“But?” My heart started thumping, and I was barely aware of Vikter taking the glass from me.
“But he is exceptionally skilled, more so than many of the Royal Guards now. I wasn’t stroking his ego yesterday when I said that. He came here, held in high regard by the capital, and he appears to be close to Commander Jansen.” He finished off my glass of water. “I wouldn’t be all that surprised if he was promoted over others.”
Now my heart was slamming itself against my ribs. “But…but to become my personal guard? Surely, someone who is more familiar with the city would be a better fit.”
“Actually, someone new and less likely to be complacent would be the best,” he said. “He would see things differently than many of us who’ve been here for years or longer. See weaknesses and threats we may overlook out of monotony. And he showed yesterday that he has no problem stepping up while everyone else stood by.”
All of that made sense, but…but he couldn’t become my personal Royal Guard. If he did, I’d have to speak to him eventually, and if I did that, he’d recognize me at some point.
And then what?
If he was close to the Commander and determined to rise through the ranks, he would be sure to report me. After all, the highest-ranking guards who had a chance of living to see a well-funded retirement, were the Royal Guards who protected the Duke and Duchess of Masadonia.
During the day, when the sun was high, the Great Hall, where the weekly City Councils and grand celebrations were held, was one of the most beautiful rooms in the entire castle.
Windows taller than most of the homes in the city were spaced every twenty feet or so, allowing the warm, bright sun to drench the polished white limestone walls and floors. The windows offered views of the gardens to the left and the Temples atop the Undying Hills.
Heavy white tapestries hung the length of the windows and in between them. The golden Royal Crest embossed the center of each banner. Creamy white pillars adorned with flecks of gold and silver were spaced throughout the long, wide chamber. White and purple jasmine flowers climbed out of silver urns, perfuming the air with their sweet, earthy scent.
The hand-painted ceiling was the true masterpiece of the Great Hall. Above, all the gods could be seen watching over us. Ione and Rhahar. The flaming redheaded Aios, the Goddess of Love, Fertility, and Beauty. Saion, the dark-skinned God of the Sky and the Soil—he was Earth, Wind, and Water. Beside him was Theon, the God of Accord and War, and his twin Lailah, the Goddess of Peace and Vengeance. The dark-haired Goddess of the Hunt, Bele, armed with her bow. There was Perus, the pale, white-haired God of the Rite and Prosperity. Beside him was Rhain, the God of the Common Man and Endings. And then there was my namesake, Penellaphe, the Goddess of Wisdom, Loyalty, and Duty—which I found highly ironic. All their faces were captured in striking, vivid detail—all but Nyktos, the King of all the gods, who had made the first Blessing. His face and form were nothing but brilliant silvery moonlight.
But as I stood on the raised dais to the left of the seated Duchess, there was no sunlight pouring in through the windows, only the dark night. Several sconces and oil lamps placed to provide as much light as possible cast a golden glow throughout the Hall.
The gods did not walk in the sun.
So, neither did the Ascended.
How had Ian adapted to that? If it was a sunny day, he could be found outside, scribbling in one of his journals, recording whatever stories his mind had drummed up. Did he now write in the moonlight? I would know sooner rather than later if I was summoned back to the capital.
Anxiety bloomed, and I pushed that thought aside before the unease could spread. I scanned the throng of people who had filled up the Great Hall, pretending that I wasn’t searching for one face in particular, and failing miserably.
I knew Hawke was here. He always was, but I hadn’t seen him yet.
Full of nervous energy, I unclasped and then wrung my hands as someone—a banker—continued to heap praise upon the Teermans.
“You all right?” Vikter bent his head, keeping his voice low enough so only I would hear him.
I turned just the slightest to the left and nodded. “Why do you ask?”
“Because you’ve been fidgeting like you have spiders in your gown since the beginning of this,” he answered.
Spiders in my gown?
If I had spiders in my gown, I wouldn’t be fidgeting. I’d be screaming and stripping down to nothing. I wouldn’t care at all who witnessed it.
I wasn’t sure exactly what had me so incredibly restless. Well, there were myriad things, considering everything that had happened recently, but it felt like…more than that.
It had started after I’d left Vikter, a brief headache I attributed to the punch and possibly overdoing it during training. Not that I would admit that, but after lunch, it had faded, only to be replaced by a wealth of nervous energy. It reminded me of the blend of coffee beans Ian had shipped from the capital. Tawny and I had only drunk half a cup, and neither of us could sit still for the entire day afterward.
