“I did come here with a purpose,” he said. “The Duchess needs to speak with you.”
I blinked. So, it was time. “And you’re just telling me now?”
“Figured what we had to say to each other was far more important.”
“I don’t think the Duchess would agree,” I told him, and the expression on his face said that he didn’t really care. “It’s time for me to find out how I’ll be punished for what I…for what I did to the Lord, isn’t it?”
Hawke frowned at me. “If I thought I was delivering you for punishment, I wouldn’t be taking you there.”
Surprise flickered through me, proving it was yet another emotion I could feel. “Where would you take me?”
“Somewhere far from here,” he said, and I believed him. He’d do what no one else would, not even…not even Vikter. “You’re being summoned because word has come from the capital.”
It felt strange when Tawny arrived to help me with the veil, to be wearing it after everything, and even more weird to realize that the castle looked the same as it had before the attack. All except for the Great Hall. It had been barricaded from what I could gather. One brief glance at the room Vikter had died in told me that the door had been replaced.
That was all I needed to know.
The Duchess wore white, like I did, but while I wore the clothing of the Maiden, she wore the color of mourning. She sat behind what had been the Duke’s desk, looking over a piece of paper. Not the desk that had been in the Duke’s more private office. If we’d been meeting there, I had no idea what I would’ve done.
I still couldn’t believe how the Duke had been killed. Surely, the weapon had been coincidental, but it still pecked away at something in the back of my mind.
The Duchess glanced up as the door closed behind us. She looked…different. It wasn’t the color, or that her hair was pulled back sharply from her face in a simple twist. It was something else, but I couldn’t place it as I walked past the benches. There were two other people in the room, the Commander, and a Royal Guard.
Her gaze flickered over me, and I wondered if she could tell that I had left my hair down beneath the veil. “I hope you’re doing well.” She paused. “Or at least better than the last time I saw you.”
“I am well,” I said, and that felt like neither a lie nor the truth.
“Good. Please. Take a seat.” She gestured at the bench, and I did as she asked.
Tawny sat beside me, but Hawke remained standing to my left. I did everything in my power not to think about how Vikter belonged here.
“A lot has happened while you’ve been…resting,” the Duchess started. “The Queen and King have been notified of recent events.” She tapped one long finger on the parchment.
The message must have been sent through carrier pigeon to the capital, but only a Huntsman would deliver a Royal message here. He had to have ridden night and day, changing horses along the way to have made it back. It generally took several weeks to travel that distance.
“After the abduction attempt and the attack on the Rite, they no longer believe it’s safe for you here,” the Duchess announced. “They have summoned you back to Carsodonia.”
I knew this was coming. Since the abduction attempt, I’d accepted that there was a high chance that the Queen would summon me to the capital, and I knew that could mean an earlier than expected Ascension. That was probably why I wasn’t surprised, but it didn’t explain the lack of dread and fear.
All I felt was…acceptance. Maybe even a little relief because this castle was now the last place I wanted to be, and I wasn’t thinking about what could happen when I got to the capital. I wasn’t even thinking about seeing Ian again. I knew what else I felt, though. And that was confusion.
“I’m sorry,” I blurted out. “How am I not punished?”
Hawke turned to me, and without looking, I knew he probably had the same expression on his face that Vikter would have had.
The Duchess didn’t respond for a long moment until she said, “I assume you’re speaking about Lord Mazeen.”
My stomach tightened as I nodded.
Her head tilted. “Do you think you should be punished?”
I started to respond as I would’ve two weeks ago before the attack, back when I was still trying so damn hard to be what I was beginning to believe I was never meant to be. “I don’t think I can answer that question.”
“Why not?” Curiosity marked her features.
“Because…there was a history there.” I settled on that, aware of how Tawny shifted so her leg pressed against mine. I drew in a deep breath. “I know I should be punished.”
“You should,” she agreed. “He was an Ascended, one of our oldest.”
Tension radiated from Hawke as I felt him move just the slightest bit toward me.
“You cut him up like a butcher would a slab of meat,” she continued. I should’ve felt horror or disgust—anything other than the surge of gratification that swamped me. “But I’m sure you had your reasons.”
My mouth dropped open.
