“They found Finley this eve, just outside the Blood Forest, dead.” I looked up from my cards and across the crimson-painted surface to the three men sitting at the table. I’d chosen this spot for a reason. I’d…felt nothing from them as I drifted between the crowded tables earlier. No pain, physical or emotional. Normally, I didn’t prod to see if someone was in pain. Doing so without reason felt incredibly invasive, but in crowds, it was difficult to control just how much I allowed myself to feel. There was always someone whose pain cut so deeply, was so raw, that their anguish became a palpable entity I didn’t even have to open my senses to feel—that I couldn’t ignore and walk away from. They projected their agony onto the world around them. I was forbidden to do anything but ignore. To never speak of the gift bestowed upon me by the gods and to never, ever go beyond sensing to actually doing something about it. Not that I always did what I was supposed to do. Obviously. But these men were fine when I reached out with my senses to avoid those in great pain, which was surprising, given what they did for a living. They were guards from the Rise—the mountainous wall constructed from the limestone and iron mined from the Elysium Peaks.
Ever since the War of Two Kings ended four centuries ago, the Rise had enclosed all of Masadonia, and every city in the Kingdom of Solis was protected by a Rise. Smaller versions surrounded villages and training posts, the farming communities, and other sparsely populated towns. What the guards saw on a regular basis, what they had to do, often left them in anguish, rather it be from injuries or from what went deeper than torn skin and bruised bones. Tonight, they weren’t just absent of anguish, but also their armor and uniforms. Instead, they donned loose shirts and buckskin breeches. Still, I knew, even off duty, they were watchful for signs of the dreaded mist and the horror that came with it, and for those who worked against the future of the kingdom. They were still armed to the teeth. As was I. Hidden beneath the folds of the cloak and the thin gown I wore underneath, the cool hilt of a dagger that never quite warmed to my skin was sheathed against my thigh. Gifted to me on my sixteenth birthday, it wasn’t the only weapon I’d acquired or the deadliest, but it was my favorite.
The handle was fashioned from the bones of a long-extinct wolven—a creature that had been neither man nor beast but both—and the blade made of bloodstone honed to fatal sharpness. I may yet again be in the process of doing something incredibly reckless, inappropriate, and wholly forbidden, but I wasn’t foolish enough to enter a place like the Red Pearl without protection, the skill to employ it, and the wherewithal to take that weapon and skill and use them without hesitation. “Dead?” the other guard said, a younger one with brown hair and a soft face. I thought his name might be Airrick, and he couldn’t be much older than my eighteen years. “He wasn’t just dead. Finley was drained of blood, his flesh chewed up like wild dogs had a go at him, and then torn to pieces.” My cards blurred as tiny balls of ice formed in the pit of my stomach. Wild dogs didn’t do that. Not to mention, there weren’t any wild dogs near the Blood Forest, the only place in the world where the trees bled, staining the bark and the leaves a deep crimson. There were rumors of other animals, overly large rodents and scavengers that preyed upon the corpses of those who lingered too long in the forest.
“And you know what that means,” Airrick went on. “They must be near. An attack will—” “Not sure this is the right conversation to be having,” an older guard cut in. I knew of him. Phillips Rathi. He’d been on the Rise for years, which was nearly unheard of. Guards didn’t have long lifespans. He nodded in my direction. “You’re in the presence of a lady.” A lady? Only the Ascended were called Ladies, but I also wasn’t someone anyone, especially those in this building, would expect to be inside the Red Pearl.