Making a more conscious effort to remain still, my gaze shifted to the left, to the gardens, where I’d found such peace before. My chest ached. I hadn’t gone to the gardens last night or at any time today. The area hadn’t been forbidden to me, but I knew if I stepped foot outside, I would be surrounded by guards.
I couldn’t even imagine how the upcoming Rite would go.
But I didn’t think I could ever go back to the gardens, no matter how much I loved them and the roses therein. Even now, just looking at the shadowy outline of the garden through the windows brought forth an image of Rylan’s blank stare.
Drawing in a shallow breath, I pulled my attention from the garden to the front of the Hall. Members of the Court, those who had Ascended, stood the closest, flanking the dais. Behind them were the Ladies and Lords in Wait. Royal Guards stood among them, their shoulders bearing white mantles with the Royal Crest. Merchants and businessmen, villagers and laborers crowded the hall, all there to petition the Court for one thing or another, air their grievances, or curry favor with His or Her Grace.
Plenty of the faces that stared up at us were wide-eyed and slack-jawed with awe. For some, this was the first time they’d seen the brown-haired beauty, Duchess Teerman, or the coolly handsome Duke, whose hair was so blond it was almost white. For many, this was the first time they’d been as close as they were to an Ascended.
They looked like they were in the presence of the gods themselves, and in a way, I guessed they were. The Ascended were descendants of the gods, by blood, if not by birth.
And then there was…me.
Nearly none of the commoners who stood in the Great Hall had ever seen the Maiden before. For that alone, I was subjected to many curious, quick glances. I imagined that word of Malessa’s death and my attempted abduction had also traveled widely by now, and I was sure that had aided in the curiosity and the buzz of anxious energy that seemed to permeate the Hall.
Except for Tawny. She looked half-asleep as she stood there, and I bit down on the inside of my cheek when she smothered a yawn. We’d been here for nearly two hours already, and I wondered if the Teermans’ asses ached as much as my feet were beginning to.
Both looked mighty comfortable. The Duchess was dressed in yellow silk, and even I could admit that the Duke cut a rather dashing figure in his black trousers and tailcoat.
He always reminded me of the pale snake I’d once stumbled upon near the beach as a little girl. Beautiful to look upon, but its bite dangerous and often deadly.
Swallowing a sigh as the banker began to speak of their great leadership, I started to look toward the Temples—
I saw him.
A strange, funny little hitch took up residence in my chest at the sight of him. He stood between two pillars, arms folded across his broad chest. Like yesterday, there was no teasing half-grin on his face, and his features would’ve been considered severe if it weren’t for the unruly strands of midnight-hued hair tumbling over his forehead, softening his expression.
A tingling sense of awareness swept down my spine, spreading tiny bumps all over my skin. Hawke’s gaze was lifted to the dais, to where I stood, and even from across the hall and from behind the veil, I swore our gazes connected. Air whooshed from my lungs, and the entire Hall seemed to fade away, going silent as we stared at one another.
My heart thumped heavily as my hands spasmed open and then closed. He was staring at me, but so were a lot of others. Even the Ascended often stared.
I was a curiosity, a sideshow put on display once a week to serve as a reminder that the gods could actively intervene in births and in lives.
But my legs still felt strange, and my pulse fluttered as if I’d spent the last hour practicing different combat techniques with Vikter.
Magnus, a steward to the Duke, announced the next to speak, drawing my attention. “Mr. and Mrs. Tulis have requested a word, Your Graces.”
Dressed in simple but clean clothing, the fair-headed couple stepped out from a grouping of those waiting toward the back. The husband had his arm around his shorter wife’s shoulders, keeping her tucked close to his side. Hair pulled back from her bloodless face, the woman wore no jewels but held a small swaddled bundle in her arms. The bundle stirred as they approached the dais, little arms and legs stretching the pale blue blanket. Their gazes were fixed to the floor, heads bowed slightly. They didn’t look up, not until the Duchess gave them permission to do so.
“You may speak,” she said, her voice hauntingly feminine and endlessly soft. She sounded like someone who’d never raised their voice or hand in anger. Neither were untrue, and for what had to be the hundredth time, I wondered exactly what she and the Duke had in common. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d even seen them touch one another—not as if that was necessary for the Ascended to marry.
Unlike others, Mr. and Mrs. Tulis clearly shared a wealth of feelings for one another. It was the way Mr. Tulis held his wife close, and in the way she lifted her gaze, first to him and then to the Duchess.