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A Soul of Ash and Blood: Chapter 28

A TWISTED IRONY OF SORTS

The reason for the meeting between the Duke and the Maiden remained a mystery, much to my ever-growing displeasure.

Especially when Vikter changed up the schedule, moving me to guard over her the following night when I was supposed to be watching over her that day. He’d done the same today, and when I demanded to know why, he’d pulled rank while calling me a boy. I wasn’t sure which of those two things irritated me the most as I stood outside the Maiden’s chambers, the dark hall lit by a few scattered wall sconces.

I hadn’t seen the Maiden since I’d left her in the Duke’s office, and as far as I knew, she hadn’t left her chambers. Tawny had been with her, though, late into the night both yesterday and today.

“She’s feeling under the weather,” Tawny had claimed when I asked how the Maiden was. Then, she’d hastily entered her adjoining chambers, not lingering long enough for me to ask anything else.

I fisted and flexed my hand as I told myself my irritation had everything to do with yet another delay in my plans. The Rite would be here sooner rather than later, and I needed the Maiden’s irrevocable trust by then—for her to be at a point where she didn’t question orders or suspect anything. We weren’t there. We weren’t anywhere near there. And I wouldn’t delay what was to come.

Malik didn’t have the time.

That was the source of my frustration. It had nothing to do with how she had turned to look at me outside the Duke’s offices or the feeling that she sought reassurance.

Cursing under my breath, I peered at the small window at the end of the hall. The faint, acrid scent of smoke reached me. There had been fires earlier in the day. One of the homes in Radiant Row had burned to the foundation, thanks to a group of Descenters. A smile tugged at my mouth. They had gotten a few of the Ascended, not that the Teermans would fess up to the loss.

Fools.

They could’ve used those losses as a way to fuel hatred and fear. Instead, they didn’t want their weaknesses known. They wanted to be seen as godlike. Immortal.

The Descenters had acted on their own, propelled by what had occurred at the last City Council. The Tulises’ plight not only had those who’d been against the Ascended seeking revenge, but it had also changed a few minds. More and more no longer shuddered in fear upon hearing about the Dark One. Instead, resolve had replaced the fear, as did hope for a different, better future. I wanted it to continue beyond freeing my brother.

I wanted the people of Solis to fight back.

They just needed to know the Ascended were not who they claimed. The gods hadn’t Blessed them, and the entire kingdom was built on a foundation of lies. Freeing Malik would be the first crack. Without him, there would be no more Ascensions, and because of what they’d led their people to believe, it would look like the gods had turned on the Ascended. After all, the Blood Crown couldn’t admit that they used the blood of those they had made villains for their Ascensions. Their lies would be their downfall.

But that didn’t fix everything.

Not in my father’s or Alastir’s eyes.

There were the Ascended who still ruled—Queen Ileana and King Jalara, and all their Dukes, Duchesses, Lords, and Ladies that would need to be dealt with. There was still the fact that Atlantia was running out of land and on the brink of being overfarmed and overpopulated. We had time, but not a lot. Not a—

A sudden, abrupt scream jerked my head to the Maiden’s door. Bad dreams. Vikter had warned me, but I wasn’t willing to risk that.

Withdrawing the dagger strapped to my hip, I opened the door to the Maiden’s dark chambers. It was a cloudy night, leaving no moonlight to find its way in through the windows, but I immediately found her in the darkness.

She was in her bed, lying on her side, asleep and alone. Clearly, she wasn’t being attacked.

At least not by anything I could see.

Her hands opened and closed where they lay a few inches from her parted lips. Only a cheek was visible, the left one. The one I thought was just as beautiful as the other. It was damp, glistening. Tears. She moaned, shifting onto her back. Her gasp shattered the silence.

It was the only warning.

Fuck.

I moved lightning-fast, pressing myself against the wall where the shadows of the night were the deepest and clung the heaviest.

Thick hair fell forward as she jerked back onto her side, rising on one elbow. Her breaths were ragged. I held myself completely still as she lifted a trembling hand and shoved the hair back from her face.

My heart lurched.

She was staring right in my direction, but I knew she couldn’t see me.

But I saw her—and the horror in her eyes. Pure terror.

“Just a dream,” she whispered, settling onto her side again. Her body curled inward, arms and legs tucked close. Her eyes remained open as she lay there, gently rocking herself back and forth. Each time her eyes closed, it took longer for them to reopen.

I knew what she was doing—fighting falling back to sleep. Gods, I’d done that more times than I could count. Several minutes passed before she finally lost the battle, slipping back to sleep. I didn’t move, though. I just…watched her. Like a creep. A slight laugh shook me. I was actually doing the least creepy thing I’d done in a long time; however, I had no good reason to watch her now. The Maiden was fine.

The Maiden.

She has a name, an unwanted voice in the back of my head reminded me. Penellaphe. The Duke and Duchess called her that, but according to Tawny, her friends called her Poppy. But she was just the Maiden to me.

She won’t scream if she’s under duress.

Still having no clue what Vikter had meant by that, I approached her bed. The blanket had gathered at her waist, exposing the long-sleeved robe she must have fallen asleep in or normally wore to bed. I wouldn’t be surprised. I glanced around the bedchamber—the sparse, chilly bedchamber. There was hardly anything in here. A table. A chest. A wardrobe. I frowned. No personal items to speak of. I’d seen the poorest of the kingdom have more things in their homes.

Was that another prohibited thing? Personal items? My attention shifted back to her. She was breathing deeply, if a bit unevenly, as if she were wary of those unpleasant dreams returning, even in sleep. Did she remember them when she woke? I didn’t always. Sometimes, there was just a general sense of apprehension upon waking, a feeling of dread that lingered all day.

I bent, catching the scent of pine and sage, reminding me of arnica—a plant used to treat all manner of things. I carefully lifted the blanket, placing it over her shoulders. I glanced at her face. Those eyes were closed, lips relaxed. I saw the scars and thought of the source of her nightmares.

Backing away, I left the bedchamber, finding a twisted sense of irony in the fact that the same people were responsible for what found us both in the darkest hours of the night.


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