The hairs on the back of my neck rose as I looked over my shoulder, already knowing who I would see.
Lord Brandole Mazeen.
Besides the Duke and the Dark One, he was the last person I wanted to see standing behind me. Like Vikter, his red tunic was sleeveless, and behind his mask, his pitch-black eyes seemed to glimmer. I managed to keep my voice level as I said, “My Lord.”
A sardonic, tight-lipped grin twisted his mouth as his gaze flickered over me, lingering in a way that really made me wish that I were covered head to toe in a sack. Finally, he tore his gaze away and nodded at Tawny and Vikter. Then his attention settled back on me. “I hear that a certain Priestess is very unhappy with you.”
The tension returned, sinking its rigid claws into my neck as I stared up at him.
The Lord stepped in close—too close for any level of propriety. “I do believe you’re in for another lesson, my dear.”
I inhaled sharply, almost overcome by some kind of thick, musky cologne. My gaze flew to his as his scent triggered a memory. He hadn’t smelled of cologne the night he’d trapped me in an alcove—the night Malessa had been murdered.
He’d smelled of something else then—something sweet and musky.
He’d smelled of jasmine.
My mind immediately went to the petal I’d found under the chair in the room Malessa had been found in. There hadn’t been jasmine in that room, unless it had been replaced by the lilies, but hadn’t Tawny—?
“Excuse me,” Vikter stepped in, placing a hand on my arm. “We need to be—”
“No need to run off.” Mazeen’s gaze remained fixed on mine. “I’ll be on my way now. Enjoy the Rite.” And with that, he slipped around us and headed down the steps onto the main floor of the Great Hall.
“What was that about?” Vikter asked, his voice low.
“It’s nothing.” My thoughts raced as I turned back to Tawny. “You said you saw Malessa the day she died. That morning, correct?”
Tawny’s lips pinched. “Yes. I did.”
“Was she carrying a bouquet? Do you remember what kind of flowers it had?”
She blinked. “I…I don’t know. I know they were white.”
The petal in the room had been white, and it had definitely been jasmine. My stomach dipped.
Her gaze searched mine. “Why are you asking?”
“That’s a good question,” Vikter chimed in.
“I don’t know…” I looked out over the mass of people, unable to find the Lord. I thought about how he’d stood in that doorway, staring and unmoving. He’d been there when Rylan had escorted me back to my chambers. And he’d come out of one of the rooms. Which one, I couldn’t be sure, but what did any of that mean anyway?
He could’ve been with Malessa before she died, or it could be a coincidence, but an Atlantian had killed her. That much was clear. Nothing else could’ve made such a wound without getting blood everywhere.
“Poppy.” Vikter touched my arm lightly as the Priest moved toward the center of the dais. “Is everything okay?”
I nodded. I would speak to him later about it, but I wasn’t even sure what I was thinking.
“Where is the Duke?” Tawny whispered. “The Rite is starting.”
And he still wasn’t here. The Duchess kept pacing to her left where the dais could be accessed by the back entrance.
“We are gathered here tonight to honor the gods,” the Priest spoke, hushing the crowd gathered on the floor below. “To honor the Rite.”
“Excuse me,” a soft voice came from behind us.
I turned the same time as Vikter, and another shock greeted me as I recognized the woman standing there.
It was Agnes.
Oh, my gods…
My eyes widened as she glanced nervously between Vikter and me. She was wearing red, like everyone else, a skirt and blouse dyed to match. She looked better than the last time I had seen her, but there were deep shadows under her eyes that told me that her grieving had not been easy.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” she said, keeping her gaze downcast. “I saw you…and I had to come over.”
“It’s okay.” Vikter sent me a look. “Would you like to speak to me somewhere private?”
She nodded without looking up, and not for one second did I think she didn’t realize who I was.
Vikter’s gaze met mine. “I’ll be right back.”
“Actually, I would like to speak to her,” Agnes said as the Priest launched into a prayer. “If it would be okay.” Her gaze lifted briefly to mine. “It would only be for a moment.”
Vikter started to deny her request, but people were beginning to pay attention, sending sharp looks of reprimand in our direction. “It’s okay,” I said quickly. “We can step outside.”