The Duchess leaned back as she picked up a quill. “I’ve known Bran for many, many years, and there is very little about his…personality that I am unaware of. I had hoped that he would’ve known better given what you are. Apparently, I was wrong.”
I tipped forward. “Did you—?”
“I would not ask that question,” she interrupted, her unflinching stare locking on mine. “You would not like my answer, nor would you understand. Neither would I expect you to. Take this as a much-needed lesson, Penellaphe. Some truths do nothing but destroy and decay what they do not obliterate. Truths do not always set one free. Only a fool who has spent their entire life being fed lies believes that.”
Chest rising and falling, I snapped my mouth shut and sat back. She knew. She’d always known about the Lord and the Duke. Maybe not what they’d done exactly, but she knew. My fingers dug into the skirt of my gown.
“You’re the Maiden,” she continued. “That is why you will not be punished. Count your blessings, and do not speak of them ever again.” A muscle twitched under her eye. “And do yourself a favor. Do not waste another moment thinking of either of them. I know I will not.”
I stared at her as her white-knuckled grip on the quill eased. It struck me then. If the Duke had treated me as he did, why had I assumed he would treat his wife any differently? After all, I’d never seen them being loving towards one another, and that went beyond the almost cool nature of the Ascended. I’d never seen them touch. Being an Ascended didn’t mean you were no longer in a position to be abused.
Lowering my gaze, I nodded. “When…when do I leave for the capital?”
“Tomorrow morning,” she answered. “You will leave with the rise of the sun.”
“I am not leaving Tawny here,” I stated, squaring off with Hawke. “There is no way.”
“She is not coming with us.” His eyes flashed a fiery amber. “I’m sorry, but no.”
We were in my chambers no more than thirty minutes after we’d left the Duchess’s office. We also had an audience. Tawny was there. So was the Commander, but it was like they weren’t even in the same building.
Hawke and I had been arguing for the last ten minutes.
“It’s a good thing you’re not the one in charge,” I pointed out, turning to the Commander. “I need—”
“I’m sorry, Maiden, but I am not traveling with you.” Commander Jansen stepped into the room from the doorway. “Only a small group is going, but Hawke is your personal Royal Guard. He takes the lead.”
“How can he possibly take the lead?” I almost shouted. “He hasn’t even been my Royal Guard for that long.”
“But he is your only Royal Guard.”
That statement threatened to sting, so I whirled on Hawke and did the only completely immature thing I could. I took it out on him. “You seriously expect me to leave her here? Where Descenters are murdering people left and right?”
“You seriously expect me to bring her out beyond the Rise?”
Tawny stepped forward. “If I may—”
“Yes!” I exclaimed. “You’re taking me out beyond the Rise.”
“Exactly. Only a handful of guards can be spared to escort you. All of them will be focused on keeping you safe. Not her.”
“I know you can protect yourself. Everyone in this room knows that, trust me, but we’re going out there, Princess. Out beyond the Rise. Do you know the path we will have to take?” he demanded. “We’ll have to travel through the Barren Plains and the Blood Forest.”
Trepidation had my stomach dipping. “I know.”
“And we will also be traveling through areas heavily populated by Descenters. This will not be a smooth trip, and I will not risk your safety,” he said as he glared down at me. Gone was the Hawke who’d held me so tightly and so tenderly only hours before. In his place was…
In his place was a Royal Guard Vikter would’ve been proud of. There was no stopping that sting. Hawke wasn’t my friend or…or whatever he was to me in this moment. He was a Royal Guard duty-bound to keep me alive and deliver me safely to the Queen and King.
He dipped his chin, eyes latched to mine. “If we take Tawny with us, we may as well just send her ahead and use her as Craven bait.”
I gaped at him. “That was possibly the most absurd statement ever.”
“No more absurd than standing here arguing with half of your face,” he retorted.
I threw up my hands. “That sounds like your problem, not mine.”
Jaw working as he stared down at me, he barked out a short laugh and then turned to where Tawny stood. “I know you want to accompany her. I understand that, but this is not going to be like a normal caravan. There won’t be dozens of guards, and we won’t be staying at the finest inns. Our pace will be fast and hard, and there is an extremely high likelihood that the Rite will not be the last time you see bloodshed.”