Making my way along the outskirts of the room, I neared the curtains, reaching out to part them—
“I don’t think you want to go in there.”
Startled, I turned at the sound of the voice. A woman stood behind me—one of the ladies who worked for the Red Pearl. I recognized her. Not because she’d been on the arm of a merchant or businessman when I first came in, but because she was utterly beautiful.
Her hair was a deep black, thickly curled, and her skin was a deep, rich brown. The red gown she wore was sleeveless, cut low across her chest, and the fabric clung to her body like liquid.
“I’m sorry?” I said, unsure what else to say as I lowered my hand. “Why wouldn’t I? They’re just dancing.”
“Just dancing?” Her gaze drifted over my shoulder to the curtain. “Some say that to dance is to make love.”
“I…I hadn’t heard that.” Slowly, I looked behind me. Through the curtains, I could make out the shapes of bodies churning in time with the music, their movements full of mesmerizing and fluid grace. Some danced alone, their curves and forms clearly outlined, while others…
I sucked in a sharp breath, my eyes swinging back to the woman before me.
Her red-painted lips curved into a smile. “This is your first time here, isn’t it?”
I opened my mouth to deny that statement but could feel the heat spreading across every visible part of my face. That alone was telling. “Is it that obvious?”
She laughed, and the sound was throaty. “Not to most. But to me, yes. I’ve never seen you here before.”
“How would you know if you had?” I touched my mask just to make sure it hadn’t slipped.
“Your mask is fine.” There was a strange, knowing glint to her eyes, which were a mix of gold and brown. Not exactly hazel. The gold was far too bright and warm for that. They reminded me of another who had eyes the color of deep citrine. “I know a face, whether it’s half-hidden or not, and yours is one I haven’t seen here before. This is your first time.”
Truly, I had no idea how to respond to that.
“And it’s the Red Pearl’s first time also.” She leaned in, her voice lowering. “As we’ve never had the Maiden walk through the doors.”
A wave of shock rolled through me as my grip tightened on the slippery champagne glass. “I don’t know what you mean. I’m a second daughter—”
“You are like a second daughter, but not in the way you intend,” she cut in, lightly touching my cloaked arm. “It’s okay. There is nothing to fear. Your secret is safe with me.”
I stared at her for what felt like an entire minute before I recovered the use of my tongue. “If that were true, why would that kind of secret be safe?”
“Why would it not be?” she returned. “What would I have to gain by telling anyone?”
“You’d earn the favor of the Duke and Duchess.” My heart thumped.
Her smile faded as her stare hardened. “I have no need of a favor from an Ascended.”
The way she said that, it was as if I’d suggested that she was courting favor with a pile of mud. I almost believed her, but no one who lived within the kingdom would waste the chance to earn an Ascended’s esteem unless they…
Unless they didn’t recognize Queen Ileana and King Jalara as the true, rightful rulers. Unless they supported he who called himself Prince Casteel, the true heir to the kingdom.
Except he was no prince or heir. He was nothing more than a remnant of Atlantia, the corrupt and twisted kingdom that had fallen at the end of the War of Two Kings. A monster who had wreaked havoc and caused bloodshed, the embodiment of pure evil.
He was the Dark One.
And yet there were those who supported him and his claim. Descenters who had been a part of riots and the disappearances of many Ascended. In the past, the Descenters only caused discord through small rallies and protests, and even then, that had been few and far between due to the punishment that was meted out to those who were suspected to be Descenters. The trials couldn’t even be called that. No second chances. No long-term imprisonment. Death was swift and final.
But things had changed of late.
Many believed the Descenters had been responsible for the mysterious deaths of high-ranking Royal Guards. Several in Carsodonia, the capital, had inexplicably fallen from the Rise. Two had been killed with arrows through the back of their heads in Pensdurth, a smaller city on the coast of the Stroud Sea, near the capital. Others had simply vanished while in the smaller villages, never to be seen or heard from again.
Only a few months ago, a violent uprising had ended in bloodshed in Three Rivers, a teeming trade city beyond the Blood Forest. Goldcrest Manor, the Royal Seat in Three Rivers, had been burned, razed to the ground, along with the Temples. Duke Everton had died in the fire, along with many servants and guards. It was only by some miracle that the Duchess of Three Rivers had escaped.
