Home > From Blood and Ash (Blood And Ash #1)(3)

From Blood and Ash (Blood And Ash #1)(3)
Author: Jennifer L. Armentrout

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.

Biting down on my lip, I pulled away from where I stood before my entire face caught on fire. I drifted into the next space that was separated by a partial wall, where another round of games was being played.

There were more guards here, some I even recognized as belonging to the Royal Guard, soldiers just like those who worked the Rise but who protected the Ascended instead. This was why the Ascended also had personal guards. People had tried to kidnap members of the Court before for ransom. No one was usually hurt too seriously in those situations, but there had been other attempts that stemmed from far different, more violent reasons.

Standing near a leafy potted plant that sported tiny, red buds, I was unsure of what to do from there. I could join another card game or strike up a conversation with any of the numerous people who lingered around the tables, but I wasn’t all that good at making small talk with strangers. There was no doubt in my mind that I’d blurt out something bizarre or ask a random question that would make little sense to the conversation. So that was off the table. Maybe I should head back to my chambers. The hour had to be growing late and—

A strange awareness swept over me, starting as a tingling sensation along the back of my neck and intensifying with every passing second.

It felt like…like I was being watched.

Scanning the room, I didn’t see anyone paying much attention to me, but I expected to find someone standing near. That was how potent the feeling was. Unease blossomed in the pit of my stomach. I started to turn toward the entrance when the soft, drawn-out notes of some sort of string instrument drew my attention to the left, my gaze landing on the gauzy, blood-red curtains that swayed gently from the movement of others in the establishment.

I stilled, listening to the rise and fall of the tempo that was soon joined by the heavy thump of a drum. I forgot about the feeling of being watched. I forgot about a lot of things. The music was…it was like nothing I’d heard before. It was deeper, thicker. Slowing, and then speeding up. It was...sensual. What had Britta, the servant, said about the kind of dancing that took place at the Red Pearl? She’d lowered her voice when she spoke of it, and the other maid Britta had been speaking to had looked scandalized.

Making my way along the outskirts of the room, I neared the curtains, reaching out to part them—

“I don’t think you want to go in there.”

Startled, I turned at the sound of the voice. A woman stood behind me—one of the ladies who worked for the Red Pearl. I recognized her. Not because she’d been on the arm of a merchant or businessman when I first came in, but because she was utterly beautiful.

Her hair was a deep black, thickly curled, and her skin was a deep, rich brown. The red gown she wore was sleeveless, cut low across her chest, and the fabric clung to her body like liquid.

“I’m sorry?” I said, unsure what else to say as I lowered my hand. “Why wouldn’t I? They’re just dancing.”

“Just dancing?” Her gaze drifted over my shoulder to the curtain. “Some say that to dance is to make love.”

“I…I hadn’t heard that.” Slowly, I looked behind me. Through the curtains, I could make out the shapes of bodies churning in time with the music, their movements full of mesmerizing and fluid grace. Some danced alone, their curves and forms clearly outlined, while others…

I sucked in a sharp breath, my eyes swinging back to the woman before me.

Her red-painted lips curved into a smile. “This is your first time here, isn’t it?”

I opened my mouth to deny that statement but could feel the heat spreading across every visible part of my face. That alone was telling. “Is it that obvious?”

She laughed, and the sound was throaty. “Not to most. But to me, yes. I’ve never seen you here before.”

“How would you know if you had?” I touched my mask just to make sure it hadn’t slipped.

“Your mask is fine.” There was a strange, knowing glint to her eyes, which were a mix of gold and brown. Not exactly hazel. The gold was far too bright and warm for that. They reminded me of another who had eyes the color of deep citrine. “I know a face, whether it’s half-hidden or not, and yours is one I haven’t seen here before. This is your first time.”

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