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A Soul of Ash and Blood: Chapter 35

THERE IS A CHOICE

“Where in the world did that man get a Craven’s hand?” Tawny asked as we crossed under the banners, moving past the Great Hall while Vikter remained behind to speak to the Commander.

“He could’ve been outside the Rise and cut it off one of those who was killed last night,” I figured, walking beside Penellaphe but staying a step back, my thoughts on Lev and his inevitable fate. I didn’t know the man all that well, but I hated not knowing a damn thing about what would happen to him.

He should’ve stayed quiet, but he’d hit a breaking point, and I was sure the babe that had turned Craven had a hell of a lot to do with it. It was understandable. There would be more like him. That should thrill me. It didn’t because they would meet the same fate as Lev.

“That’s…” Tawny swallowed as she pressed her hand to her chest. “I really have no words for that.”

“I can’t believe he said what he did about the children—the third and fourth sons and daughters,” Penellaphe said.

“Neither can I,” Tawny agreed.

What he asked was a damn good question. Those children were not serving the gods. They were nothing more than cattle.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if more people thought along those same lines,” I said, raising my brows as they looked at me in shock. Well, I could only assume that was how Penellaphe looked at me. She was wearing the damn veil. “None of those children have been seen.”

“They’ve been seen by the Priests and Priestesses and the Ascended,” Tawny said.

“But not by family.” I scanned the atrium, seeing nothing but statues. “Perhaps if people could see their children every so often, beliefs like that could easily be dismissed. Fears allayed.”

“No one should make claims like that without any evidence,” Penellaphe argued. “All it does is cause unnecessary worry and panic—panic that the Descenters have created and then will exploit.”

“Agreed,” I murmured, glancing down as we reached the staircase. “Watch your step. Wouldn’t want you to continue with your new habit, Princess.”

“Tripping once isn’t a habit,” she stated. “And if you agree, then why would you say you wouldn’t be surprised if more felt the same way?”

Because I didn’t agree. However, I couldn’t say that. “Because agreeing doesn’t mean I don’t understand why some would think that. If the Ascended are truly concerned about those claims being believed, all they need to do is allow the children to be seen. I can’t imagine that would interfere too badly with their servitude to the gods.”

Penellaphe glanced at her friend. “What do you think?”

“I think you are both saying the same thing,” she said.

One side of my lips curled as we climbed the steps in silence and entered the floor for their chambers. Upon reaching Tawny’s room, I stopped. “If you don’t mind, I need to speak to Penellaphe in private for a moment.”

Tawny looked at Penellaphe as if she were on the brink of either shouting or laughing.

“It’s fine,” Penellaphe assured her.

Tawny nodded, opening her door. “If you need me, knock.” She gave a dramatic pause. “Princess.”

Penellaphe groaned as the door shut.

I laughed. “I really do like her.”

“I’m sure she’d love to hear that.”

“Would you love to hear that I really like you?” I teased, facing her.

“Would you be sad if I said no?”

“I’d be devastated.”

Penellaphe snorted. “I’m sure.”

I grinned. Her snarkiness… I liked it.

She went to open her door. “What did you need to talk about?”

I stepped in front of her. “I should enter first, Princess.”

“Why? Do you think someone could be waiting for me?”

“If the Dark One came for you once, he’ll come for you again,” I said with an impressively straight face as I walked into her quarters.

Two oil lamps were on by the bed and the door. Wood burned in the fireplace. Yet the chamber felt cold and devoid of life.

I took note of another door, one closer to the windows. I hadn’t noticed it the other night—I’d been too busy looking at her—but I thought I’d discovered how she left her chambers unnoticed. I had a feeling that door led to one of the many unused servants’ staircases in the old wing. I smiled.

“Is it okay for me to enter?” she asked from behind me. “Or should I wait out here while you inspect under the bed for stray dust bunnies?”

I looked over my shoulder. “It’s not dust bunnies I’m worried about. Steps, on the other hand? Yes.”

“Oh, my gods—”

“And the Dark One will keep coming until he has what he wants,” I said, looking away. “Your room should always be checked before you enter it.” Facing her, I thought of how shaken she’d been earlier. “Are you all right?”

“Yes. Why do you ask?”

“Something appeared to happen to you as the Duke addressed the people.”

“I was…” One shoulder lifted. “I got a little dizzy. I guess I haven’t eaten enough today.”

Unable to see anything above her mouth, I couldn’t tell if she spoke the truth. “I hate this.”

Her head tilted. “Hate what?”

“I hate talking to the veil.”

“Oh.” She reached up, touching the chains. “I imagine most people don’t enjoy it.”

“I can’t imagine you do.”

“I don’t,” she admitted, and a surge of…something went through me. Satisfaction upon hearing she didn’t like wearing the veil? I didn’t think that was it. “I mean, I’d prefer if people were able to see me.”

I preferred that. “What does it feel like?”

Her lips parted, but she was quiet, unbearably so, as she walked to one of the chairs and sat. I didn’t think she would answer.

Then she did. “It feels suffocating.”

My chest clenched as I watched her. I almost wished she hadn’t answered. Or I hadn’t asked the question. “Then why do you wear it?”

“I didn’t realize I had a choice.”

“You have a choice now.” I knelt in front of her. “It’s just you and me, walls, and a pathetically inadequate supply of furniture.”

Those lips twitched.

“Do you wear your veil when you’re with Tawny?” I asked.

She shook her head.

“Then why are you wearing it now?”

“Because…I’m allowed to be without my veil with her.”

“I was told that you were supposed to be veiled at all times, even with those approved to see you,” I said.

She had no response to that.

So, I waited.

She sighed. “I don’t wear my veil when I’m in my room, and I don’t expect anyone to come in other than Tawny. And I don’t wear it then because I feel…more in control. I can make—”

“The choice not to wear it?” I guessed.

Penellaphe nodded slowly.

“You have a choice now,” I told her.

“I do,” she whispered.

I searched the veil, unable to see anything but shadows beneath it. But her hands…they were twitching in her lap again, revealing what I couldn’t see in her features. I rose. “I’ll be outside if you need anything.”

Penellaphe was silent as I left her quarters. I took up my position outside her door, my heart pounding too fast for not having done anything. I stared at the wall across from me. Why had I spoken of choice? I wasn’t sure, except that I felt it was important she understood it existed. That she knew it was okay to go unveiled around me. And that had nothing to do with me needing her trust.

It had nothing to do with my plans at all.


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