Irritation flared, but I knew better than to cave to it. Besides, if this was what he was upset over, it was far better than what I’d feared. “My mind was occupied with my upcoming Rite,” I lied. The real reason I didn’t engage in their conversation was because the women spent the entire time speaking poorly of the Ladies in Wait and how they were not deserving of the gods’ Blessing. “I must’ve been daydreaming.”
“I’m sure you’re very excited about the Rite, and if this had been just one situation, I would’ve easily overlooked your poor conduct.”
He was lying. The Duke never overlooked any perceived poor conduct.
“But I’ve learned that you were just in the atrium,” he continued, and my shoulders slumped.
“Yes. I was. I didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to be,” I said, and that wasn’t a lie. “I don’t go often, but—”
“Spending time in the atrium is not the issue, and you’re smart enough to know that. Don’t play coy with me.”
I opened my mouth and then closed it.
“You were speaking with two of the Ladies in Wait,” he continued. “You know that is not allowed.”
Knowing this was coming, I remained silent. I just hadn’t realized he would find out so quickly. Someone must have been watching. Perhaps his steward or one of the other Royal Guards.
“Do you have nothing to say?” he asked.
Dipping my chin, I stared at the floor. I could tell him the truth. That I hadn’t said more than one sentence to the Ladies, and that this was, as far as I knew, the first time they’d visited the atrium. It wouldn’t matter, though. The truth didn’t work with the Duke.
“Such a demure Maiden,” the Lord murmured.
I could practically feel my tongue sharpen, but I softened my words as much as I could. “I’m sorry. I should’ve left when they entered, but I didn’t.”
“And why not?”
“I was…curious. They were talking about the upcoming Rite,” I told him, looking up.
“I’m not surprised to hear that. You were always an active child with a curious mind that flicked from one thing to the next, something I warned the Duchess you wouldn’t grow out of easily,” he continued, his features turning taut, a glint of anticipation forming in his eyes. “Priestess Analia also informed me that she fears your relationship with your lady’s maid has become far too familiar.”
My spine stiffened as he turned, straightening the veil he’d draped over a chair. The back of my skull tingled as I said, “Tawny has been a wonderful lady’s maid, and if my kindness and gratefulness has been mistaken for anything else, then I apologize.”
He slid a long look in my direction. “I know it may be hard to keep boundaries with someone you spend so much time with, but a Maiden does not seek intimacies of the heart or the mind with those who serve them, not even those who are to become members of the Court. You must never forget that you are not like them. You were Chosen by the gods at birth, and they are chosen at their Rite. You will never be equals. You will never be friends.”
The words I forced past my lips scratched at my heart. “I understand.”
Teerman took another drink.
How much had he already consumed? My heart rate tripled. Once, when I’d upset the Duke, his lesson had been carried out after he’d indulged in what I’d heard the guards call “Red Ruin,” a liquor brewed in the Cliffs of Hoar. The Lord had been with him then.
That was the time he’d struck me, and it had taken several days before I’d been able to resume training with Vikter.
“I don’t think you do.” His tone hardened. “You were Chosen at birth, Penellaphe. Only one other has ever been Chosen by the gods. It was why the Dark One sent the Craven after your family. It was why your parents were slaughtered.”
I flinched once more, my stomach hollowing.
“That hurts, doesn’t it? But it’s the truth. That should’ve been the only lesson you ever needed.” Placing his glass on the table, he faced me while the Lord unfolded his legs. “But between your lack of awareness regarding overstepping boundaries, your lack of attention with Priestess Analia, your blatant disregard today for what is expected of you, and…”—he drew the word out, enjoying the moment—“the attitude you displayed yesterday toward me. What? You thought I wouldn’t address your behavior while we discussed Ryan’s replacement.”
The air I inhaled did nothing to inflate my lungs. That wasn’t his name.
“You stared back at me as if you wished to do me physical harm.” He chuckled, amused by the idea that I could do such a thing. “The meeting would’ve ended vastly different if others had not been present, and we weren’t there to discuss Hawke replacing Ryan—”
“Rylan,” I snapped. “His name is Rylan. Not Ryan.”
“There it is,” Lord Mazeen echoed the words he’d spoken the night Malessa had been found. He chuckled. “Not so demure now.”
I ignored him.
Teerman cocked his head. “You mean his name was Rylan?”
I sucked in air that seemed to go nowhere.
“And does it really matter? He was just a Royal Guard. He would’ve been honored that I even thought of him.”
