A moment later, I felt his hand on my bare shoulder, and everything in me recoiled. It wasn’t just the touch of his too-cool skin against mine, but it was also what I didn’t feel.
I felt nothing.
No faint trace of anguish that all people carried within them, no matter how long ago the source of the hurt that had inflicted its damage. There was no pain of any kind, and it was that way for every Ascended. While that should bring me some sort of relief that I wouldn’t pick up on pain, it only left me with the feeling of crawling skin.
It was a reminder of how different the Ascended were from mortals, what the Blessing of the gods did.
“Brace yourself, Penellaphe.”
I planted a palm on the desk.
The room was silent except for the sound of the Lord’s deep breaths, and then I heard the soft whistle of the cane cutting through the air a second before it struck my lower back. My entire body jerked as fiery pain rippled across my skin. The first strike was always a shock, no matter how many times it had happened before or that I knew what was coming. Another strike landed across my shoulders, pushing out a rough burst of air as fire swept across them.
Another blow landed, and my body trembled as I lifted my gaze. I will not make a sound. I will not make a sound. My hips knocked against the desk with the next hit.
The settee creaked as Lord Mazeen rose.
Skin burning, I bit down on my lip until I tasted blood. I stared through the haze of tears at the painting of the veiled worshippers, wondering how horrible the Atlantians must’ve been for men like the Duke of Masadonia and Lord Mazeen to receive the Blessing of Ascension from the gods.
The gods had granted me one small favor when I left the Duke’s suite. Hawke hadn’t been waiting for me, and that had been a blessing. I had no idea how I could’ve hidden what had happened.
Instead, it was Vikter who stood silently by the two Royal Guards. Neither looked at me as I stepped into the hall, skin pale and covered in a sheen of cold sweat.
Did they know what had happened in the Duke’s chamber? I hadn’t made a sound, not even when Lord Mazeen had come to stand beside the desk and pulled my arm away from my chest to place it beside my other. Not even when the sixth and seventh blows had felt like lightning streaking across my back, and Mazeen had watched every lash absorbed by my body with eager eyes.
If the guards were aware, there was nothing I could do about that or the bitter bite of shame that somehow burned worse than my back.
But Vikter knew. The knowledge was in the deep lines bracketing his mouth as we walked toward the staircase, each step tugging at the inflamed skin. He waited until the stairwell door closed behind us and then stopped on the landing, concern settling into his light blue eyes as he stared down at me.
“How bad is it?”
My hands trembled as I pressed them against the skirt of my gown. “I’m fine. I just need to rest.”
“Fine?” His sun-kissed cheeks mottled. “Your breathing is rapid, and you’re walking as if each step is a challenge. You have no reason to pretend with me.”
I truly didn’t, but admitting how bad it was felt like I was giving Teerman what he wanted. “It could’ve been worse.”
Vikter’s nostrils flared. “It shouldn’t happen at all.”
I couldn’t argue with that.
“Did he break your skin?” he demanded.
“No. There are just welts.”
“Just welts.” His laugh was harsh and without humor. “You speak as if they are nothing more than scratches. Why were you punished this time?”
“Does he need a reason?” My smile was tired and felt brittle, as if it would crack my entire face. “He was upset over my lack of commitment to my time spent with the Priestesses. And today, while I was in the atrium, two Ladies in Wait showed up. He was not pleased about that.”
“How is that your fault?”
“Does it need to be my fault?”
Vikter stared at me, struck silent for a moment. “So, this is why he took the cane to you?”
I nodded, gaze falling to the nearest oval-shaped window. The sun had drifted away while I’d been in the suite, the stairwell not nearly as bright and airy as it had been. “And he didn’t like my attitude during the meeting yesterday. It’s not nearly the most minor offense he has punished me for.”
“This is why I said you must be careful, Poppy. If he lashes you for being in a room while others walk in, what do you think he would do if he learned of your little adventures?”
“Or if he learned that I’ve been training like a guard for years?” My shoulders tightened, the movement pulling at my skin. “I’d be caned, of course. Probably more than seven lashes.”
Vikter’s golden skin paled.
“He may petition the Queen to find me unworthy. And maybe the gods already do,” I continued. “But as you’ve said before, my Ascension will happen no matter what I do. You, though? What would happen to you, Vikter, if it were ever discovered that you’ve been training me?”
