Cold night air whipped around me as I stood plastered against the stone wall, praying to any god that the foot-wide ledge I stood on wouldn’t cave under my weight. I doubted when it was built that they had taken into consideration that, at some point, an entirely stupid Maiden would find herself standing on it.
How had this gone so terribly wrong?
Sneaking into the Atheneum hadn’t been hard. With my shapeless black cloak, my trusty mask in place, and my face hidden under the hood, I doubted anyone on the streets of Masadonia had been able to tell if I was male or female, let alone the Maiden as I hurried down the alley toward the back entrance of the library. Moving along the grid of narrow halls and staircases without being seen was easy, too.
I knew how to be like a ghost when needed, quiet and still.
The problem started when I found the leather-bound journal of Miss Colyns. Instead of leaving and going back to the castle like I knew I should, I’d ducked inside an empty room.
I just…I had been going stir-crazy in that room and had dreaded going back. And the thickly cushioned settees called to me. The stocked liquor cabinet, something I found odd to discover in a library, confused me, however. But I’d sat by the large windows overlooking the city below and cracked open the worn book. My cheeks had been scalded by the end of the first page, having discovered what occurs when someone kisses one not on the mouth or on the breast like…like Hawke had done before he knew who I was, but some place far more intimate.
I couldn’t stop reading, practically devouring the cream-hued pages.
Miss Willa Colyns lived a very…interesting life with many, many other…fascinating people. I had gotten to the part where she spoke of her brief fling with the King, which I could not even begin to picture, nor did I want to, when I heard voices outside the room—one in particular I’d never thought to hear in the Atheneum.
Hearing his voice meant that I’d been so caught up in the diary, I hadn’t even realized the sun had set.
I hadn’t been summoned to meet with him the night before or today. With the preparations for the Rite, I’d been given a temporary reprieve, and I assumed Hawke had as well since he was still my guard. But that reprieve would come to a swift end if the Duke discovered me.
Which was why I was now perched on a ledge outside what turned out to be the Duke’s personal room in the Atheneum. The only grace I’d been given was that the window I’d climbed out of wasn’t the one facing the street but rather the one blocked by Wisher’s Grove.
Only the hawks could see me…or witness my fall.
The sound of ice clinking against glass caused me to swallow a groan. He’d already been in the room for at least thirty minutes, and I was betting that he was on his second glass of whiskey. I had no idea what he was doing. With the Rite kicking off in just hours, I imagined he was busy meeting with the new Ladies and Lords in Wait, and the parents who would be giving their third sons and daughters to the Temples. But no, he was here, drinking whiskey by himse—
A knock on the door sounded. I closed my eyes, lightly banging the back of my head against the wall. Company? He was going to have visitors?
Maybe the gods had been watching me this whole time, and this was yet another punishment.
“Come in,” he called out, and I heard the door clicking shut a few moments later. “You’re late.”
Oh, dear. I recognized that cold, flat tone. The Duke was not pleased.
“My apologies, Your Grace. I came as soon as I could,” came the response. It was a male voice, one I didn’t immediately recognize, which meant it could be any number of people. Ascended Lords. Stewards. Merchants. Guards.
“Not soon enough,” the Duke replied, and I cringed for whoever was surely on the receiving end of a very disapproving stare. “I hope you have something for me. If so, that would go a long way to restoring my faith in you.”
“I do, Your Grace. It took a while, as you know the man was not talkative.”
“No, they never are once you get them out of the public eye where they can’t cause a spectacle with their words,” the Duke commented. “I’m guessing you had to be extremely convincing to get him to talk.”
“Yes.” There was a rough laugh and then, “He’s not an Atlantian. That has been confirmed.”
“Shame,” the Duke said, and I frowned. Why would that be bad news?
“I’ve learned his name. Lev Barron, the first son of Alexander and Maggie Barron. He had two brothers, the second died of an…illness before his Rite, and the third was given to the Temples three years ago. He was not a known person of interest, and his behavior at the assembly wasn’t expected.”
They were talking about the Descenter—the one who’d thrown the Craven hand while the Duke and Duchess had spoken to the people after the attack.
“You’ve investigated his family?” the Duke asked.
“Yes. The father is deceased. The mother lives alone in the Lower Ward. She was useful in getting him to talk.”
