My gaze drifted over his chest, and the memory of how hard it had felt, even without the armor, sent heat creeping into my cheeks. A newly familiar heaviness settled in my chest, making the silk of my dress feel coarse against my suddenly sensitive and flushed skin.
Maybe one of those stupid fans would be useful.
Swallowing a groan, I wanted to smack myself in the face. But since that wasn’t exactly an option, I took a sip of my tea, trying to ease the inexplicable dryness in my throat, and focused on Dafina and Loren once more. They were talking about the Rite, their excitement a heady hum. The celebration was just a week away, on the night of the Harvest Moon.
Their excitement was infectious. With it being my first Rite, I would be there, masked and not in white. Most would have no idea that I was the Maiden. Well, the two guards who were sure to be with me at all times would probably give me away to those paying attention. Still, a thrill of anticipation-laced uncertainty curled its way through me as my gaze slowly ticked its way back to Hawke.
My stomach tumbled.
If he saw me in the mask, would he know I was the one who’d been in the room with him? Would that even matter? By the time of the Rite, he would have to know I was one and the same, wouldn’t he? If he hadn’t realized it already.
He stood with feet shoulder-width apart, his gaze on our little group. The sunlight almost seemed drawn to him, caressing his cheekbones and brow like a lover. His profile was flawless, the line of his jaw as chiseled as the statues that adorned the garden and the castle foyer.
“You know that it has to mean that he’s near,” Loren was saying. “Prince Casteel.”
My head snapped in her direction in shock. I had no idea what she was talking about or how the subject had come up, but I couldn’t believe she had actually spoken his name aloud. My lips parted. No one other than the Descenters would dare utter his actual name, and I doubted that any of them would even speak it in the castle. It was treasonous to call him a prince. He was the Dark One.
Dafina was frowning. “Because of the…” She glanced at me, her brows knitted. “Because of the attack?”
It was only then that I realized they must’ve been talking about the attempted kidnapping while I’d been…
Well, while I’d been doing exactly what they had been doing earlier—staring and thinking about Hawke.
“Besides that.” Loren returned to threading a blood-red crystal to her mask. “I overheard Britta saying so this morning.”
“The maid?” Dafina huffed.
“Yes, the maid.” The dark-haired Lady in Wait lifted her chin. “They know everything.”
Dafina laughed. “Everything?”
She nodded as she lowered her voice. “People speak about anything in front of them. No matter how intimate or private. It’s almost like they are ghosts in a room. There is nothing they don’t overhear.”
Loren had a point. I’d seen it myself with the Duchess and the Duke.
“What did Britta say?” Tawny placed her cup on the table.
Loren’s dark eyes flicked to me and then moved back to Tawny. “She said that Prince Casteel had been spotted in Three Rivers. That it was he who started the fire that took Duke Everton’s life.”
“How could anyone claim that?” Tawny demanded. “No one who has ever seen the Dark One will speak of what he looks like or has lived long enough to give any description of him.”
“I don’t know about that,” argued Dafina. “I heard from Ramsey that he is bald and has pointy ears, and is pale, just like…you know what.”
I resisted the urge to snort. Atlantians looked just like us.
“Ramsey? One of His Grace’s stewards?” Tawny arched a brow. “I should’ve stated, how could anyone credible claim that?”
“Britta claims that the few who’ve seen Prince Casteel say he’s actually quite handsome,” Loren added.
“Oh, really?” mused Dafina.
Loren nodded as she knotted the crystal to her mask. “She said that was how he gained access to Goldcrest Manor.” Her voice dropped. “That Duchess Everton developed a relationship of a physical nature with him without realizing who he was, and that was how he was able to move freely through the manor.”
Britta sure talked a lot, didn’t she?
“Nearly all of what she says turns out to be true.” Loren shrugged as she worked an emerald-green crystal beside the red. “So, she could be right about Prince Casteel.”
“You should really stop saying that name,” Tawny advised. “If someone overhears you, you’ll be sent to the Temples faster than you can say ‘I knew better.’”
