Why had he stepped forward to watch over me? There were Royal Guards present. Dozens of them who should’ve done so. My gaze swept the crowd, and I realized that none of them looked long in my direction, and I wondered if it was because it was so rare that they ever saw me, or if they feared punishment by the Duke or the gods for even looking at me.
Their duty dictated that they give their life for someone who it would be considered a grave disrespect to look upon too long or approach without permission. The disturbing irony in that sat heavily on my shoulders.
But Hawke was different.
There was no way that he knew it had been me at the Red Pearl. He’d never heard me speak before, and I doubted my jaw and mouth were that recognizable.
The Duchess had said he came from the capital with glowing recommendations and would likely become one of the youngest Royal Guards. If that was what Hawke wanted, stepping up like this would surely help. After all, there was a sudden, unexpected opening in the Royal Guard now.
And wasn’t that a dark assumption to make?
A muscle flexed along his jaw, momentarily fascinating. Then I remembered why I was here, and that was not to ogle Hawke from behind my veil. I shifted my gaze to where Vikter approached the pyre.
Drawing in a shallow breath, I wanted to look away, to close my eyes when he lowered the torch. I didn’t. I watched as the flames licked along the tinder and the sound of crackling wood filled the quiet. My insides twisted as the fire ignited in a rush, spreading over Rylan’s body as Vikter dropped to one knee before the pyre, bowing his head.
“You do him a great honor by being here,” Hawke spoke quietly, but his words startled me. My head swung in his direction. He was staring down at me with eyes so bright, they looked like the gods had polished the amber themselves and placed them there. “You do us all a great honor by being here.”
I opened my mouth to tell him that Rylan and all of them were owed far more than the honor of my presence, but I stopped myself. I couldn’t risk it.
Hawke’s gaze flicked over my lower jaw, lingering on the corner of my mouth, where I knew the skin was inflamed. “You were hurt.” It wasn’t a question but a statement uttered in a hard-as-granite tone. “You can be assured that will never happen again.”
Sweat dampened my skin as I dipped down and spun, the long, thick braid of hair whipping around me. I kicked out, and my bare foot connected with the side of Vikter’s shin. Caught off guard, he staggered to the side as I shot up beside him. He started to strike back but froze. His gaze dropped to where I held the dagger to his throat.
The corners of his lips turned down.
I smiled. “I win.”
“It’s not about winning, Poppy.”
“It’s not?” I lowered the dagger, stepping back.
“It’s about surviving.”
“Isn’t that winning, though?”
He shot me a sidelong glance as he dragged his arm over his forehead. “I suppose you can look at it that way, but it’s never a game.”
“I know that.” I sheathed the dagger at my thigh. Dressed in a pair of thick leggings and an old tunic of Vikter’s, I walked across the stone floor toward an old, wooden table. I picked up the glass of water and took a long drink. If I could dress like this all day, every day, I’d be a happy girl. “But if it were a game, I still would’ve won.”
“You only got the upper hand twice, Poppy.”
“Yes, but both of those times, I would’ve sliced your neck. You got the upper hand three times, but they would’ve been nothing more than flesh wounds.”
“Flesh wounds?” He barked out a short, rare laugh. “Only you would think disembowelment a paltry flesh wound. You’re such a poor loser.”
“I thought this wasn’t a game?”
Grinning, I shrugged as I faced him. Dust danced in the sunlight that poured through the open windows. The glass had long since been removed, and the room was either drafty and near frigid in the winter, or unbearably hot in the summer. But no one ever checked for us here, so the extreme temperature variances were more than manageable.
It was the morning after Rylan’s funeral, too early for much of the castle to be moving about. Nearly all the staff and the stronghold’s inhabitants followed the schedule of the Ascended, and the servants, as well as the Duke and Duchess, believed that I was still abed. Only Tawny knew where I was. Rylan hadn’t even known, as Vikter always had morning duties with me.
“How is your head feeling?” he asked.
He arched a fair brow. “Are you telling the truth?”
A faint, bluish-purple bruise over my temple was all that remained. The skin around my mouth was no longer red. There was a superficial cut along the inside of my cheek that any amount of salt seemed to find its way into, but other than that, I was fine. Not that I would admit it, but Vikter suggesting I take it easy and rest yesterday probably had a lot to do with that.
