing up until he was beyond the roses, he spun around and loped off, quickly disappearing in the heavy shadows that gathered under the trees. I stayed where I stood, breaths coming out in short, quick bursts, ready in case this was some trick where he waited for me to turn my back. I wasn’t sure how long I stood there, but the tremors had spread to my hand by the time I realized that he wasn’t coming back.
Slowly, I lowered the dagger, my gaze snagging on the spattering of blood where he’d stood. Another short breath left me as I lifted my gaze to the roses. Drops of blood glimmered on the onyx-hued petals.
A shudder racked me from head to toe.
I forced my body to turn around.
Rylan remained where he’d fallen, arms lax at his sides and eyes dull. I opened my mouth to speak, but there were no words, and I had no idea what I would’ve said anyway.
I looked down at my dagger, and I felt a scream building in my throat, clawing at me.
Get it together. Get it together.
I had to find someone to help Rylan. He shouldn’t lay out here like this, and they couldn’t see me with a bloodied dagger. They couldn’t know that I’d fought the attacker off. My lips trembled as I pressed them together.
Get it together.
Then, like a switch had been thrown, the shaking stopped, and my heart slowed. I still couldn’t take in a deep enough breath, but I walked forward, dipping down and wiping the blade on Rylan’s breeches. “I’m sorry,” I whispered, my actions causing guilt to make my skin crawl, but it had to be done. Head and face throbbing, I sheathed the dagger. “I’m going to get someone for you.”
There was no answer. There never would be.
I started walking the path without realizing what I was doing. A numbness had invaded my body, seeping in through my pores and settling in my muscles. The lights from the castle windows guided me forward as I edged around the water fountain, coming to a sudden stop. Footsteps sounded ahead of me. My hand slipped to the dagger, fingers curled around—
“Maiden? We heard shouting,” a voice called out. It was a Royal Guard who’d often kept watch over the Ladies and Lords in Wait. His eyes widened upon seeing me. “Is that—good gods, what happened to you?”
I went to answer, but I couldn’t get my tongue to form words. Another guard cursed, and then there was a taller form with golden hair brushing past the two guards, his weathered face stoic. Vikter. His gaze swept over me, lingering on my knees and hands, and then the unveiled part of my face.
“Are you hurt?” He grasped my shoulders, his grip gentle, and his voice even more so. “Poppy, are you injured?”