If I was discovered, I would be in…well, more trouble than I’d ever been in before and would face severe reprimand. The kind of punishment that Dorian Teerman, the Duke of Masadonia, would just love to deliver. And which, of course, his close confidante, Lord Brandole Mazeen, would love to be in attendance for. Anxiety surfaced as I looked at the dark-skinned guard. There was no way Phillips could know who I was. The top half of my face was covered by the white domino mask I’d found discarded in the Queen’s Gardens ages ago, and I wore a plain robin’s egg blue cloak I’d, uh, borrowed from Britta, one of the many castle servants who I’d overheard speaking about the Red Pearl. Hopefully, Britta wouldn’t discover her missing overcoat before I returned it in the morn. Even without the mask, though, I could count on one hand how many people in Masadonia had seen my face, and none of them would be here tonight. As the Maiden, the Chosen, a veil usually covered my face and hair at all times, all except for my lips and jaw. I doubted Phillips could recognize me solely on those features, and if he had, none of them would still be sitting here.
I would be in the process of being dragged back, albeit gently, to my guardians, the Duke and Duchess of Masadonia. There was no reason to panic. Forcing the muscles along my shoulders and neck to ease, I smiled. “I’m no Lady. You’re more than welcome to talk about whatever you wish.” “Be that as it may, a little less morbid topic would be welcomed,” Phillips replied, sending a pointed look in the direction of the other two guards. Airrick lifted his gaze to mine. “My apologies.” “Apologies not needed but accepted.” The third guard ducked his chin, studiously staring at his cards as he repeated the same.
His cheeks had pinkened, something I found rather adorable. The guards who worked the Rise went through vicious training, becoming skilled in all manner of weaponry and hand-to-hand combat. None who survived their first venture outside the Rise came back without shedding blood and seeing death. And yet, this man blushed. I cleared my throat, wanting to ask more about who Finley was, whether he was a guard from the Rise or a Huntsman, a division of the army that ferried communication between the cities and escorted travelers and goods. They spent half the year outside the protection of the Rise. It was by far one of the most dangerous of all occupations, so they never traveled alone. Some never returned. Unfortunately, a few who did, didn’t come back the same. They returned with rampantly spreading death snapping at their heels.
Cursed. Sensing that Phillips would silence any further conversation, I didn’t voice any of the questions dancing on the tip of my tongue. If others had been with him and had been wounded by what most likely had killed Finley, I would find out one way or another. I just hoped it wasn’t through screams of terror. The people of Masadonia had no real idea exactly how many returned from outside the Rise cursed. They only saw a handful here and there, and not the reality. If they did, panic and fear were sure to ignite a populace who truly had no concept of the horror outside the Rise. Not like my brother Ian and I did. Which was why when the topic at the table switched to more mundane things, I struggled to will the ice coating my insides to thaw. Countless lives were given and taken by the endeavor to keep those inside the Rise safe, but it was failing—had been failing—not just here, but throughout the Kingdom of Solis.
Death…. Death always found a way in. Stop, I ordered myself as the general sense of unease threatened to swell. Tonight wasn’t about all the things I was aware of that I probably shouldn’t be. Tonight was about living, about…not being up all night, unable to sleep, alone and feeling like…like I had no control, no…no idea of who I was other than what I was. Another poor hand was dealt, and I’d played enough cards with Ian to know there was no recovering from the ones I held. When I announced that I was out, the guards nodded as I rose, each bidding me a good evening. Moving between the tables, I took the flute of champagne offered by a server with a gloved hand and tried to recapture the feelings of excitement that had buzzed through my veins as I’d hurried through the streets earlier that evening. I minded my business as I scanned the room, keeping my senses to myself. Even outside of those who managed to project their anguish into the air around them, I didn’t need to touch someone to know if they were hurting.
I just needed to see someone and focus. What they looked like didn’t change if they were experiencing some sort of pain, and their appearance didn’t change when I concentrated on them. I simply felt their anguish. Physical pain was almost always hot, but the kind that couldn’t be seen? It was almost always cold. Bawdy shouts and whistles snapped me out of my own mind. A woman in red sat on the edge of the table next to the one I’d left. She wore a gown made of scraps of red satin and gauze that barely covered her thighs. One of the men grabbed a fistful of the diaphanous little skirt. Smacking his hand away with a saucy grin, she lay back, her body forming a sensual curve. Her thick, blonde curls spilled across forgotten coins and chips.
