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A Soul of Ash and Blood: Chapter 22

THE MAIDEN UNVEILED

After showing me my new living quarters in the servants’ wing of the castle, a floor below the Maiden’s, Commander Jansen and I crossed the grand foyer. According to him, I still had a room at the dormitory, but the Maiden’s personal guards tended to stay in the castle. That was fine by me.

“Just so you know,” Jansen said, his voice low, “the Duke agreed to make you one of the Maiden’s guards, but he was still hesitant. He will have others watching you.”

I nodded as we passed the limestone statues of the goddess Penellaphe and the god Rhain. I wasn’t surprised to hear that, nor did it do anything to hinder the surge of satisfaction at finally getting what I wanted. Or at least being on the path to doing so. “I imagine Smyth will be one of those obsessively tracking my movements.”

“You would be correct.”

I was quiet as we walked through the archway, where servants dressed in maroon gowns and tunics with white caps hung an ivy garland. A dark-haired woman stopped, her hands tangled in greenery as she caught my gaze and smiled, leaving me to wonder as we walked on if I knew her—if she was one of those nameless, faceless people I’d spent time with.

I pushed that aside. “He’s becoming a problem.”

“I know.”

I glanced at Jansen as more castle staff hurried by on all sides, carrying baskets of fresh linen and dirty glassware. “He will likely need to be dealt with at some point.”

“Figured,” the Commander answered, not bothering to argue as he had the night at the Red Pearl. He knew Smyth wasn’t a good man.

The banquet hall was less busy. Only an older woman with gray hair curling around the edges of her cap arranged night-blooming roses in a golden vase upon the long table. “Did you check on what I asked?”

He nodded. “We’ll get them out before the Rite,” Jansen assured me. “Move them to New Haven. They can decide what they want to do from there.”

“Thank you.” I allowed myself to feel a bit of relief at knowing that what was left of the Tulis family would remain together.

“No need to thank me,” he replied gruffly, dragging his hand over his chin.

He was wrong. Setting up the Tulises’ escape from the city came with great risk, but I got why he didn’t want anyone’s gratitude for doing what felt like the barest expression of common decency.

“Ready?” Jansen asked as we came upon one of the many meeting spaces on the main floor.

“Been ready, my friend.”

A quick grin appeared, something rare from the changeling, then he opened the door. Having never been in this space before, I quickly glanced over the marble walls, bare except for the black chair rails and the Royal Crest painted in white and gold behind where the Duke sat at a slick, shiny black desk. The Duchess sat in a cream chair near him, and before them were three rows of limestone benches.

Both Jansen and I stopped upon entering and bowed.

The Duchess smiled. “Please, rise.”

Aware of her stare, I straightened. “You look lovely today, Your Grace,” I said, the lie slipping smoothly from my lips. Of course, the Duchess was lovely, but it was barely skin-deep.

“You are far too kind,” she replied, rising as we came forward. She clasped her hands at her waist in a manner that caused her breasts to strain against the tight satin of her bodice. I half-expected one of the pearl buttons to snap off and take out one of our eyes.

Her husband gave a bare smile. “The others will be joining us very shortly. Would either of you care for something to drink?”

“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary,” Jansen answered, moving to stand at the Duchess’s side. I followed. She must’ve nearly drowned herself in gardenia because I almost couldn’t detect the sweet and stale scent of the Ascended. “Has the Maiden been informed?”

The Duke leaned back in his chair. “She will be in a few moments.”

My attention sharpened on him. There was an odd, eager glint to his eyes, which were like shards of obsidian as he eyed the door. He gave me the distinct impression that he was up to something while the Duchess spoke to Jansen about the next set of guards who would be leaving training soon. The Duke wasn’t paying attention to the conversation, instead returning his gaze to the papers on his desk. Then again, it was suspected that he had little interest in running the castle or the city.

Approaching footsteps from outside the chamber caught my attention, but I gave no sign of it as a spirited burst of anticipation buzzed through me. I had no idea how the Maiden would take this.

The door opened, and she entered. Immediately, her steps faltered. Though most of her face was hidden, the shock was evident in the parting of her lips.

Tawny Lyon, the tall and lithe Lady in Wait often seen with her, entered next. She came to a complete stop the moment her dark-eyed gaze landed on me. Surprise flickered across her rich brown features as her head jerked back, causing gold and brown curls to bounce. Tawny quickly looked to the Maiden, the corners of her lips tilting up slightly.

The Maiden still hadn’t proceeded any farther. Her chest under the white robes rose sharply, and her right hand twitched, repeatedly opening and closing at her side, where her dagger had been sheathed the night she’d come to the Red Pearl.

Was she carrying it now?

Heat hit my blood as my gaze shifted to the shapeless bottom half of her robes. The quick pounding pulse of arousal was extremely problematic.

“Please,” the Duke spoke. “Close the door, Vikter.” He waited as the guard fulfilled his request. “Thank you.” Teerman lowered the paper as his attention shifted to the Maiden. That odd, eager glint returned to his eyes as he motioned her forward. “Please sit, Penellaphe.”

