That wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.
With my sword and with my life, I vow to keep you safe, Maiden, the Chosen. From this moment, until the last moment, I am yours.
That was how Vikter had sworn his oath, as did Hannes and then Rylan.
Had the Commander not informed Hawke of the correct words? I couldn’t imagine he’d forget. The look on the Duke’s face once Hawke had straightened could’ve set fire to wet grass.
Tawny spun to face me, the pale blue gown she wore swishing around her feet. “Hawke Flynn is your guard, Poppy.”
“Poppy!” she repeated my name, practically shouting it. “That!”—she pointed to the hall—“is your guard.”
My heart toppled over itself. “Keep your voice down.” I peeled away from the door and took her hand, pulling her farther into the chamber. “He’s probably standing outside—”
“As your personal guard,” she stated for the third time.
“I know.” Hearth thumping, I pulled her toward the window.
“And I know that this is going to sound terrible, but I have to say it. I can’t contain it.” Her eyes were wide with excitement. “It’s a vast improvement.”
“Tawny,” I replied, slipping my hand free of hers.
“I know. I recognize that it was terrible, but I had to say it.” She pressed her hand to her chest as she glanced back to the door. “He’s quite…exciting to look at.”
“And he’s clearly interested in moving up in the ranks.”
Her brows knitted as she turned back to me. “Why would you say that?”
I stared at her, wondering if she’d paid any attention to what the Duke had said. “Have you ever heard of a Royal Guard that young?”
Tawny’s nose scrunched.
“No. You haven’t. That’s what befriending the Commander of the Royal Guard will do for you,” I pointed out, heart thumping. “I cannot believe that there was no other Royal Guard just as qualified.”
She opened her mouth, closed it, and then her eyes narrowed. “You’re having a very strange, unexpected reaction.”
I crossed my arms. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“You don’t? You’ve watched him train in the yard—”
“I have not!” I totally had.
Tawny cocked her head to the side. “I’ve been with you on more than one occasion as you watched the guards train from the balcony, and you weren’t watching just any guard. You were watching him.”
I snapped my mouth shut.
“You seem almost angry about him being named your guard, and unless there’s something you haven’t told me, then I have no idea why.”
There was a lot that I hadn’t told her.
The suspicion in her gaze grew as she studied me. “What haven’t you told me? Has he said something to you before?”
“When would I have had a chance for him to speak to me?” I asked weakly.
“As much as you creep around this castle, I’m sure there is a lot you overhear that doesn’t actually require you speaking to someone,” she pointed out and then stepped forward. Her voice lowered. “Did you overhear him say something bad?”
I shook my head.
The last thing I wanted was for her to think Hawke had done something wrong. That was why I blurted out what I did. Or maybe it was because I had to say something. “I kissed him.”
Her lips parted. “What?”
“Or he kissed me,” I corrected. “Well, we kissed each other. There was mutual kiss—”
“I get it!” she shrieked and then took a visible deep breath. “When did this happen? How did this happen? And why am I now just hearing about this?”
I plopped down in one of the wingback chairs by the fireplace. “It was…it was the night I went to the Red Pearl.”
“I knew it.” Tawny stomped her slippered foot. “I knew something else had happened. You were acting too weird—too worried about being in trouble. Oh! I want to throw something at you. I can’t believe you haven’t said anything. I would be screaming this from the top of the castle.”
“You’d be screaming it because you could. Nothing would happen to you. But me?”
“I know. I know. It’s forbidden and all that.” She hurried over to the other chair and sat, leaning toward me. “But I’m your friend. You’re supposed to tell your friends these kinds of things.”
I wanted so very badly to believe that we were—that we’d be that if she weren’t bound to me. “I’m sorry I didn’t say anything. It’s just that…I’ve done a lot of things I shouldn’t do, but this…this is different. I thought if I didn’t say anything, it would, I don’t know…”
“Go away? That the gods wouldn’t know?” Tawny shook her head. “If the gods know now, they knew then, Poppy.”
