“When it happens again?” the Duchess answered, her soft voice silencing the murmurs. “Because it will happen again.”
Behind the veil, my brows lifted. Over my right shoulder, I heard Hawke murmur dryly, “That will surely ease fears.”
My lips twitched.
“The truth is not designed to ease fears,” Vikter responded.
“Is that why we tell lies, then?” Hawke questioned, and I pressed my lips together.
Ever since they’d arrived to escort Tawny and me, they had been doing this. One of them would say something. Anything. The other would disagree, only for the one who’d spoken first to have the last word. It started with Hawke commenting that it was surprisingly warm this evening and that I should enjoy it, to which Vikter had followed up by stating that the temperatures would surely drop too rapidly for that. Hawke had proceeded to ask Vikter where he’d gained such prophetic knowledge of the weather.
In the span of an hour, it had only progressed from there as they attempted to out-snark each other.
Hawke was winning, by at least three comebacks.
Even after I had defended him to Vikter—and I hadn’t been lying when I told him that I trusted Hawke—there was still a small part of me that couldn’t believe what he’d said. He hadn’t told me never to go on the Rise again. He hadn’t demanded that I stay in my room, where it was theoretically safer. Instead, he’d listened to my reasons for why I needed to be out there and accepted them, only asking that I wear more suitable shoes.
And additional clothing.
The latter annoyed and excited me, which was altogether confusing. And was definitely not something that I’d shared with Vikter that morning.
My gaze slid to the Duchess as she stepped forward. “The gods didn’t fail you,” she repeated, placing her hands on the waist-high railing beside her husband. “We didn’t fail you. But the gods are unhappy. That is why the Craven reached the top of the Rise.”
A murmur of dismay swept through the crowd like a rainstorm.
“We have spoken to them. They are not pleased with recent events, here and in nearby cities,” she said, scanning the paling and graying faces below. “They fear that the good people of Solis have begun to lose faith in their decisions and are turning to those who wish to see the future of this great kingdom compromised.”
The whispers turned to outright cries of denouncement, startling the horses. The guardsmen quickly calmed the equines’ nervous prancing.
“What did you all think would happen when those who support the Dark One and plot with him are standing among you right now?” the Duke asked. “As I speak, at this very moment, Descenters stare back at me, thrilled that the Craven took so many lives last night. In this very crowd, there are Descenters who pray for the day that the Dark One comes. Those who celebrated the massacre of Three Rivers and the fall of Goldcrest Manor. Look to your left and to your right, and you may see someone who helped conspire to abduct the Maiden.”
I shifted uncomfortably as dozens and dozens of gazes landed on me. Then, one by one, as if the faces were dominos stacked side by side, they looked to each other as if seeing neighbors and familiar faces for the first time.
“The gods hear and know all. Even what’s not spoken but resides in the heart,” the Duke said, and my stomach twisted with unease. “What can any of us expect?” he repeated. “When those the gods have done all to protect, come before us, questioning the Rite?”
I tensed. Immediately, the image of Mr. and Mrs. Tulis formed in my mind. He hadn’t said their names, but he might as well have screamed them from the top of Castle Teerman. I didn’t see them in the crowd, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there.
“What can anyone expect when there are those who wish to see us dead?” Teerman asked, raising his hands. “When we are the gods given form and the only thing that stands between you and the Dark One and the curse his people have cast upon this land.”
And yet, not a single Ascended—not the Duke or Duchess or any of the Lords or Ladies—had raised one hand to defend the Rise. All of them were faster and stronger than any guard. I imagined they could’ve taken down double the amount of Craven I had with a bow, and just like Hawke had said, they had a higher likelihood of surviving an attack.
“What do you think would’ve happened if the Craven had crested the Rise?” Teerman lowered his hands. “Many of you were born within these walls and have never experienced the horror of a Craven attack. Some of you know, though. You come from cities less guarded or were attacked on the roads. You know what would’ve happened if only a handful made it past our guards—if the gods had turned their backs on the people of Solis. It would’ve been the wholesale slaughter of hundreds. Your wives. Your children. Yourselves. Many of you would not be standing here.” He paused, and the crowd swelled—
It happened again.
I felt my senses stretch out from me, and that wasn’t too surprising. With a crowd like this, it was hard to keep myself locked down, but I didn’t… I didn’t just feel pain.