The Duke chuckled, and the sound turned my stomach. “What else have you learned?”
“I don’t believe he was very connected within the community of Descenters. He claims that he has never met the Dark One nor believes him to be within the city.”
A wealth of relief rose and spread through me even as the wind lifted the edges of my cloak.
“And you believed him?” the Duke asked.
“I gave him good reason not to lie,” the man, who I assumed was one of the guards, answered. I thought about the man’s mother. Had she been one of the reasons for him opening up?
If so, the knowledge sat heavy in the pit of my stomach. Descenters needed to be dealt with harshly, but I wasn’t sure how I felt about family members being used to coerce information.
“And did he tell you anything about the claim he made? About the third sons and daughters?”
“All he would say was that he knew the truth—that they weren’t servicing the gods, and that everyone would soon learn that.”
“He didn’t say what he believed to be the truth?”
I turned my head toward the window, all but holding my breath. I would love to know what he thought was happening.
“No, Your Grace. The only additional information I could glean from him was how he came to be in possession of a Craven’s hand,” he said, and that was, well…a good thing to know. “Apparently, he took it off the body of one of the guards who had become infected and returned to the city. He helped the family put the guard down after he’d changed.”
“Death with dignity.” The Duke scoffed, and my eyes widened. He…he knew about that? About us? “These bleeding hearts will be the death of the entire city one of these days.”
That statement was a wee bit excessive, but I hadn’t considered that there may be Descenters in the network.
“Did he happen to tell you who was involved with putting down the newly turned Craven?” he asked.
“No. He would not.”
“That is also a shame. I would love to know who didn’t contact us and why.” The Duke sighed as if that were the worst possible thing to remain unanswered. “Do you have anything else to report?”
“No, Your Grace.”
There wasn’t an immediate response, but then the Duke asked, “Does the Descenter still breathe?”
“Good.” It sounded like he’d stood, and I hoped that meant he was leaving. Please gods, let that mean he’s leaving. “I think I will visit with him myself.”
My brows lifted.
Now that surprised me.
“As you wish.” There was a beat of silence. “Will there be a trial that we need to prepare for?”
I almost laughed. Descenters weren’t given an actual trial. They were put on public display while their charges were leveled against them. Execution quickly followed.
“There will be no need after my visit with him,” the Duke said, and my mouth dropped open.
The meaning was clear. If there was no trial, that meant there’d be no public execution, and the only reason that would occur would be if the Descenter was already dead. That had happened before while they’d been imprisoned. Normally, it was believed to have been by their own hands or by an overzealous guard. But could it be that the Duke was meting out justice himself?
The same Ascended who I doubted had gotten a speck of blood on his hands since the War of Two Kings?
I shouldn’t be surprised by that. He had a cruel streak and viciousness within him a mile wide, but he always kept that well hidden under a mask of civility. I also shouldn’t be bothered by the idea of the Descenter being killed without the farce of a trial. They supported the Dark One, and even if some of them hadn’t engaged in the riots and bloodshed, their words alone had sown the seeds that had caused blood to spill on more than one occasion.
But I…I was bothered by the idea of anyone being killed in a dark, dank cell, at the hands of an Ascended who was barely better than an Atlantian.
Finally, the door opened and closed, and there was nothing but silence. I waited, straining to hear any sound. I heard nothing. Wondering why the Duke had decided to have this meeting here and surprised by how aware of the network he was. I inched along the ledge toward the window. Clutching the journal to my chest with numb fingers, I neared the window—
There was a clicking sound from inside the room. I froze. Was that the door closing? Or was it locking? Oh, my gods, if it had been locked, I would have to bust through it—wait, the door could only be locked from the inside. Had someone else come into the room? Was it the Duke? There was no way he knew that I was out here unless he could suddenly see through walls. Who else—?
“You still out there, Princess?”
My lips parted as my eyes widened at the sound of his voice. Hawke. It was Hawke. In that room. I couldn’t believe it.
“Or have you fallen to your death?” he continued. I briefly debated the merits of jumping. “I really hope that’s not the case since I’m pretty positive that would reflect poorly on me since I assumed you were in your room.” A pause. “Behaving. And not on a ledge, several dozen feet in the air, for reasons I can’t even begin to fathom but am dying to learn.”