Now, I truly wanted to inflict physical harm.
“Either way, you just proved that I must double my attempts to strengthen my commitment to make you more than ready for your Ascension. Apparently, I’ve been too easy on you.” The gleam in his eyes brightened. “Unfortunately, that means you require yet another lesson. Hopefully, it will be your last, but somehow, I doubt it.”
My fingers spasmed where I twisted them. Anger rose so swiftly, I was surprised that I didn’t breathe fire when I exhaled. That was the last thing Teerman hoped for. If he couldn’t find a reason to give me a lesson, then he’d have a complete breakdown.
“Yes,” I bit out the word, my control slipping. “Hopefully.”
He cut me a sharp look and a long, tense moment passed. “I believe four lashes should suffice.”
Before I could remind myself who I was, what Teerman was, fury burned through my blood, seizing control. Nothing he’d taken me to task for mattered. None of that had anything to do with the Descenters and the Dark One being behind my attempted abduction and Rylan’s murder. The gods blessed the Ascended with near immortality and unfathomable strength, and they spent their time worrying about who I was speaking to? I couldn’t stop myself. “Are you sure that’s enough? I wouldn’t want you to feel as if you haven’t done enough.”
His gaze hardened. “How does seven sound?”
Apprehension flickered through me, but I’d received ten before.
“I see that number agrees with you,” he said. “What do you think, Bran?”
“I think that is sufficient.” There was no mistaking the eagerness in his tone.
The Duke looked back to me. “You know where to go.”
Holding my chin high, it took everything in me to walk past him and not lay him flat on his back. That was the worst part as I walked to the shiny, cleared surface of his desk. The Ascended were stronger than even the most skilled guard, but neither Teerman nor Mazeen had raised a hand in combat since the War of Two Kings. I could easily knock him flat on his back.
But then what?
There’d be more lessons, and word would make its way back to Queen Ileana. She’d be disappointed, genuinely so, and unlike the Duke, I cared about what the Queen thought and felt. Not because I was her favorite, but because it had been she who had taken care of me as a wounded, terrified child. Her hands had changed my bandages and held me when I screamed and cried for my mother and father. And it was Queen Ileana who had sat with me when I could not sleep, terrified of the dark. She’d done things no Queen needed to do. Without her caring for me as my own mother would have, I would’ve been lost in a way I doubted I could have ever recovered from.
I stopped in front of the desk, hands shaking with barely leashed rage. I believed in my heart of hearts that if Queen Ileana knew what the Duke did in this room, things would not end well for the Ascended.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the Lord lean forward as Teerman picked up the red, narrow cane, smoothing his hand down its length.
But the Queen wouldn’t know.
Letters sent to the capital were always read, and I wouldn’t see her until I returned. But then? Then, I would tell her everything.
Because if he did this to me, I was sure he did this to others, as well. Even if no one ever spoke of it.
He came to stand beside me, that glint of eagerness now a shine in his eyes. “You’re not ready, Penellaphe. You should know better by this point.”
Clamping my jaw shut, I looked away as I lifted my hands to the row of buttons. My fingers only trembled once and then stilled as I undid the bodice, all too aware that Mazeen had picked his seat with knowledge of what was to come. He had an unobstructed view.
The Duke remained at my side, watching as the bodice of my gown gaped, revealing the all-too-thin undergarment underneath. Both slipped down my shoulders until the clothing pooled at my waist. Cool air washed over my back and chest, and I wanted to stand there as if I was wholly unaffected by the entire ordeal. Wished I could be strong and brave and unmoved. I didn’t want them to see how humiliating this was, how much it bothered me to be seen like this, and not by someone of my choosing—someone worthy.
But I couldn’t.
Cheeks burning and eyes stinging, I folded an arm over my chest.
“This is for your own good,” Teerman spoke, his voice going dark and rough as he walked behind me. “This is a necessary lesson, Penellaphe, to ensure that you take your preparations seriously and are committed to them so you do not dishonor the gods.”
He almost sounded like he believed what he said, as if he weren’t doing this simply because it excited him to inflict pain. But I knew better. I knew what Mazeen would do if he could, and I’d seen the look in the Duke’s eyes. I saw it far too many times before when I made the mistake of looking. The kind of look that told me if I wasn’t the Maiden, he would inflict a different kind of pain. Just like I knew Mazeen would. I couldn’t suppress the shudder that followed that thought.