Something touched the back of my throat, reminding me of what I’d felt in the atrium with Loren.
I felt terror swelling and rising, coming from so many different directions as my gaze skittered from face to face. Another sensation reached me. It was hot and acidic. It wasn’t physical pain. It was anger. My heart started thumping. I wasn’t feeling pain, but I…I had to be feeling something. It didn’t make sense, but I could sense it pressing against my skin like a hot iron. My throat dried as I swallowed hard. People clasped their hands under their chins and prayed to the gods. I took a small step back. Others stared, their expressions hard—
Vikter’s hand touch my shoulder as he murmured. “Are you all right?”
I wasn’t sure.
Anxiety-spiked adrenaline flooded my system as icy ghost fingers danced along the back of my neck. Pressure clamped down on my chest. I wanted to run. I needed to get as far away from people as I could.
But I couldn’t.
Closing my eyes, I focused on my breathing as I struggled to rebuild my mental walls. I kept breathing, in and out, as deeply and slowly as I could.
“And, if you’re lucky, they’ll go for your throat, and it will be a quick death,” the Duke was saying. “Most of you will not be so fortunate. They’ll tear into your flesh and tissue, feasting on your blood while you scream for the gods you’ve lost faith in.”
“This is perhaps the least calming speech ever given after an attack,” Hawke muttered under his breath.
His comment jarred me out of my spiral of panic, the utter dryness of his words cutting the cord that connected me to the people. My senses reeled back, and it was like a door slamming shut, locking.
I felt…I felt nothing but my pounding heart and the sheen of sweat on my forehead. What he had done did more than loosen the hold the public’s fear had on me, it not only created a crack in its grip, it obliterated it. The feelings had vanished so quickly that I almost wondered if I had felt them at all. If it had just been my mind playing tricks on me as the faces before me became clear once more, a continuous onslaught of different shades of fear and panic—
My gaze sharpened as I took another look at the crowd, focusing on the faces that showed no emotion. Unnerved by their blank features, a trickle of unease curled its way down my spine. I focused on one of the men. He was younger, blond hair falling to his shoulders. He was too far away to make out his eye color, but he stared up at the Duke and Duchess, lips pressed firmly together, jaw a hard, broad line, while those who stood around him exchanged looks of terror.
I recognized him.
He’d been at the City Council. He’d had that same expression then, and that thing had happened—the weird flood of sensations I shouldn’t be able to feel.
Or I didn’t know I could.
I checked out the crowd once more, easily picking up on the ones like him. There were at least a dozen that I could see.
My gaze slid back to the blond man as I thought about what I’d felt when I’d been with Loren. What I’d felt from her made sense now, given what had occurred. She had been excited about the possibility of the Dark One being nearby, as disturbing as that was. And she would have reason to fear that I would say something. This man may not show emotion in his features, but if he hadn’t agreed with what was being done to the Tulis family, it would come as no surprise that he’d feel anger now.
Maybe it was all in my head. Perhaps something was happening to my gift. Was it possibly evolving so I could feel other emotions besides pain? I didn’t know, and I needed to find out, but I had to say something now just in case.
I turned my head to the right, toward Vikter. “Do you see him?” I whispered, describing the blond man.
“Yes.” Vikter stepped closer.
“There are others like him.” I faced the audience.
“I see them,” he said. “Be alert, Hawke. There—”
“May be trouble?” Hawke cut him off. “I’ve been tracking the blond for twenty minutes. He’s slowly working his way to the front. Three more have also inched closer.”
My brows rose. He was so very observant.
“Are we safe?” Tawny asked, keeping her attention focused on the crowd.
“Always,” Hawke murmured.
I nodded when her gaze briefly met mine, hoping she was reassured. My hand brushed my thigh. My dagger was sheathed under the white, floor-length tunic. The feel of the bone handle helped to ease whatever panic lingered.
The Duke was still mesmerizing the crowd with tales of gore and horror while I kept my focus on the blond man. He wore a dark cloak over his broad shoulders, and any number of weapons could be hidden underneath.
I knew that from personal experience.
“But we have spoken to the gods on your behalf.” The Duchess’s voice rang out. “We have told them that the people of Solis, especially those who live in Masadonia, are worthy. They haven’t given up on you. We made sure of that.”