“Sure,” she murmured.
“Not that I’m even thinking he’d want to do any of that again, especially now that he knows it was me. If he does.”
“But what I’m trying to say is that it’s not a thing to even consider. What he does with the knowledge is the only thing that matters,” I finished with a nod.
Tawny looked as if she were seconds away from clapping. “You know what I think?”
“I’m half afraid to hear it.”
Her brown eyes glimmered. “Things are about to get so much more exciting around here.”
Early afternoon, the following day, I sat in the airy, sun-drenched atrium with Tawny and not one but two Ladies in Wait, wondering how I’d ended up in this situation.
My trips outside my chambers were always well timed, especially when I came to the atrium, so no one but me would be in the room. When I arrived some thirty minutes ago, it was empty as usual.
That had changed within minutes of sitting down and picking at the tiny sandwiches Tawny had confiscated from another room. Loren and Dafina had arrived, and while I sat as I’d been groomed to do—hands clasped lightly in my lap, ankles crossed, and feet tucked behind the ivory hem of my gown—I shouldn’t be in the room.
Not while the Ladies in Wait were present since they’d cozied up to the table Tawny and I had sat at. The situation could easily be construed as me interacting with them, which was one of the many things expressly forbidden by the Priests and Priestesses. Interaction was, in their words, too familiar.
I wasn’t interacting, though. I imagined I was the picture of well-bred serenity. Or I could easily be mistaken for one of the statues of the veiled Maidens. I may appear calm on the outside, but internally, I was nothing more than an exhausted, frazzled ball of nerves. Some of it had to do with the lack of any restful sleep the night prior—well, to be honest, for the last several days. It was also partly due to the fact that I knew I was going to be blamed for Dafina’s and Loren’s presence. I didn’t even know if I was allowed to be in the atrium. It had never been an issue before, and no one had ever spoken to me about it. However, no one other than a stray servant or guard had ever shown up in the atrium while I’d been here before. They weren’t the only reasons I was a mess of anxious, restless energy, though.
The primary cause stood catty-corner from where I sat, hand braced on the hilt of his sword, amber-colored eyes constantly alert.
It was strange to glance over and see him standing there. And it wasn’t just because it was usually Rylan who watched over these afternoon brunches Tawny and I sometimes took in the atrium. It was how different it was with Hawke being here. Normally, Rylan had stared out into the garden or spent the majority of the time speaking with one of the other Royal Guards who were nearby as he lingered just inside the entrance. Not Hawke. He found the one area in the room where he had a view of the entire brightly lit space and the gardens outside the atrium.
Luckily, the windows didn’t face the roses.
Unluckily, I often found myself staring at the fountain of the veiled Maiden.
In just one day, it had become almost painfully evident how lax Rylan had gotten in terms of security. Granted, there hadn’t been an attempt before, but he had softened. I hated even acknowledging that. It felt like a betrayal to do so, but that wasn’t the only thing that made this brunch so very different from the ones before.
Another thing that made it so different was the appearance of the two Ladies in Wait. I suspected that this was the first time they’d even been in the atrium since they’d arrived at Castle Teerman after their Rites.
Dafina, a second daughter of a rich merchant, fluttered a silk, lilac-hued folding fan as if she were attempting to end the life of an insect only she could see. While late-morning sun poured in through the windows, the atrium was still cool, and I doubted Dafina had grown overheated between eating cucumber sandwiches and sipping tea.
Beside her, Loren, the second daughter of a successful trader, had all but given up on sewing the tiny crystals onto her mask that was to be worn during the upcoming Rite, and had fully committed herself to watching every move the dark-haired Royal Guard made. I was confident she knew just how many breaths Hawke took in a minute.
Deep down, I knew why I hadn’t risen and left the room like I was supposed to, like I knew Tawny waited for me to do. I understood why I was so willing to risk censure for simply sitting and minding my own business.
I was enthralled by the antics of the two Ladies in Wait.
Loren had already done several things to catch Hawke’s attention. She’d dropped her pouch of crystals—which Hawke had gallantly assisted her in retrieving—while she pretended to be engrossed with a blue-winged bird hopping along the branches of a tree close to the windows. That had provoked Dafina to feign a faint, due to what, I had no idea. Somehow, the neckline of her blue gown had slipped so far, I wondered how she managed not to fall out of it.
I couldn’t fall out of my dress if it was on fire.
