Home > From Blood and Ash (Blood And Ash #1)(2)

From Blood and Ash (Blood And Ash #1)(2)
Author: Jennifer L. Armentrout

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.

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