“So, I take it that your extended stay in the Denoir’s Relictombs estate has been especially…disagreeable,” Nessa said as she gently placed my head back.
“It’s been…fine,” I said calmly, letting my eyes close.
I heard a faint giggle. “Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure,” I snapped, trying to focus on the suffocating scent of flowers and spices emanating from the plethora of “calming” candles in the bathing room.
“Then can you try telling that to your leg?” Nessa asked, holding in another laugh. “Because at how much you’re squirming, I’m afraid you’re going to wiggle yourself right out of the tub, Lady Caera.”
I peeked an eye open, only now noticing the large puddle of water and fragrant bubbles that had pooled around my bathtub.
Letting out a sigh, I stilled my leg. “Time seems to be moving at a crawl these days, Nessa.”
I closed my eyes once more, trying to relax by focusing on the combination of scalding hot water, sweat, and my dead skin topped prettily with aromatic froth.
Meanwhile, Nessa sat at the head of the bath, working scented soap into my hair and massaging my scalp between my horns, which were kept imperceivable by my relic, even if she happened to bump against one.
“Bathing is one of the most potent methods to ease nervousness and soothe muscle fatigue,” Nessa informed me as she continued to work down my hair.
“It feels more like stewing than bathing,” I grumbled back.
“M’hm,” she dismissed, continuing with her work.
Frustration bubbled the more I thought about it. “By the Vritra, I swear I’d leap out of that window and run naked through the streets for another chance to get into the Relictombs.”
“Well, that would certainly get the highlord and lady’s attention,” Nessa replied, and I could hear the smile in her voice.
“And it’s another whole week until the trial. Which, of course, I’m not even allowed to attend,” I continued, sinking a little more deeply into the tub so that the bubbles went up over my chin and mouth.
“We all must follow the highlord and lady’s wishes, after all,” Nessa said simply.
I opened my eyes and blew outward with my mouth, sending bubbles flying. “Perhaps we could—“
The heavy clang of our front doorbell interrupted me. Nessa stopped kneading my hair as we both listened.
The muffled sound of unfamiliar voices came from the main foyer.
“Go see who it is, Nessa.”
“Only if you promise not to jump out naked and make a run for the Relictombs, Lady Caera,” my personal attendant said with a grin.
I mustered a smile. “Just go.”
She stood briskly and whisked out of the bathing room, closing the door quietly behind her.
Once she was gone, I slid down under the surface of the water and forced myself to relax, letting my arms float naturally while my body rested lightly on the bottom of the excessively large marble bathtub.
My mind floated too, drifting around in the muddle of conflicted thought I’d been trying to sort through for two weeks now.
Scythe Seris’s words about Grey kept coming back to me. She seemed to know more than she was telling me, but I couldn’t quite puzzle through it, and she’d been firm in denying me more information. My mentor wouldn’t budge once she’d made up her mind about something, and I knew better than to push too hard. Everything would come clear in its proper time.
I tried to picture his face, but it was the memory of his body pressing gently against mine as we shared his bedroll for warmth that came to my mind.
I shot upright, splashing even more sudsy water onto the marble floor and glaring down at myself. I was Caera Denoir. I did not pine for anyone.
Rising, I stepped carefully out of the bath and wrapped a heavy towel around myself just as a small knock came from the door.
Assuming it was my attendant, I said, “I’m not decent, Nessa. A moment.”
“There are two men here to see you, Lady Caera,” Nessa said softly through the door. “They want to speak to you. About…him. They’re with your father in the receiving room.”
My eyes widened at his mention and I hurried to dry and dress myself.
Someone who knows Grey. They must be here about helping him, I thought as I slid into embroidered white robes. The idea that Grey had friends was unexpected. He had seemed so distant and walled off...
Eager to find out more, I hurried out of the bathing room, but a frantic Nessa threw herself bodily in my way.
“Oh no you don’t! You’ll have to step over my dead body if you think I’m going to let you go in looking like you just got caught having an illicit affair, Lady Caera.”
“You’ve been reading too many of those novels, Nessa,” I scolded her.
She grinned as she fussed with my hair, combing through it with her fingers, then took a moment to straighten the hem of my robes.
Huffing, I waited impatiently for her to finish, then rushed past her to the receiving room, my bare feet padding silently across the thick red rug that ran down the center of the hallway.