My gown was all flowing sleeves, tiny beads, and a bodice that nearly reached my neck. The material was far too thin and delicate for me to sheathe the dagger to my thigh. As soon as I could change into something else, the blade would be back where it belonged.
Ever the gentleman, Hawke had escorted Dafina to the chaise and had brought her a glass of mint water. Not to be outdone, Loren then swooned from a sudden, inexplicable headache that she’d quickly recovered from once Hawke had brandished a smile, the one that showed the dimple in his right cheek.
There’d been no headache, just as there’d been no faint. I’d opened up my senses out of curiosity and felt no pain or anguish from either of them other than a thread of sadness. I thought that it might be due to Malessa’s death, even though neither spoke of her.
“You know what I heard?” Dafina snapped her fan as she dragged her teeth over her lower lip, glancing toward Hawke. “Someone,”—she drew out the word and then lowered her voice—“has been a rather frequent visitor of one of those…” Her gaze flicked to me. “One of those dens in the city.”
“Dens?” Tawny asked, giving up pretending that they weren’t there. Not that I could blame her. She was friends with them, and while the Ladies in Wait were well aware that they probably shouldn’t be sitting with me, Tawny appeared just as entertained as I was by their antics.
Dafina sent her a meaningful look. “You know the kind, where men and women often go to play cards and other games.”
Tawny’s brows lifted. “You’re talking about the Red Pearl?”
“I was trying to be discreet.” Dafina sighed, her glance darting pointedly in my direction. “But, yes.”
I almost laughed at Dafina’s attempt to shield me from the knowledge of such a place. I wondered what she’d do if she knew I’d been there.
“And what have you heard he does at such a place?” Tawny nudged me with her foot under the table. “I imagine he’s there to play cards, right? Or do you…?” Pressing a hand to her chest, she slumped in her chair and sighed. A curl slipped free from the elaborate twist that was trying—and failing—to contain her hair. “Or do you think he engages in other, more illicit…games?”
Tawny knew exactly what Hawke did at the Red Pearl.
I wanted to kick her…like a Maiden, of course.
“I’m sure playing cards is all he does.” Loren arched a brow as she pressed her yellow and red fan against the deep blue of her dress. The contrast of the fan and gown was…atrocious and also interesting. My gaze dipped to her mask. Crystals of every color were already sewn into the material. I was sure it would look like a rainbow had vomited all over her face once she finished. “If that is all he does, then that would be a…disappointment.”
“I imagine he does what everyone does when they go there,” Tawny said, humor dripping like syrup from her words. “Finds someone to spend…quality time with.” Her mischievous gaze slid to mine.
I was going to replace the sugars Tawny loved to dump into her coffee with coarse salt.
She knew I wouldn’t chime in, that I couldn’t. I wasn’t allowed to speak to the Ladies, and I still hadn’t spoken to Hawke or around him. And other than Hawke asking if I wished to do anything after supper last night, to which I had shaken my head no, he hadn’t spoken to me either.
Like before, I wasn’t sure if I was relieved or disappointed.
“You shouldn’t suggest such things in current company,” Dafina suggested.
Tawny choked on her tea, and behind the veil, my eyes rolled.
“I imagine if Miss Willa were alive today, she would’ve snared him in her web,” Loren said, and my interest was piqued. Was she talking about the Willa Colyns? “And then wrote about him in her diary.”
Miss Willa Colyns was a woman who’d lived in Masadonia some two hundred years ago. She’d apparently had a very…active love life. Miss Colyns had detailed her rather scandalous affairs quite explicitly in her journal, and it had been filed away in the city Atheneum as some sort of historical account. I made a mental note to ask Tawny to retrieve that journal for me.
“I heard that she only wrote about her most skilled…partners,” Dafina whispered with a giggle. “So, if he made it onto those pages, you know what that means.”
I did know what that meant.
Because of him.
My gaze drifted to where Hawke stood. The black breeches and tunic molded to his body like a second skin, and I couldn’t blame Dafina or Loren for how their gazes seemed to find their way back to him every couple of minutes. He was tall, with lean muscle, and the sheathed sword at his waist, along with the one at his side, said he was prepared for more than just fainting ladies. The white mantle of the Royal Guard was a new addition, draped over the back of his shoulders.
But he also filled the air with a certain type of unquantifiable tension, as if the room were electrified. Anyone around him had to be aware of that.