“Thank you.” The wife’s nervous gaze darted to the male Royal. “Your Grace.”
Duke Teerman tilted his head in acknowledgement. “It is our pleasure,” he told her. “What can we do for you and your family?”
“We are here to present our son,” she explained, turning so the bundle faced the dais. The little face was creased and ruddy as he blinked large eyes.
The Duchess leaned forward, hands remaining clasped in her lap. “He is darling. What is his name?”
“Tobias,” the father answered. “He takes after my wife, as cute as a button, if I dare say so myself, Your Grace.”
My lips curled into a grin.
“That he is.” The Duchess nodded. “I do hope all is well with you and the babe?”
“It is. I’m perfectly healthy, just like him, and he’s been a joy, a true blessing.” Mrs. Tulis straightened, holding the baby close to her breast. “We love him very much.”
“Is he your first son?” the Duke asked.
Mr. Tulis’s Adam’s apple bobbed with a swallow. “No, Your Grace, he isn’t. He’s our third son.”
The Duchess clapped her hands together. “Then Tobias is a true blessing, one who will receive the honor of serving the gods.”
“That’s why we’re here, Your Grace.” The man slipped his arm from around his wife. “Our first son—our dear Jamie—he…he passed no more than three months ago.” Mr. Tulis cleared his throat. “It was a sickness of the blood, the Healers told us. It came on real quick, you see. One day, he was fine, chasing around and getting into all kinds of trouble. And then the following morning, he didn’t wake up. He lingered for a few days, but he left us.”
“I’m incredibly sorry to hear that.” Sorrow filled the Duchess’s voice as she settled back in her seat. “And what of the second son?”
“We lost him to the same sickness that took Jamie.” The mother began to tremble. “No more than a year into his life.”
They’d lost two sons? My heart was already aching for them. Even with the loss I’d experienced in my life, I couldn’t even begin to understand the kind of anguish a parent must suffer when they lose a child, let alone two. If I felt it, I knew I would want to do something about it, and I couldn’t. Not here. I locked down my gift.
“That is truly a tragedy. I hope you find solace in the knowledge that your dear Jamie is with the gods, along with your second born.”
“We do. It’s what’s gotten us through his loss.” Mrs. Tulis gently rocked the baby. “We come today to hope, to ask….” She trailed off, seeming unable to finish.
It was her husband who took over for her. “We came here today to ask that our son not be considered for the Rite when he comes of age.”
A rolling gasp echoed through the chamber, coming from all sides at once.
Mr. Tulis’s shoulders stiffened, but he forged ahead. “I know that it’s a lot to ask of you and the gods. He is our third son, but we lost our first two, and my wife, as much as she desires more babes, the Healers said she shouldn’t have more. He is our only remaining child. He will be our last.”
“But he is still your third son,” the Duke responded, and my chest hollowed. “Whether your first thrived or not doesn’t change that your second son and now your third are fated to serve the gods.”
“But we have no other child, Your Grace.” Mrs. Tulis’s lower lip trembled as her chest rose and fell rapidly. “If I were to get pregnant, I could die. We—”
“I understand that.” The tone of the Duke’s voice didn’t change. “And you do understand that while we’ve been given great power and authority by the gods, the issue of the Rite is not something we can change.”
“But you can speak with the gods.” Mr. Tulis moved to step closer but drew up short when several Royal Guards shifted forward.
A low murmur rose from the audience. I glanced to where Hawke stood. He was watching what I believed to be the Tulises’ third tragedy play out before us, his jaw as hard as the limestone around us. Did he have a second or third brother or sister who’d been given over to the Rite? One who may go on to serve the Court and receive the Blessing from the gods, and another he would never be able to see again?
“You can speak with the gods on our behalf. Couldn’t you?” Mr. Tulis asked, his voice rough like sand. “We are good people.”
“Please.” Tears rolled down the mother’s face, and my fingers itched to reach out and touch her, to ease her pain even if for a little while. “We beg of you to at least try. We know the gods are merciful. We have prayed to Aios and Nyktos every morning and every night for this gift. All we ask is that—”
“What you ask cannot be granted. Tobias is your third son, and this is the natural order of things,” the Duchess stated. A piercing sob left the woman. “I know it’s hard, and it hurts now, but your son is a gift to the gods, not a gift from them. That is why we would never ask that of them.”