Penellaphe.

My head gave a slight jerk. Obviously, I knew her name, but I’d never heard anyone speak it. I silently repeated it, preferring it to the Maiden. Immediately, I recognized that was an irrelevant preference.

The Maiden came forward with a cautiousness that hadn’t been present while she was at the Red Pearl. No longer looking in my direction, she sat on the edge of the middle bench, her posture impossibly rigid as she placed her folded hands in her lap. The Lady in Wait situated herself behind the Maiden. Vikter, however, moved to the Maiden’s immediate right, almost as if attempting to put himself between her and me.

“I hope you’re feeling well, Penellaphe?” the Duchess spoke as she returned to the chair beside the desk.

The Maiden nodded.

“I’m relieved to hear that. I was worried that attending the City Council so soon after your attack would be too much,” the Duchess continued, sounding surprisingly genuine.

The Maiden’s response was minimal, a slight incline of her head.

“What happened in the garden is why we’re all here,” Duke Teerman stepped in, and even though it seemed impossible, the Maiden’s posture became even stiffer. “With the death of…” His brow furrowed. “What was his name?” he asked of his wife, whose brows pinched in confusion. “The guard?”

Was he fucking serious?

“Rylan Keal, Your Grace,” Vikter answered flatly.

The Duke snapped his fingers. “Ah, yes. Ryan,” he said.

The Maiden reacted then. I doubted anyone else noticed because no one watched her as intently as I did at the moment. Her hands balled into fists—tight ones that bleached the knuckles of her hands white.

“With Ryan’s death, you are down one guard. Again,” the Duke added, smirking. “Two guards lost in one year. I hope this isn’t becoming a habit.”

Well, he would be disappointed because it likely would be.

“Anyway, with the upcoming Rite, and as you draw closer to your Ascension, Vikter cannot be expected to be the only one keeping a close watch on you,” the Duke said. “We need to replace Ryan.”

A muscle at the curve of her jaw flexed.

“Which, as I am sure you realize now, explains why Commander Jansen and Guard Flynn are here.”

The Maiden gave no sign of even hearing him.

“Guard Flynn will take Ryan’s place, effective immediately,” the Duke announced. “I’m sure this is surprising, as he’s new to our city and quite young for a member of the Royal Guard.”

The corners of my lips twitched.

“There are several Rise Guards in line to be promoted, and bringing on Hawke is no slight to them.” The Duke leaned back, crossing one leg over the other. “But the Commander has assured us that Hawke is better suited to this task.”

“Guard Flynn may be new to the city, but that isn’t a weakness. He’s able to look at possible threats with fresh eyes,” Jansen spoke then, mostly for Vikter’s benefit, I guessed. “Any number of guards would’ve overlooked the potential of a breach occurring in the Queen’s Gardens. Not due to lack of skill—”

I could’ve sworn I heard Duke Teerman murmur, “Debatable.”

“But because there is a false sense of security and complacency that often comes with being within one city for too long,” Jansen continued. “Hawke does not have such familiarity.”

My eyebrow rose at how Jansen addressed me, using my first name. Setting a tone. Smart.

“He also has recent experience with the dangers outside the Rise,” the Duchess added. “Your Ascension is a little less than a year from now, but even if you’re summoned sooner than expected or at the time of your Ascension, having someone with that kind of experience is invaluable. We won’t have to pull from our Huntsmen to ensure that your travel to the capital is as safe as possible,” she said, referencing those whose task it was to escort travelers from city to city. “The Descenters and the Dark One are not the only things to fear out there, as you know.”

She was right.

Yet I didn’t think the Maiden realized who was the true danger in this chamber or in the city and beyond.

“The possibility of you being summoned to the capital unexpectedly played a role in my decision,” Jansen explained. “We plan trips outside the Rise at least six months in advance, and there could be a chance that when and if the Queen requests your presence in the capital, we’d have to wait for the Huntsmen to return. With Hawke being assigned to you, we would be able, for the most part, to avoid that situation.”

The Maiden’s head moved then to where I stood. The nape of my neck prickled. Her clenched hands relaxed, the fingers straightening. I inclined my head, watching the pace of her breath quicken.

“As a member of the Maiden’s personal Royal Guard, it is likely that a situation may occur where you will see her unveiled.” The Duchess spoke, but her tone gave me pause. Her voice was always soft, but there was sympathy there now. “It can be distracting, seeing someone’s face for the first time, especially a Chosen, and that could interfere with your ability to protect her. That is why the gods allow this breach.”

My attention flew back to the Maiden, and my damn heart gave an unsteady skip. Holy shit, I was going to see her with no veil and without a mask.

“Commander Jansen, if you will please step outside,” the Duke asked.

Jansen nodded, quickly obeying the request. The eager look in the Duke’s eyes was now in his smile, and it struck me what he’d said the day before. How confident he’d been when he said that he wasn’t concerned about me having any sort of interest in the Maiden.

“You are about to bear witness to what only a select few have seen,” the Duke said, his gaze on her. “An unveiled Maiden.”

The Maiden’s hands trembled in her lap.