Who is that? Tawny mouthed at me, and I forced a casual shrug. “I’ll be here,” she said.
Vikter quickly escorted Agnes out into the nearly empty corridor. There were a few stragglers as they hurried into the Hall. He led us to an alcove near one of the open archways that led out to the garden. “It’s very unwise for you to approach us,” he began almost immediately.
“I know. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have, but I…” She glanced at me, her eyes widening slightly. “I didn’t think you’d be here.”
“How did you know it was me?” I asked.
Vikter’s head jerked in my direction, his mask doing very little to hide his disbelief. The fact that she’d identified me when she hadn’t seen my face was worth the risks.
“I didn’t until I heard that Ascended—I mean, the Lord—speaking to you,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting to see you here,” she said again.
“Dammit,” Vikter muttered under his breath.
Well, that was another thing I could hate Lord Mazeen for. Not that there needed to be another reason.
“What did you want to speak to her about?”
Agnes’s throat worked on a swallow. “If I could speak to her in private—”
“That’s not going to happen.” The softness was gone from Vikter’s tone. “At all.”
Trepidation flickered across the woman’s flushed face.
“It’s not,” I said. “Whatever you need to say to me can be said in front of Vikter.”
She clasped her hands together. “You…I just…I wanted to thank you for what you did.” She glanced around before continuing. “What you did for my husband and for me.”
“There are no thanks needed,” I assured her, wondering why she had wanted to speak to me alone about that.
Vikter was obviously wondering the same thing based on the way his eyes squinted.
“I know. You have been so kind. Both of you. I don’t think—no, I know I wouldn’t have been able to deal with it by myself. I just…” She trailed off, pressing her lips together.
A cheer rose inside, and I glanced toward the entrance. Names were being announced. Ladies and Lords in Wait, who would be handed over to the staff.
“You just what?” Vikter asked.
“It’s just that…” Her chest rose with a heavy breath. “I heard about what happened to you—what’s been happening here. That…that poor girl. And that someone tried to take you. There are rumors.”
“What rumors?” Vikter demanded.
Agnes dampened her lips. “People have said that it was the Dark One coming for you.”
That wasn’t exactly news, but goosebumps still broke out over my skin.
“I don’t know about that poor girl,” Agnes continued. “I just…I didn’t think you’d be here tonight. When I saw you, I felt that I needed to tell you what I’ve heard.
“Thank you,” I said as another cheer erupted from inside. “I appreciate it.”
Agnes briefly met my gaze. “I only want to make sure you’re safe.”
“As do I.” Vikter straightened to his full height.
She nodded. “Especially in crowds like this. There are so many people, and if he…he got in here once before, he could do it again. Others could, too.”
“He got in here twice before,” I corrected. “Or at least two who support him did.”
Her mouth opened, but then she closed it.
“I think by now you’ve realized that I’m her personal Royal Guard,” Vikter said, and Agnes nodded. “It is my sole duty to keep her safe. I appreciate your willingness to tell me what you’ve heard.”
She nodded once more.
“We would be forever in your debt if you could tell us everything you know,” he continued. “And I feel as if there is more that you’re not sharing.”
I looked sharply at Vikter.
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“You’re not?” he asked softly.
She shook her head. “I’ve taken up too much of your time. I should be going.” She started backing up. “I’m sorry. Just…” Her gaze met mine. “Be careful. Please.”
Agnes turned, hurrying off toward the front of the castle. Vikter started after but stopped. “Dammit,” he growled. “Where is Hawke?”
“I don’t know.” I looked around, my gaze snagging on one of the garden archways and to the darkness that lay beyond. “What do you think she wasn’t telling us?”
“I’m not sure.” He rubbed a hand through his hair. “It’s only a feeling. Maybe I’m just being paranoid. Come on.” He placed a hand on my back. “I’m sure it’s nothing.”
I wasn’t so sure if he really believed that, but I let him guide me back into the Great Hall and to Tawny’s side.
“Is everything okay?” she asked.
“Yes.” Or at least, I hoped so. I had no idea what to make of what Agnes had said.