Breathing heavily, I tried to rein my emotions back in, but I couldn’t. Something in me snapped, broke wide-open, and I couldn’t stop. “I don’t even know if I’ll have a future beyond my Ascension. In less than a year or even sooner, I may lose every chance I have to do everything everyone else takes for granted. I have no life, Vikter. Nothing.”
“Poppy,” he whispered.
“Everything has been taken from me—my free will, my choice, my future—and I still have to suffer through the Duke’s lessons,” I spat out, shuddering. “I still have to stand there and let him hit me. Let him look at me and touch me! Do whatever he or the Lord wants—” Sucking in a fiery, painful breath, I lifted my hands, grabbing fistfuls of my hair, pulling them back as Vikter closed his eyes. “I have to stand there and take it. I can’t even scream or cry. I can do nothing. So I’m sorry that choosing something that I want for myself is such a disappointment to you, the kingdom, everyone else, and the gods. Where is the honor in being the Maiden? What exactly should I be proud of? Who would want this? Point me in their direction, and I’ll gladly switch places with them. It should be no shock that I want to be found unworthy.”
The moment those words left my mouth, I smacked my hands over my lips. Vikter’s eyes snapped open, and for a long moment, we stared at one another, the truth a double-edged sword between us.
“Poppy.” Vikter looked around and then reached for me. “It’s okay. It’s going to be okay.”
I danced out of his reach, curling my fingers against my mouth. It wasn’t fine. It wasn’t going to be all right. I’d said it. The truth. Out loud. Heart thumping and stomach churning, I turned and started walking toward the castle. I thought I might be sick. “I want to go back to my chambers,” I whispered, lowering my hands. Vikter started to speak. “Please. I just want to go back to my room.”
He didn’t respond, thank the gods, but he followed directly behind me. All I could focus on was putting one foot in front of the other. If I didn’t, the angry, messy, and violent ball of emotion lodged in my throat would erupt. I would erupt. That was how I felt. I would explode everywhere in a shower of sparks and flames, and I didn’t care what I looked like when we entered the hall and moved into the light, or what people saw if they looked at me and realized that I was the Maiden. My entire body was trembling with the force to keep—
A loud, cracking sound reminding me of wood splintering drew us to a halt. We turned to the Great Hall just as a shout sounded, followed by screams—piercing screams, one after another. My heart dropped.
Someone—a Lady in Wait—backed out of the Great Hall, her red gown fluttering around her feet as she pressed her hands to her mouth.
Vikter started toward the entryway but stopped. He turned to me, and I knew he was going to take me back to my room, but the screams kept coming, followed by shouts of panic and horror. Another joined the Lady in Wait. Then another, a servant carrying an empty tray. He turned and vomited.
“What happened?” I demanded, but no one answered. No one could hear me over the screams. My wide gaze met Vikter’s. “Tawny is in there.”
The set to his jaw said that he couldn’t care less. He moved to grab me, but I was fast because he’d taught me how to be when I needed speed. I evaded his reach as I raced for the entryway, his muttered curse ringing in my ears.
A rush of people came out of the entryway, knocking into my shoulder. A blur of masked faces came from every direction. I was thrust to the side, my slippered feet slipping on the polished floors, but I pushed forward. Tawny was still in there. That was all I could think as I broke through the panicked crowd.
I slid to a stop, my gaze landing on the dais, to what was behind the dais. “Oh, my gods,” I whispered.
I knew what had made the cracking sound. One of the wooden rods that held the heavy banners had cracked. The Rite banner had fallen, pooling on the floor of the dais, but red still streaked the wall.
I saw what had broken the rod, what hung from the remaining one. Rope stretched arms outward, and so much red streaked pale skin. I knew who it was. I knew why the Duchess stood in the center of the Great Hall, her arms at her sides, and why everyone else was frozen in shock. It was the hair so blond that it almost looked white.
It was the Duke.
Even from where I stood, I knew what had been shoved into his chest—through his heart. I would recognize it anywhere.
It was the cane he’d lashed me with.
And above him, written in red—in blood—was the mark of the Dark One.
From Blood and Ash….
We Will Rise.
The Duke of Masadonia was dead.
I couldn’t pull my gaze from him, not even when I became aware of Vikter coming to stand beside me. He said something, but I couldn’t hear him over the pounding of my own heart.
The Duke had been staked through the chest in the same manner the cursed or a Craven would be killed—with wood fashioned from a tree that had grown in the Blood Forest.