“I know,” I whispered, feeling terrible, but I couldn’t tell her why I’d kept it to myself. I didn’t want to hurt her, and I sensed that this would. I wouldn’t need my touch to know that.
“I’ll forgive you for not telling me if you tell me what happened in very, very graphic detail,” she said.
I cracked a grin, and then I did just that. Well, almost that. As I slowly unhooked my veil and draped it across my lap, I told her how I’d come about to be in the room with him and how he thought I was Britta. I told her how he offered to do whatever I wanted once he realized that I wasn’t her, and that he’d asked me to wait for him to return. But I didn’t tell her how he’d kissed me elsewhere.
Tawny stared at me with more awe than even Agnes had when she realized I was the Maiden. “Oh, my gods, Poppy.”
I nodded slowly.
“I so wish you’d stayed.”
“Tawny.” I sighed.
“What? You can’t say you don’t wish you’d stayed. Not just a little bit.”
I couldn’t say that.
“I bet you wouldn’t be a Maiden any longer if you had.”
“What?” She laughed. “I’m kidding, but I bet you’d barely be a Maiden. Tell me, did you…enjoy it? The kissing?”
I bit down on my lip, almost wishing that I could lie. “Yes. I did.”
“Then why are you so upset that he’s your guard?”
“Why? Your hormones must be clouding your rational thought.”
“My hormones are always clouding my rational thought, thank you very much.”
I snorted. “He’s going to recognize me. He has to once he hears me speak, right?”
“What if he goes to the Duke and tells him that I was at the Red Pearl? That I…allowed him to kiss me?” And do more, but at this point, the kissing would be bad enough. “He has to be one of the youngest Royal Guards, if not the youngest. It’s clear he’s interested in advancement, and what better way to secure that than to gain the Duke’s favor. You know how his favorite guards or staff are treated! They’re practically treated better than those on the Court.”
“I don’t think he has an interest in gaining His Grace’s favor,” she argued. “He said you were beautiful.”
“I’m sure he was just being kind.”
She stared at me as if I’d admitted to snacking on dog hair. “First off, you are beautiful. You know that—”
“I’m not saying that to fish for compliments.”
“I know, but I felt the overwhelming need to remind you of such.” She gave me a quick, broad smile. “He didn’t have to say anything in response to the Duke being a general ass.”
My lips twitched.
“He could’ve just ignored it and proceeded on to the Royal Guard oath, which, by the way, he made sound like…sex.”
“Yes,” I admitted, thinking I wouldn’t have realized that before the night in the Red Pearl. “Yes, he did.”
“I almost needed to fan myself, just so you know. But back to the more important part of this development. Do you think he’s already recognized you?”
“I don’t know.” I let my head fall back against the seat. “I wore a mask that night, and he didn’t remove it, but I think I would recognize someone in or out of a mask.”
She nodded. “I would like to think that I would, and I would definitely hope that a Royal Guard would.”
“Then that means he chose not to say anything.” He hadn’t said anything as both Vikter and he had escorted us to my chambers. “Although, he might not have recognized me. It was dimly lit in that room.”
“If he didn’t, then I imagine he will when you speak, as you said. It’s not like you can be completely silent every time you’re around him,” she stated. “That would be suspicious.”
“Agreed.” I toyed with the chains on the veil. “I don’t know. Either he didn’t, or he did and chose not to say anything. Maybe he’s planning to lord it over my head or something.”
Her brows slammed down. “You’re an incredibly suspicious person.”
I started to deny that but realized I couldn’t. I wisely moved along. “He probably just didn’t recognize me.” A weird mixture of relief and disappointment mingled with a thrill of anticipation. “You know what?”
“I don’t know if I’m relieved or disappointed that he didn’t recognize me. Or if I’m excited that he might have.” Shaking my head, I laughed. “I just don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. What…what happened between us was one time only. It was just this…thing. It can’t happen again.”