“Who wants to win me tonight?” Her voice was deep and smoky as she slid her hands along the waist of the frilly corset. “I can assure you boys, I will last longer than any pot of gold will.” “And what if it’s a tie?” one of the men asked, the fine cut of his coat suggesting that he was a well-to-do merchant or businessman of some sort. “Then it will be a far more entertaining night for me,” she said, drawing one hand down her stomach, slipping even lower to between her— Cheeks heating, I quickly looked away as I took a sip of the bubbly champagne. My gaze found its way to the dazzling glow of a rose-gold chandelier. The Red Pearl must be doing well, and the owners well connected. Electricity was expensive and heavily controlled by the Royal Court. It made me wonder who some of their clientele was for the luxury to be available. Under the chandelier, another card game was in progress. There were women there too, their hair twisted in elaborate updos adorned with crystals, and their clothing far less daring than the women who worked here.
Their gowns were vibrant shades of purple and yellow and pastel hues of blue and lilac. I was only allowed to wear white, whether I was in my room or in public, which wasn’t often. So, I was fascinated with how the different colors complemented the wearer’s skin or hair. I imagined I looked like a ghost most days, roaming the halls of Castle Teerman in white. These women also wore domino masks that covered half their faces, protecting their identities. I wondered who some of them were. Daring wives left alone one too many times? Young women who hadn’t married or were perhaps widowed? Servants or women who worked in the city, out for the evening? Were Ladies and Lords in Wait among the masked females at the table and among the crowd? Did they come here for the same reasons I did? Boredom? Curiosity? Loneliness? If so, then we were more alike than I realized, even though they were second daughters and sons, given to the Royal Court upon their thirteenth birthday during the annual Rite. And I…I was Penellaphe of Castle Teerman, Kin of the Balfours, and the Queen’s favorite. I was the Maiden. Chosen.
And in a little under a year, upon my nineteenth birthday, I would Ascend, as would all Ladies and Lords in Wait. Our Ascensions would be different, but it would be the largest one since the first gods’ Blessing that occurred after the end of the War of Two Kings. Very little would happen to them if they were caught, but I…I would face the Duke’s displeasure. My lips thinned as a kernel of anger took root, mingling with a sticky residue of disgust and shame. The Duke was a pestilence of overly familiar hands and had an unnatural thirst for punishment. But I wouldn’t think about him either. Or worry about being disciplined. I might as well go back to my chambers if I was going to do that. Dragging my gaze from the table, I noted that there were smiling and laughing women in the Pearl who wore no masks, hid no identities. They sat at tables with guards and businessmen, stood in shadowy alcoves and spoke with masked women, men, and also those who worked for the Red Pearl.
They weren’t ashamed or afraid to be seen. Whoever they were, they had freedom I deeply coveted. An independence I chased tonight, because masked and unknown, no one but the gods would know I was here. And as far as the gods were concerned, I had long ago decided that they had far better things to do than spend their time watching me. After all, if they had been paying attention, they would’ve already taken me to task over numerous things I’d already done that were forbidden to me. So, I could be anyone tonight. The freedom in that was a far headier sensation than I imagined. Even more so than the unripe poppy seeds provided by those who smoked them. Tonight, I wasn’t the Maiden. I wasn’t Penellaphe.
I was simply Poppy, a nickname I remembered my mother using, something only my brother Ian and very few others ever called me. As Poppy, there were no strict rules to follow or expectations to fulfill, no future Ascension that was coming quicker than I was prepared for. There was no fear, no past or future. Tonight, I could live a little, even for a few hours, and rack up as much experience as I could before I was returned to the capital, to the Queen. Before I was given to the gods. A shiver tiptoed down my spine—uncertainty, along with a bite of desolation. I tamped it down, refusing to give life to it. Dwelling on what was to come and could not be changed served no purpose. Besides, Ian had Ascended two years ago, and based on the monthly letters I received from him, he was the same. The only difference was that instead of spinning tales with his voice, he did so with words in each letter.