Why not? What harm could there be in asking? Surely, there were enough in service to the gods that one boy would not upset the natural order of things.
And besides, some exceptions had been made in the past. My brother was proof of that.
Many in the audience appeared rooted in shock as if they could not believe the audacity of what was being asked. There were others, though, whose faces were soaked in sympathy and marked with anger. Their stares were fixed on the dais—on Duke and Duchess Teerman—and on me.
“Please. I beg of you. I beg.” The father dropped to his knees, his hands folded as if in prayer.
I gasped, my chest squeezing. I wasn’t sure how it happened or why, but my control over my gift snapped, and my senses opened. I sucked in a sharp breath as grief poured into me in icy waves. The potency shook my knees, and I could barely breathe around it.
A moment later, I felt Vikter’s hand on my back, and I knew he was prepared to grab me in case I went to them. It took everything in me to stand there and do nothing.
Tearing my gaze away from Mr. Tulis, I forced out deep, even breaths. My wide eyes roamed the crowd as I pictured a wall in my mind, one as great as the Rise, so tall and thick that no one’s pain could breach it. That had always worked in the past, and it worked now. The claws of sorrow loosened their grip, but—
My gaze snagged on a blond man. He stood several rows back, his chin bowed, and much of his face obscured by the curtain of hair that fell forward. I felt…something burning through the wall I’d built, but it didn’t quite feel like anguish. It felt hot, like physical pain, but this was…it was bitter-tasting in the back of my throat as if I’d swallowed acid. He had to be in pain, but…
Unnerved, I closed my eyes and rebuilt the wall until all I felt was the pounding of my heart. After a few seconds, I was able to take a deeper, stronger breath, and finally, the strange sensation disappeared. I opened my eyes as the father pleaded.
“Please. We love our son,” he cried. “We want to raise him to be a good man, to—”
“He will be raised in the Temples of Rhahar and Ione, where he will be cared for while in service to the gods as it has been done since the first Blessing.” The Duke’s voice brooked no argument, and the woman’s sobs deepened. “Through us, the gods protect each and every one of you from the horrors outside the Rise. From what comes in the mist. And all we must do is provide them with service. Are you willing to anger the gods to keep a child at home, to grow old or possibly sicken and die?”
Mr. Tulis shook his head, his face draining of all color. “No, Your Grace, we would not want to risk that, but he’s our son—
“That is what you ask, though.” The Duke cut him off. “In one month from his birth, you will give him to the High Priests, and you will be honored to do so.”
Unable to look at the tear-stricken faces any longer, I closed my eyes once more and wished I could somehow drown out the sounds of their heartbreak. However, even if I could, I wouldn’t forget them. And, truthfully, I needed to hear their pain. I needed to bear witness to it and remember. Serving the gods in the Temples was an honor, but this was still a loss.
“Cease the tears,” the Duchess implored. “You know that this is right and what the gods have requested.”
But this didn’t feel right. What harm would come in asking for one child to remain at home with his parents? To grow, to live, and to become a useful member of society? Neither the Duke nor the Duchess would bend to grant such a simple favor. How could anyone mortal be unmoved by the mother’s pleas, her cries, and her husband’s desolate hopelessness?
But I already knew the answer to that.
The Ascended were no longer mortal.
I smothered a yawn as Tawny helped secure my veil in place, feeling like I hadn’t gotten a moment of rest.
My mind wouldn’t shut down last night. I couldn’t stop thinking about Malessa and Rylan, the threat of the Dark One, and what had happened with the Tulis family. The utter hopelessness that had drenched the mother’s face as her husband had led her from the chamber haunted me, as did the audience parting and giving them a wide berth. It was as if their request had left the Tulises with an infectious taint. As they left, cradling their infant, their heartbreak had projected, becoming a tangible, lingering entity.
But that wasn’t the only part of this that preyed upon my mind.
The look that had settled over Hawke’s face as he watched the broken couple also kept resurfacing. Anger had hardened his jaw and pressed his lips into a firm, unyielding line. And he wasn’t the only one in attendance who’d borne what could easily be construed as the mark of resentment. I thought of the blond man I’d seen and what I’d felt from him. It had to be some form of pain, as that was the only thing I could feel from others. But it had reminded me of the anger that had settled into Hawke’s features and in others.