I had the good grace to compose myself before stepping through the open doorway, however.
The receiving room was less comfortable than the drawing room, which was intended only for members of our blood, but was more opulent, carefully designed to instill a sense of wonder and awe on the highlord’s guests.
Not that we ever had guests or visitors here.
Portraits of severe- looking men and women—previous highlords and ladies, mostly—glowered down from the walls, and several high-backed chairs surrounded an open fireplace that burned either blue or scarlet when it was lit.
Inside the room, I found my adoptive father facing off with the two men. The three were standing, and the fireplace was cold and empty. Although Corbett Denoir’s cross-armed stance and haughty scowl were hardly unusual for the highlord, our visitors weren’t what I expected.
The first man was older, and thickly built, perhaps once a soldier or even an ascender, but he had clearly let himself go. His gray hair and beard had been heavily oiled and gleamed in the warm receiving room light, and his fine clothes hung from him awkwardly. He watched the highlord restlessly as his companion spoke, and his hands kept patting something inside his jacket.
He was certainly not the type of man who usually called on Highlord Denoir.
His companion, on the other hand, was his opposite in almost every way. Despite Corbett’s cold stare, the stranger seemed perfectly at ease. Tall and broad-shouldered, with the easy grace of a trained warrior, he had the air of nobility, but I couldn’t recall ever seeing him before. His suit was finely tailored, a muted olive that highlighted his emerald-green eyes and showed off his athletic physique.
“—understand your stance, Highlord Denoir, absolutely,” he was saying, “and my companion and I have no wish to put you or your daughter in a politically uncomfortable position, of course, but the life and livelihood of an innocent man hangs in the balance.”
The man noticed me enter from the corner of his eye, and he took a step backwards and to the side, turning to greet me without putting his back to Corbett, which would have been considered rude in noble circles.
My adoptive father glared at me, his sharp gray-green eyes lingering on my bare feet.
“My Lady Caera Denoir,” the stranger said, bowing deeply before giving me a wide smile and holding my gaze.
The older man, who had been watching my adoptive father carefully and hadn’t immediately sensed my arrival, grunted and spun around. His bow was belated and clumsy, which amused me all the more because of the irritation it caused Corbett.
“Lady Caera,” he said, his voice a coarse growl. “I’m Alaric, the ascender Grey’s…uh…uncle, and this is Darrin Ordin. We were hoping to speak to you—”
Corbett took a step forward, his arms unfolding and his chest swelling. “Which is something I had not yet agreed to allow.” My adoptive father looked imperiously down his nose at me, almost as if he were challenging me to argue with him.
My thoughts, however, were on the old man’s words. Grey’s uncle? I stared at him, looking for any hint of a family resemblance, but there was none. Though he dressed well, Alaric wouldn’t have looked out of place passed out in the corner of some seedy bar somewhere.
From Corbett’s pinch-nosed expression of displeasure, I could tell he was thinking something similar.
I met the highlord’s eye. “Just as well that I stumbled in then, Father, if I had guests.” To Darrin, I said, “Why do I feel as though I’ve heard your name before?”
The man grinned and ran a hand through his fine blond hair. “I’m an ascender. Mostly retired, now, but I achieved a little fame—”
“Of course!” I said, interrupting him and earning myself another glare from my adoptive father, which I ignored. “You were the lead Striker for the Unblooded party, weren’t you?”
His brows shot up in surprise, but the grin Darrin gave me seemed genuinely pleased. “It’s an honor to be recognized by a member of Highblood Denoir, Lady Caera. I did not expect to—”
“These men,” Corbett’s voice boomed, cutting through our conversation, “have come to beg for your testimony regarding the events of your most recent ascent.”...
“These men,” Corbett’s voice boomed, cutting through our conversation, “have come to beg for your testimony regarding the events of your most recent ascent.”
Everyone fell silent as our attention turned to the highlord. “But, as I have already told them,” he continued, “it is our wish that you not be drawn into this trial.”
I opened my mouth to reply, but he quickly carried on, addressing Alaric. “While your…nephew’s position is unfortunate, sir, Highblood Denoir is not responsible for either his actions, or those of Blood Granbehl. Perhaps your time would be better spent speaking to them directly.”