With the same cane he’d often stroked lovingly right before it whistled through the air, bruising my back and sometimes even splitting the skin.
Dumbly, I wondered how someone could get the cane through the Duke’s chest. The ends were not sharp but smooth and rounded. The effort and strength that would’ve required... Not to mention, the Duke would’ve fought back unless he’d been incapacitated beforehand.
Only an Atlantian could’ve accomplished that.
Vikter touched my arm, and slowly, I tore my gaze from the Duke’s remains. “He’s dead,” I said. “He’s really dead.” A very inappropriate giggle welled up, and I clamped my mouth shut as I turned back to where the Duke was impaled.
I didn’t think it was funny. Not at all. I didn’t like the man—frankly, I hated him with every fiber of my being—but an Atlantian had gotten into Castle Teerman yet again, and that was frightening. Because of that, this wasn’t funny.
It also wasn’t sad.
Gods, I truly was unworthy, and probably a terrible person, but I sighed softly, a sound of…relief passing my lips. No more lessons. No more lingering stares and touches. No more pain at his hands. No more heavy, sticky shame. My gaze shifted to where a tall, dark-haired Ascended joined the Duchess. No more Lord Mazeen.
Without the Duke, he had little sway over me, and I almost smiled again.
Movement to my left snagged my attention, and I turned, seeing Tawny pushing through a group of Ascended and the Lords and Ladies in Wait. She hurried across the room, her eyes wide behind her mask.
Curls bounced off her cheeks as she shook her head. “I can’t believe what I’m seeing.” She clasped my hands, glancing toward the dais. Shuddering, she quickly looked back at me. “This can’t be real.”
“It’s real.” I turned to the dais once more. Guards were trying to get the Duke down, but he was too far up on the wall. “They need a ladder.”
“What?” Tawny whispered.
“A ladder. They’re not going to be able to reach him,” I pointed out. I could feel Tawny’s gaze on me. “Do you think he was up there for the whole Rite? The entire time?”
“I don’t even know what to think.” She turned so her back was to the dais. “At all.”
“At least we know why he didn’t show,” I said.
“Poppy,” she exclaimed in a low voice.
“Sorry.” I watched the Duchess turn to the Lord, her lips moving fast. “The Duchess doesn’t seem all that torn up, does she?”
Vikter stepped in then. “I think it’s time that I get you back to your chambers.”
It probably was, so I nodded and started to turn—
Glass shattered. I spun toward the sound as pieces flew through the air. It was one of the windows facing the garden. Tawny’s grip tightened on my arm. Another window broke, this time to our left, and we both whirled to see shards piercing, cutting into the group standing there—the gathering Tawny had been a part of. Screams of shock gave way to ones of pain as jagged chunks of glass sliced into skin. A girl stumbled out from the scattering group, her hands trembling as she lifted them to her bloodied face. Numerous tiny cuts marked her cheeks and brow. It was Loren. She doubled over, screaming as the blond girl in front of her slowly turned around.
Glass jutted from her eye, and red streamed down her face. She crumpled like a paper sack.
“Dafina!” cried Tawny, letting go of my arm and starting toward her.
I snapped out of the shock and lurched forward, grabbing Tawny’s arm as a Lord in Wait dropped to his knees and fell forward. Had he been hit by glass, too? I wasn’t sure. She cranked her head around. “What? I have to go to her. She needs help—”
“No.” I pulled her back while Loren went to her friend, trying to get her to stand—to move. Another window exploded. “You can’t go near the windows. I’m sorry. You can’t.”
Tawny’s eyes glistened. “But—”
Something whizzed through the air, striking a Lord. The impact spun him around, and Tawny screamed. An arrow had struck him through the eye. He was an Ascended, but he went down, dead before he hit the floor. Blood pooled under him.
The Ascended could die.
Their head and heart were as vulnerable as a mortal’s, and whoever had released that arrow knew just that.
Short sword unsheathed, Vikter shoved Tawny and I behind him as the Duchess, surrounded by Royal Guards, screamed, “Get her out of here! Now! Get—”
An arrow pierced the Royal Guard standing in front of her. Blood spurted from his neck as he reached for the arrow, his mouth open and closing soundlessly.
I staggered into Tawny as Vikter turned us around and herded us toward the opening. We started forward as I reached for the dagger on my thigh—
The shrieks that came from outside the Great Hall stopped all of this for just a handful of seconds. The sounds…