Just last month, he wrote about two children, a brother and sister, who swam to the bottom of the Stroud Sea, befriending the water folk. I smiled as I lifted the champagne flute, having no idea where he came up with those things. As far as I knew, it was impossible to swim to the bottom of the Stroud Sea, and there was no such thing as water folk. Shortly after his Ascension, on the orders of the Queen and King, he’d married Lady Claudeya. Ian never spoke of his wife. Was he happy at all in his marriage? The curve of my lips faded as my gaze dropped to the fizzing, pinkish drink. I wasn’t sure, but they’d barely known each other before marrying. How was that long enough when you’d presumably spend the rest of your life with a person? And the Ascended lived for a very, very long time. It was still odd for me to think of Ian as an Ascended. He wasn’t a second son, but because I was the Maiden, the Queen had petitioned the gods for a rare exception to the natural order, and they had allowed him to Ascend.
I wouldn’t face what Ian had, marriage to a stranger, to another Ascended, one who was sure to covet beauty above all else, because attractiveness was seen as godlike. And even though I was the Maiden, the Chosen, I would never be viewed as godlike. According to the Duke, I wasn’t beautiful. I was a tragedy. Without realizing it, my fingers brushed the scratchy lace of the left side of the mask. I jerked my hand away. A man I recognized as a guard rose from a table, turning to a woman wearing a white mask like I was. He extended a hand to her, speaking words too low for me to hear, but she answered with a nod and a smile before placing her hand in his. She rose, the skirt of her lilac-hued gown falling like liquid around her legs as he led her from the room toward the only two doors accessible by guests, one at either end of interconnecting chambers. The right went outside.
The left door led upstairs, to more private rooms where Britta had said all manner of things occurred. The guard took the masked woman to the left. He’d asked. She’d said yes. Whatever it was they did upstairs, it would be welcomed and chosen by both, regardless of whether it lasted a few hours or a lifetime. My attention lingered on the door long after it had closed. Was that another reason I had come here tonight? To…to experience pleasure with someone of my choosing? I could if I wanted to. I’d overheard conversations between the Ladies in Wait, who weren’t expected to remain untouched. According to them, there were…many things a woman could do that brought pleasure while retaining their purity. Purity? I hated that word, the meaning behind it.
As if my virginity determined my goodness, my innocence, and its presence or lack thereof was somehow more important than the hundred choices I made every day. There was even a part of me that wondered what the gods would do if I went to them no longer an actual maiden. Would they overlook everything else I did or didn’t do simply because I was no longer a virgin? I wasn’t sure, but I hoped that wasn’t the case. Not because I planned to have sex now or next week or…ever, but because I wanted to be able to make that choice. Though, I wasn’t quite sure how I’d find myself in a situation where that option would even arise. But I imagine there’d be willing participants who’d want to do the things I’d heard the Ladies in Wait speaking about here at the Red Pearl. A nervous flutter beat in my chest as I forced myself to take another sip of the champagne. The sweet bubbles tickled the back of my throat, easing some of the sudden dryness in my mouth. Truth be told, tonight had been a spur-of-the-moment decision. Most nights, I couldn’t fall asleep until it was nearly dawn.
When I did, I almost wished I hadn’t. Three times this week alone, I woke from a nightmare, with my screams ringing in my ears. And when they came like this, in clusters, they felt like a harbinger. An instinct much like the ability to sense pain, screaming out a warning. Drawing in a shallow breath, I glanced back to where I’d been looking before. The woman in red was no longer on the table. Instead, she was in the lap of the merchant who’d asked what would happen if two men won. He was inspecting his cards, but his hand was where hers had been heading earlier, delved deep between her thighs. Oh, my.