“Your Grace—” Vikter started.
“No.” The Duchess turned to him, that same odd fire I’d seen earlier in her eyes. “They will not make it to us.” Her gaze snapped to me. “Bring Penellaphe.”
The skin around Vikter’s mouth tightened, and we exchanged looks. He shook his head. I held onto Tawny’s hand as we crossed the room and moved into one of the greeting rooms. In the back of my mind, I was at least grateful that it hadn’t been the room Malessa had been murdered in.
Because there was a good chance that we were all going to die in here.
The Commander remained outside, sword drawn, and I knew he was going back to the Hall. My dagger practically burned against my thigh.
As the door closed behind us, I let go of Tawny’s hand and looked around. There was only one window, but it was far too small for anyone but a child to climb through.
The Duchess dropped into a settee, her lips pressed into a firm line. Lord Mazeen went to her, and I saw that several Royal Guards remained inside.
“Dear girl, you look like you’re about to pass out from fright,” the Duchess said to Tawny. “We will be just fine in here. I assure you. Come.” She patted the seat. “Sit with me.”
Tawny glanced at me, and I gave her a discreet nod. She drew in a shallow breath and then joined the Duchess, who turned to the Lord. “Bran, why don’t you pour us some of the whiskey.”
As the Lord rose to obey the Duchess, I looked at Vikter and whispered, “This is incredibly stupid.”
His jaw flexed.
“If they make it in here, we are sitting ducks.” I kept my voice low. “That is if we don’t burn alive from the flaming Duke.”
He turned from the Duchess as he nodded. “Are you armed?”
“Good.” His gaze fixed on the door. “If anyone makes it in here, do not hesitate to use what you’ve been taught.”
My gaze lifted to his in question.
“I don’t care who sees you,” he whispered. “Defend yourself.”
Exhaling slowly, I nodded, and then there was only the sound of glass clinking against glass and then nothing more. The guards remained focused on the door, and I stayed near Vikter, checking on Tawny every so often. She was staring straight ahead, the drink virtually forgotten in her hand. Each time I looked, the Lord was staring back at me.
How unfair that he still breathed when so many others did not.
I didn’t care how unworthy that thought was. I meant it. I didn’t know how much time passed, but my thoughts wandered to Hawke. Fear trickled through my blood like ice.
Lightly touching Vikter’s back, I waited until he faced me. “Do you think Hawke is okay?” I whispered.
“He’s good at killing,” he answered, refocusing on the door. “I’m sure he’s fine.”
A lot of the guards who’d fallen had been good at killing. All the talent in the kingdom meant nothing when an arrow came out of nowhere.
I forced myself to take a deep, slow breath. The Duke was dead. Masadonia had become the next Goldcrest Manor, but Tawny was okay. So was Vikter. And Hawke had to be. This…this wasn’t going to turn out like the night the Craven had come, when my mother—
Something hit the door, causing Tawny to gasp. She clasped her hand over her mouth.
Vikter lifted his finger to his lips. I held my breath. It could’ve been anything. No need to panic. Yes, we were fish in a barrel, but we were—
The door rattled with the next impact, shaking the hinges. Tawny rose, as did the Duchess. The guards moved to block the entryway, drawing their swords.
Wood cracked and splintered as the deadly edge of a battleax breached the portal.
“What did you say, Your Grace?” the Lord said, sighing. “That they wouldn’t make it to us?”
“Shut up,” she hissed. “We’re fine.”
A chunk of wood fell. We were not fine.
Vikter looked over his shoulder at me. Our eyes met, and I let go of the breath I had been holding. I turned, planting my foot on the seat of an empty chair. I gathered up my skirt—
“Now, this is getting interesting,” the Lord remarked.
My gaze met his as I unsheathed the dagger, wishing I could shove it through his heart. He must’ve seen that in my stare because his nostrils flared.
“Penellaphe,” gasped the Duchess. “What are you doing with a dagger? And under your skirt no less? This whole time?”
A high, panicked giggle snuck out from around Tawny’s hand where it covered her mouth, and her eyes widened. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Duchess Teerman shook her head. “What are you doing with a dagger, Penellaphe?”
“Doing my best not to die,” I told her. Her mouth dropped open.
Knowing I would hear about this later—if there was a later— I turned back to the door. The hall had quieted. Nothing moved beyond the gash in the wood. One of the Royal Guards crept forward and bent down to peer out.
His head tilted to the side. “Shit,” he exclaimed, turning. “Get back!”