The Descenters weren’t just Atlantians who were hidden among the people of Solis. Some of the Dark One’s followers didn’t even have a drop of Atlantian blood in them.
My gaze sharpened and zeroed in on the beautiful woman. Could she be a Descenter? I couldn’t fathom how anyone could support the fallen kingdom, no matter how hard their lives were or how unhappy they may be. Not when the Atlantians and the Dark One were responsible for the mist, for what festered inside of it. For what most likely had ended Finley’s life—had taken countless more lives, including my mother’s and father’s, and had left my body riddled with the reminder of the horror that thrived inside the mist.
Pushing aside my suspicions for the moment, I opened myself up to sense if there was some great pain inside her, something that went beyond the physical and stemmed from either grief or bitterness. The kind of pain that made people do horrible things to try and alleviate the anguish.
There was no hint of that radiating from her.
But that didn’t mean she wasn’t a Descenter.
The woman’s head tilted. “As I said, you have nothing to worry about when it comes to me. Him? That’s another story.”
“Him?” I repeated.
She moved to the side as the main door opened, and a sudden gust of cool air announced the arrival of more patrons. A man walked in, and behind him was an older gentleman with sandy blond hair and a weathered face, colored by the sun—
My eyes widened as disbelief thundered through me. It was Vikter Wardwell. What was he doing at the Red Pearl?
An image of the women with the short gowns and partially exposed breasts came to mind, and I thought about why I was here. My eyes widened.
I didn’t want to think about the purpose for his visit any longer. Vikter was a seasoned member of the Royal Guard, a man well into his fourth decade of life, but he was more than that to me. The dagger strapped to my thigh had been a gift from him, and it was he who broke with custom and made sure I not only knew how to use it, but also how to wield a sword, strike a target unseen with an arrow, and even when weaponless, how to take down a man twice my size.
Vikter was like a father to me.
He was also my personal guard and had been since I’d first arrived in Masadonia. He wasn’t my only guard, though. He shared duties with Rylan Keal, who’d replaced Hannes after he’d passed in his sleep a little less than a year ago. It had been an unexpected loss as Hannes had been in his early thirties and in prime health. The Healers believed it to have been some unknown ailment of the heart. Still, it was hard to imagine how one could go to sleep healthy and whole and never wake up again.
Rylan didn’t know I was as well trained as I was, but he knew I could handle a dagger. He wasn’t aware of where Vikter and I all too often disappeared to outside the castle. He was kind and often relaxed, but we weren’t nearly as close as Vikter and I were. If it had been Rylan here, I could’ve easily slipped away.
“Dammit,” I swore, turning sideways as I reached back and pulled the hood of my cloak up over my head. My hair was a rather noticeable shade of burnt copper, but even with it hidden now and my entire face obscured, Vikter would recognize me.
He had a sixth sense that only belonged to parents and made itself known when their child was up to no good.
Glancing back toward the entrance, my stomach dropped as I saw him sit at one of the tables facing the door—the only exit.
The gods hated me.
Truly, they did, because there was no doubt in my mind that Vikter would see me. He wouldn’t report me, but I’d rather crawl into a hole full of roaches and spiders than attempt to explain to him, of all people, why I was at the Red Pearl. And there would be lectures. Not the speeches and punishments the Duke loved to deliver, but the kind that crawled under your skin and made you feel terrible for days.
Mainly because you had been caught doing something you deserved reprimand for.
And, frankly, I didn’t want to see Vikter’s face when he discovered that I realized he was here. I stole another peek and—
Oh, gods, a woman knelt beside him, a hand on his leg!
I needed to scrub my eyes.
“That’s Sariah,” the woman explained. “As soon as he arrives, she’s at his side. I do believe she carries a torch for him.”
Slowly, I looked at the woman beside me. “He comes here often?”
One side of her lips curved up. “Often enough to know what happens beyond the red curtain and—”
“That’s enough,” I cut her off. I now needed to scrub my brain. “I don’t need to hear any more.”
Her laugh was soft. “You have the look of one who is in need of a hiding place. And, yes, in the Red Pearl, that is an easily recognizable look.” She deftly took my champagne glass. “Upstairs, there are currently unoccupied rooms. Try the sixth door on the left. You will find sanctuary there. I’ll come for you when it’s safe.”
Suspicion rose as I met her gaze, but I let her take my arm and lead me toward the left. “Why would you help me?”