“It doesn’t matter what they may or may not do.” There wasn’t a second of hesitation there. “The risk is worth it, knowing you can protect yourself. I would gladly take whatever punishment I received, and I wouldn’t regret what I’ve done.”
I lifted my chin, holding his gaze. “And being able to defend my home, those I care for, and my life is worth the risk of whatever may happen.”
He was quiet for a moment and then his wintery blue eyes closed. He might’ve been thinking of a prayer for patience, something I’d known him to do many times before.
That brought another small smile to my lips. “I’m careful, Vikter.”
“Being careful doesn’t seem to matter.” His eyes opened. “I welcome the idea of the Queen summoning you to the capital sooner rather than later.”
I shivered as I started down the stairs. “Because then I couldn’t be subjected to the Duke’s lessons?”
That was something to look forward to, especially since I planned on telling the Queen everything.
“Was he alone? I asked the guards, but they acted as if they had no idea who was in the room with him,” he said.
They always knew who was in with the Duke. They just hadn’t wanted Vikter to know, and I…I didn’t either. “He was alone.”
He didn’t answer, and I wasn’t sure if that meant he believed me or not. I decided it was time to change the subject. “How did you know where I was?”
Vikter moved only a step behind me. “Hawke sent one of the Duke’s stewards for me. He was…concerned about you.”
My heart skipped a beat. “Over what?”
“He said that both you and Tawny appeared distressed over the Duke’s summons,” Vikter explained. “He thought I could explain why.”
“And did you?”
“I told him there was nothing to be worried about, and that I would remain as your escort for the rest of the day.” Vikter’s brow wrinkled as he casually took my arm, lending me his support. “He wasn’t exactly receptive, so I had to remind him that I was higher-ranking than him.”
My lips twitched at that. “I’m sure that went over well.”
“As well as an avalanche.”
We rounded the next floor, the knowledge that I was getting closer to my bed keeping me going as I mulled over what Hawke had done. “He is…quite observant, isn’t he? And intuitive.”
“Yes.” Vikter sighed, obviously thinking that wasn’t a good thing. “Yes, he is.”
Three dozen torches blazed beyond the Rise, their flames a beacon of light in the vast darkness, a promise of safety to the slumbering city.
I cast a longing look toward the bed, letting out a tired sigh as I twisted the ends of my braid. Nightmares from a different night had driven me from sleep, leaving my skin slick with a cold sweat and my heart thrumming like a rabbit caught in a snare.
Luckily, I hadn’t woken Tawny with my screams. She’d been up late the past two nights. The first night, she’d spent a good part of the evening doing everything possible to make sure the welts healed, and last night, she’d been summoned by the Mistresses to assist with preparations for the Rite.
Tawny had used a concoction the Healers swore by and which the guards frequently used for their numerous injuries, rubbing the mixture of pine and sage-scented arnica and honey onto the inflamed skin of my back. It was the same stuff the Healer had used the night of the abduction. The ointment had cooled my skin and eased the ache almost immediately. Still, we knew from previous experience that it had to be applied nearly every other hour to achieve the desired effect.
And it had worked. By yesterday evening, there was only a twinge of discomfort, even though the skin was still pinker than normal.
I hadn’t been making light of what had occurred when I told Vikter and then Tawny that it could’ve been worse. The welts would most likely be gone by the morning, and there’d be little if any pain. I was lucky I always healed quickly, and even luckier that Teerman hadn’t been drinking Red Ruin the afternoon of my summons.
The Duke had known my mother. How? As far as I knew, she’d never been to Masadonia, so that had to mean that the Duke had met her in the capital. It was rare for the Ascended to travel, especially such a great distance, but they’d obviously met.
There had been such a strange look on Teerman’s face when he spoke of her. Nostalgia mixed with…what? Anger, perhaps? Disappointment. Had whatever interactions he’d had with her caused the way he behaved toward me?
Or was I just looking for a reason for his treatment, as if there had to be something to explain his cruelty?
There wasn’t a lot that I knew about life, but I knew that, sometimes, there was no reason. A person, whether Ascended or not, was who they were with no explanation.
Sighing, I shifted my weight from foot to foot. I’d been holed up in my room the last two days, mainly because rest ensured that the ointment worked as fast as possible, and also because I was avoiding, well…everyone.