“With all due respect, Highlord Denoir,” Darrin replied, “Lady Caera is, from what I’ve been led to believe, the only witness aside from Grey and the young Lady Ada Granbehl, whose testimony we believe to be suspect. Justice demands—”
Corbett’s brow rose and he gave the man a withering look. “Even justice may not make demands of me here, under my own roof. Our blood has already discussed this matter, and the decision has been made. You’ve wasted your time, and mine.”
I certainly did not agree to any such thing, I thought, my nails digging into my palms as I clenched my fists.
“Don’t be so quick to dismiss our guests, Father,” I said, forcing a smile. “Darrin Ordin is a famous ascender. He led a very successful group of ascenders from unnamed bloods. Surely we can afford a few moments to hear him out.”
Corbett wrinkled his nose, as if I’d just told him Darrin was a wogart farmer. “Yes, well, be that as it may, I’m afraid we can’t help with his current request.”
“On the contrary, I think we could be most helpful,” I countered, careful to keep my voice even. “Honestly, it’s almost as if you’re afraid of these Granbehls…but they’re just a named blood, so I’m sure that’s not true.”
Corbett’s jaw tightened, but otherwise he didn’t display the anger I knew was building within him. “We have discussed this, Caera, and you know where I stand. Should you feel the need, we may continue with our discussion after our guests have left.”
Darrin Ordin cleared his throat. “We apologize for the intrusion. We’ll see ourselves out, Highlord Denoir.”
“Much gratitude for your time,” Alaric grumbled, already shuffling sideways toward the door.
The snapping of a panel on the far side of the receiving room made everyone turn suddenly, but it was only Lenora.
My adoptive mother was dressed comfortably in dark green robes embroidered with golden runes. The outfit wasn’t actually magical, but the runes made it look powerful and authoritative anyway.
She smiled warmly at our guests. “Excuse me, I’m so sorry to intrude. You wouldn’t mind if I shared a brief word with my husband, of course?”
Darrin bowed deeply and flashed Lenora a charming smile. “Of course not, Lady Denoir, but I’m afraid we were just leaving—”
“That won’t be necessary, at least, not at this very instant. We’ll just be a moment.” With these last words, she shot Corbett a meaningful look and held out her arm to him.
The highlord moved stiffly, a muscle twitching in his jaw as he swept past Lenora and disappeared through the panel at the back of the room, which functioned much like a servants’ entrance.
She shot our guests a dazzling smile as she let her arm fall to her side before following her husband from the room.
Knowing I might only have a moment or two before they returned, I stepped closer to Darrin and Alaric. “Are you really Grey’s uncle?” I asked the old man, who was eyeing me warily.
“Isn’t it obvious by my sharp and chiseled features?” he asked, a smirk tugging at the edge of his dry lips.
Darrin rolled his eyes at this, dropping his formal demeanor. “It’s about as obvious as an infant shadow prowler hiding in the dark.”
I let out a chuckle at their banter. “Excuse me. I didn’t mean to be rude.”
“No, being rude is this old man’s forte,” Darrin replied. “But I digress. You should know, Lady Caera, that this man’s nephew wouldn’t—”
“No,” I agreed, “he wouldn’t. Grey can be…dispassionate, when he needs to be, but he’s no murderer. The others died fighting, through no fault of Grey’s at all. In fact, he saved Ada’s life.” Which I told him was a bad idea, I thought icily.
Grey’s uncle pulled a flask from his breast pocket and unscrewed the cap with practiced ease before taking a drink. His bleary eyes darted to the open panel across the room before he took one more. “It certainly would’ve saved us from all of this trouble if my nephew hadn’t, but he’s a kind-hearted block of ice.”
I nodded, a smile forming on my lips as I recounted all of Grey’s bullish moments. “That he is.” I paused for a moment, hesitant to ask the question that had been on the tip of my tongue for a while now. “Have you been close to Grey since he was young?”
What was he like when he was a child? I actually wanted to ask.
“He’s been my responsibility since becoming an ascender,” Alaric responded, taking another large sip from his flask. “It’s just a shame that he’s run into trouble with named bloods, especially leeches like the Granbehls, nobles who are willing to do anything and everything to climb higher, no matter who they step on. Which, I realize, describes most named and highbloods—”
Darrin Ordin elbowed the older man in his side sharply.
He scratched his beard. “No offense.”
I had heard the accusation in his tone. “It just so happens that I agree with your assessment of the noble bloods. And I would like nothing more than to act as a witness on his behalf, but Highlord Denoir won’t allow it,” I shot back defensively.