“Penellaphe, please reveal yourself,” the Duke requested, and his fucking smile had warning bells ringing.

Something was off.

She didn’t move for several seconds. No one did. My gaze flew to her companion. Tawny had closed her eyes, and when they reopened, I saw a faint sheen to them. I glanced at Vikter. He looked stoic as he stared down at her.

The Maiden still hadn’t moved.

“Penellaphe,” the Duke warned, and my hands fisted. “We do not have all day.”

“Give her a moment, Dorian.” The Duchess twisted to him. “You know why she hesitates. We have time.”

What in the actual fuck was going on here?

The lower half of her face turned pink, but that slightly pointed chin of hers lifted, jutting out stoically. She rose at the same time Tawny did. Her companion reached for the chains and clasps, but the Maiden got to them first.

My skin started to chill as I watched her yank the chains apart, her movements quick and jerky. The material loosened, then slipped. Tawny caught it, easing the veil off.

Then the entire right side of her face was revealed to me.

It was oval-shaped, cheekbones high and defined, the one eyebrow bold and naturally arched. There was that red hair I’d glimpsed at the Red Pearl, wrapped in some sort of complicated braided knot that looked like it took way too fucking long to create. With the veil gone and in the well-lit chamber, the strands gleamed with a deep, red-wine hue. Her profile was strong.

Beautiful.

One side of her lips tipped up as she stared at the Duke. Just a small bit, a faint smile, but my stomach clenched.

Tawny returned to her seat, holding the veil as the Maiden faced me.

Fully.

And I saw.

The entirety of her full mouth. The stubborn chin and sharp curve of her jaw. Her nose dipped at the bridge, and the tip was slightly upturned. Both brows carried that natural arch, framing clear green eyes.

That was where the similarities between the two sides of her face ended.

There was a lingering bruise from Jericho, one I doubted was noticeable to anyone else, but there was also a jagged streak of flesh, a pink a bit paler than her skin. It started below her hairline and sliced across her temple, coming damn close to her left eye, then ending at the side of her nose. A shorter, long-since-healed gouge cut across the left side of her forehead and her eyebrow, right through that arch. Again, so damn close to that emerald eye.

My gods, she was so damn lucky to have both of her eyes. But the pain the wounds that left those scars likely caused… It must have been unbearable. Especially those kind. Because I knew what had caused those scars. The Craven. I’d felt those claws dig into my body more times than I could count, but the only difference was that my flesh almost always healed. A mortal’s would not. But godsdamn. The inner strength she must have to survive such an attack was inconceivable.

The Maiden had strength. An inner kind of resiliency that many didn’t have. She was also…fuck me. She was beautiful.

And those two things felt like a problem. A big one.

Pink crept over her cheeks as I continued staring at her. Her lower lip trembled before she pressed both together. Our eyes locked. Her gaze was unflinching, and there was no ignoring her obvious discomfort. I didn’t get it. She was lovely, and those scars didn’t detract from that. Fuck, they actually added to her features, but…

But she lived in the world of the Ascended.

One where flawless beauty was coveted and worshiped. A world where some would only see those flaws, but not all. Not even every Ascended would see nothing but those scars. But those who did…

Suddenly, I understood why the Duke had said what he did about my interest in the Maiden. I figured out that fucking nasty eagerness in his stare and smile because he, too, saw how uncomfortable she was. Everyone in the damn chamber did. But he reveled in it.

“She’s truly unique,” Duke Teerman said pleasantly. “Isn’t she? Half of her face is a masterpiece,” he went on, drawing a tremor from her. “The other half a nightmare.”

For a moment, I no longer saw her, even though I hadn’t taken my eyes off her. All I saw in my mind was the Duke and my fist punching repeatedly into his fucking face. I saw myself ripping out that tongue and then shoving it down his throat so he choked. His commentary was unnecessary. The Duke was fucking unnecessary.

“The scars aren’t a nightmare,” the Duchess said. “They are…they are just a bad memory.”

They weren’t a nightmare or a bad memory. They were proof of what she’d survived. Badges of strength. There was nothing wrong with them or her.

I stepped forward, absolutely done with these comments. “Both halves are as beautiful as the whole.”

The Maiden’s lips parted on a sharp inhale as she watched me place my hand on the hilt of my broadsword. I bowed, my gaze still holding hers as I recited the pledge given by the Royal Guards that Jansen had instructed me to speak earlier—the vow I already knew because it was part of those spoken by the King and Queen of Atlantia to their subjects.

“With my sword and with my life, I vow to keep you safe, Penellaphe.” Speaking her name caused that prickle at the nape of my neck to return and spread across my shoulders and down my spine. In the back of my mind, I knew I shouldn’t have said it, but it was important that she knew someone saw her in this moment when the Duke sought to humiliate her. It had nothing to do with my plans and maybe a bit to do with the fact that I knew exactly what it was like to be stripped of everything that made you who you were, becoming not someone but something. And maybe it also had to do with wanting her to know that I found her utterly exquisite because my tone deepened, and I heard it in my voice. “From this moment until the last moment, I am yours.”


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