After Rylan’s funeral, I’d spent the day in my chambers, reading one of the books Tawny had brought to me. It was a tale of two lovers, star-crossed yet fated. The title had fallen in the Things Penellaphe is Forbidden to Read pile, which was pretty much everything that didn’t involve some sort of educational material or the teachings of the gods. I’d finished the novel last evening, and I wondered if Tawny could bring me another. It was doubtful. Preparation for the upcoming Rite was consuming much of her spare time. Whenever Tawny couldn’t bring a book for me to read, I would simply sneak into the Atheneum and help myself. Plus, with the attempted kidnapping and what had happened to Malessa, I didn’t want her out there roaming around.
Which meant I also shouldn’t be roaming around unguarded, but the Atheneum wasn’t too far. Just a few blocks beyond the castle and easily accessible through the Grove. Disguised, no one would know that I was the Maiden, but it still felt too risky and dumb to do something like that so quickly after the attack.
“It hurt a little last night, but not since I woke up.” I paused. “The man had a weak punch.”
Vikter snorted as he approached me, sliding his short sword into its scabbard. “Did you sleep well?”
I considered lying. “Do I look like I haven’t slept?”
He stopped in front of me. “You rarely ever sleep well. I imagine what happened with Rylan has exacerbated your already poor sleeping patterns.”
“Aw, are you worried about me?” I teased. “You’re such a good father.”
His expression turned bland. “Stop deflecting, Poppy.”
“Why? I’m so good at it.”
“But you’re actually not.”
Rolling my eyes, I sighed. “It took a while to fall asleep, but I haven’t had a nightmare in a while.”
Vikter’s gaze searched mine as if trying to determine whether I was lying—and the man probably could. I wasn’t lying…exactly. I hadn’t had a night terror since I went to the Red Pearl, and I wasn’t sure why that was.
Perhaps falling asleep thinking about what had happened in the Red Pearl had somehow switched the gears of my brain away from past trauma. If so, I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth.
“Who do you think will replace Rylan?” I changed the subject before he could continue down that road of questioning.
“I’m not sure, but I assume it will be decided fairly soon.”
My mind immediately went to Hawke, even though he couldn’t possibly be in the running, not when there were so many others from the Rise who’d been here longer. But the question sort of toppled out of me anyway. “Do you think it would be the one who came from the capital recently? The guard who stood by my side at the funeral?”
Who assured me that I wouldn’t be hurt again?
“You’re talking about Hawke?” Vikter asked, securing his other sword.
“Oh, is that his name?”
He lifted his gaze to mine. “You’re a terrible liar.”
“Am not!” I frowned. “What am I supposedly lying about?”
“You didn’t know his name?”
Praying that my flushing cheeks didn’t give me away, I folded my arms over my chest. “Why would I?”
“Every woman in this city knows his name.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
His lips twitched as if he were fighting a smile. “He’s a very handsome young man, or so I’ve been told, and there’s nothing wrong with you taking notice of him.” He glanced away. “As long as that is all you do.”
My cheeks did flush hotly then because I had done far more than simply take notice of Hawke. “When exactly would I have had a chance to do anything other than take notice, which is, might I remind you, strictly forbidden?”
Vikter laughed once more, and my frown increased. “When has something being forbidden ever stopped you?”
“That is different,” I said, wondering if the gods would strike me down for so blatantly lying. “And when would I even have a chance to do something like that?”
“I’m actually glad you brought that up. Your little adventures will need to come to an end.”
My stomach jumped. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
He ignored that. “I haven’t said much in the past about you and Tawny sneaking off, but after what happened in the garden, that has to end.”
I snapped my mouth shut.
“Did you think I didn’t know?” His smile was slow and smug. “I’m watching even when you think I’m not.”
“Well, that is…creepy.” I didn’t even want to know if he knew that I’d been to the Red Pearl.
“Creepy or not, just remember what I said the next time you think of sneaking out in the middle of the night.” Before I could respond, he said, “And regarding Hawke, I would say that his age would make him becoming your personal guard doubtful.”