Darrin Ordin rested a hand on the old man’s shoulder. “We understand, Lady Caera, and wouldn’t ask you to go against the wishes of your blood.”
Alaric rolled his eyes, but didn’t say anything else. There were so many things I wanted to know, questions I had hoped to ask, but at that moment Corbett strode back into the receiving room, with Lady Lenora at his side, her arm lightly tucked into his.
“After further consideration, Highblood Denoir has decided to offer our assistance in the matter of Ascender Grey’s trial,” he announced, the very picture of a magnanimous lord granting a boon.
I peered at my adoptive parents, trying to get some sense of why they’d suddenly changed their mind, and Lenora met my eyes with a strange, knowing smile that I didn’t like.
“An agent will bring Caera’s statement, and whatever other documentation we may discover that would be of benefit to your case, on the day of the trial,” Corbett continued. “Until then, it would be best that you not draw further attention to Highblood Denoir by returning here again.”
Alaric fidgeted, frowning slightly under his beard, but Darrin gave Corbett a deep, sweeping bow. “Thank you, Highlord Denoir. It is as much as we could ask for.”
“As much and more,” Corbett replied dismissively, already turning away. “Nessa!”
My attendant, who had been hovering just outside in the hall, hurried into the receiving room, her eyes on the cut-marble floor.
“See our guests out.”
Darrin Ordin bowed yet again, followed clumsily by Alaric, and then both men followed Nessa out into the hall.
When we were alone, I faced my adoptive parents. “What was that?”
Corbett waved a hand so that the fire burst to life, burning a deep, bloody scarlet that reflected off the white walls and floor. Turning his back on me, he strode across the room and poured himself a glass of water from a crystal container.
Lenora walked to the doorway and peered down the hall, making sure our visitors had gone. When she turned back, she wore a gleeful smile. “It appears, dearest Caera, that your mentor and our patron, Scythe Seris Vritra, has expressed some interest in this ascender of yours.”
Having spoken at length with Scythe Seris regarding Grey, this wasn’t exactly news to me. But I didn’t immediately catch on to my adoptive mother’s meaning.
“It appears your relationship with this man could have some value to Highblood Denoir after all,” Corbett proclaimed seriously.
I looked between them, their sudden change of mind starting to make sense. “You want him to be indebted to Highblood Denoir…for your assistance in freeing him,” I said slowly.
Lenora moved to Corbett’s side and slipped her arm through his. “If he is of value to Scythe Seris, then he may be worth the trouble, yes.”
Of value to Scythe Seris…
“But when he was just of value to me?” I said coldly, my throat tightening around the words. “Then you were happy to let the Granbehls have him?”
“Oh, don’t be that way, Caera,” Lenora said, waving as if my words were a bad smell she could waft away. “You get what you want, in the end—and your blood benefits as well.”
They didn’t know the kind of fire they were playing with. I shivered as I remembered the ice-cold fury that had settled over me like a physical presence when Grey discovered my true identity. He could have killed me in a second, I knew that as clearly as I knew that there was Vritra blood running through my veins
We had grown comfortable together, but I was certain I hadn’t yet fully gained his trust. If he thought I was somehow manipulating him…
“Smile, dear,” Lenora said, displaying her own gleaming white teeth. “This could end up working out wonderfully for us.”
I stared dead-pan at the woman.
“You should be more grateful to your mother,” Corbett said, setting his glass down heavily so that water splashed over the rim. “While you’ve been moping around the house, she learned that House Granbehl seems to have some kind of back-channel dealings going on to ensure this ascender’s guilty verdict.”
He held up a hand to keep me silent. “I need you to understand your role in this, Caera. If Highblood Denoir is to expend time and capital, both financial and political, to assist this ascender, I must be assured that he will fully appreciate just where his aid came from.
“You will be allowed to contact him…after the trial, and invite him to our estate in Central Dominion. Then, we can discuss our blood’s plans for the future, and where Grey fits into those plans.”
Although I was seething on the inside, outwardly I smiled as Lenora had suggested. “As you wish, of course.”
Their conversation turned to the Granbehls’ schemes, and what Scythe Seris might want with Grey. I stayed and listened, not wanting my adoptive parents to form any plans behind my back. I would need to know exactly what they were up to, if I wished to help Grey avoid exchanging one prison for another.