I jumped, as did Vikter, but two of the guards weren’t fast enough. The door blew off its hinges and smacked into them, taking one of them down while the other was caught in the chest by the battering ram. I heard a sickening crunch.
Vikter swung his sword, cutting through bone and tissue. The battering ram hit the ground, along with an arm. A man screamed, stumbling back as blood pumped from the severed limb. He fell to the side, and then they swarmed, swallowing Vikter and the guards. There was no time to give in to panic or fear as one of the Descenters stalked forward, flipping the battleax in his hand. I had no idea if they were here for me or to just shed blood, but with the mask and how I was dressed, they had no idea that I was the Maiden.
The man behind the wolf mask chuckled. “Pretty dagger.”
They had no idea I knew how to use it.
He raised the battleax, and I thought the Duchess screamed. Maybe it was Tawny. I wasn’t sure, but the sounds they made faded into the background as I let instinct take over.
Waiting until the axe blade whistled through the air, I then shot forward, darting under his arm. I spun behind him just as he turned, slamming the dagger into the back of his neck, right in the area I used to end the cursed.
He was dead before he even realized that I’d killed him.
As he fell forward, I saw the Duchess staring back at me, her mouth hanging open.
“Behind you,” Tawny shouted.
Whirling around, I hit the ground as another axe swept through the air. I kicked out, sweeping the man’s leg out from under him. He went down just as Vikter turned, his sword arcing through the air as he brought it down. I popped to my feet as a Descenter moved to shove a dagger into Vikter’s back.
I shouted a warning, and Vikter threw out his elbow, catching the man under his chin, snapping his neck back.
A Descenter rushed me, axe swinging. I darted to the left just as something—a glass—smacked into the Descenter’s metal mask. I glanced over my shoulder to see Tawny sans glass, but she wasn’t emptyhanded for long. She grabbed the decanter, holding it like a sword.
I shot forward, thrusting the dagger deep into the Descenter’s chest. He went down, taking me with him. I landed on him with a grunt and started to rise. A booted foot kicked out, catching my hand. Fiery pain erupted as the dagger was knocked from my grasp.
It hurt and punched the air from my lungs. Gods, it stung. I reared, falling on my butt. I looked up, scrambling backward. My aching hand rubbed over the handle of an axe.
Above me, the Descenter lifted a sword with two hands, prepared to bring it down. My heart lurched in my chest.
“She’s the Maiden!” the Duchess shrieked. “She’s the Chosen!”
The Descenter hesitated.
Hand tightening around the handle of the axe, I shot forward, dragging the heavy weapon through the air. He tried to move back, but I caught him in the stomach. Blood sprayed as he shouted, dropping the sword to cradle his midsection, his—
Bile hit the back of my throat as I brought the axe down on his neck, ending what would’ve surely been a painful death from disembowelment.
Hand aching, I gripped the axe as a Descenter took down one of the guards and then moved toward Tawny, his sword dripping blood. Lifting the axe over my head, I did just as Vikter had taught me. I made sure the blade was perfectly straight as I brought it back over my head and then heaved it forward, releasing it. It winged through the air, striking the Descenter in the back. He toppled forward, his sword falling to the floor.
“Gods,” Lord Mazeen uttered, staring at me with wide eyes.
“Remember that,” I warned, sweeping down to pick up the fallen short sword. “And this,” I spat. Light and double-edged, I sliced open the throat of the next Descenter.
Breathing heavily, I turned back to the door just as Vikter thrust his sword through the last Descenter. Only one other guard remained standing. I lowered the sword, my chest rising and falling as I stepped over the body…parts. “Is that all?”
Vikter glanced out to the hall. “I think so, but we shouldn’t stay here.”
There was no way in the world I would stay in this room. The Duchess and the Lord could do whatever they wanted. I turned to Tawny.
“How?” the Duchess demanded, her hands and clothing free of blood and gore while I had to be swimming in it. “How is this possible?” she demanded, staring down at the mess. “How?”
“I trained her,” Vikter answered, shocking me. “I’ve never been more glad that I did than I am right now.”
“I do not believe she is in need of any Royal Guards,” the Lord commented dryly, his nose wrinkling as he flicked something off his tunic. “But so very unbecoming of a Maiden.”
I was two seconds away from showing him just how unbecoming I could be.
Vikter touched my arm, drawing my attention to him. Later, he mouthed. “Come.” He glanced at Tawny. “This isn’t safe.”