Loren’s laugh was light. “I’m not worried. I’m not foolish enough to say such things where I can be overheard, and I doubt anyone present will say anything.” Her gaze flicked to me, brief but knowing. She knew I couldn’t say a word because I’d have to explain how I was even a part of the conversation.
Which, for the record, I wasn’t.
I was just sitting here.
“What…what if he was actually here?” Loren gave a delicate shudder. “In the city now? What if that was how he gained access to Castle Teerman?” Her eyes lit up. “Befriended someone here or perhaps even poor Malessa.”
“You don’t sound all that concerned by the prospect.” Tawny picked up her cup. “To be blunt, you sound excited.”
“Excited? No. Intrigued? Possibly.” She lowered the mask to her lap, sighing. “Some days are just so dreadfully dull.”
The shock of her statement caused me to forget who I was and where I was. All that I managed to do was keep my voice low when I spoke. “So, a good old rebellion may liven things up for you? Dead men and women and children are a source of entertainment?”
Surprise flickered across both her and Dafina’s faces. It was probably the first time either had ever heard me speak.
Loren swallowed. “I suppose I…I might’ve misspoken, Maiden. I apologize.”
I said nothing.
“Please ignore Loren,” pleaded Dafina. “Sometimes, she speaks without any thought and means nothing by it.”
Loren nodded emphatically, but I didn’t doubt that she’d meant exactly what she said. A rebellion would break up the monotony of her day, and she hadn’t thought of the lives affected or lost because she simply hadn’t cared to.
It happened then, once more without any warning, causing my body to jerk forward and my spine to stiffen. My gift reached out on its own, and before I even realized it was happening, that invisible link formed between Loren and me. A sensation came through the connection, a mixture that reminded me of fresh air on a warm day and then something acrid like bitter melon. I focused on the sensations as my heart thumped against my ribs. They felt like…excitement and fear as Loren stared at me as if she wished to say something additional.
But that couldn’t be what I was picking up on from Loren. It didn’t make any sense. Those emotions had to be coming from me, and somehow, influencing my gift.
Dafina grabbed her friend’s arm. “Come, we should be on our way.”
Not given much choice, Loren was hauled out of her seat and quickly escorted out of the room with Dafina whispering in her ear.
“I think you scared them,” Tawny said.
Lifting a trembling hand, I took a quick sip of the sweet lemon drink. I had no idea what had just happened.
“Poppy.” Tawny touched my arm lightly. “Are you okay?”
I nodded as I carefully placed the cup down. “Yes, I’m just…” How could I explain it? Tawny didn’t know about the gift, but even if she did, I wasn’t sure I could have put it into words, or be sure that anything had actually happened.
I looked over at her and opened my senses. Like at first with Dafina and Loren, all I felt was a twinge of sorrow. No deep pain or anything I shouldn’t be feeling.
My heart slowed, and my body relaxed. I sat back, wondering if it was just stress causing my gift to behave so oddly.
Tawny stared at me, concern creeping into her expression.
“I’m okay,” I told her, still keeping my voice low. “I just can’t believe what Loren said.”
“Neither can I, but she’s always been…amused by the most morbid things. Like Dafina said, she means nothing by it.”
I nodded, thinking that whether or not she meant anything by it didn’t exactly matter. I took another sip of the drink, relieved to find that my hand wasn’t trembling. Feeling measurably more normal, I chalked up the weirdness to stress and lack of sleep. My thoughts returned to the Dark One. He could be behind the attacks and might very well be after me, but none of that meant he was actually within the city. However, if he were…
Unease trickled through me as I thought about Goldcrest Manor. It wasn’t impossible for something like that to happen here, especially considering an Atlantian and a Descenter had already infiltrated the castle grounds.
“What are you going to do?” Tawny whispered.
“About the Dark One possibly being in the city?” I replied, confused.
“What? No.” She squeezed my arm. “About him.”
“Him?” I glanced at Hawke.
“Yes. Him.” Sighing, she let go of my arm. “Unless there’s another guy you’ve made out with while your identity was concealed.”
“Yes. There are many. They have an actual club,” I replied dryly, and she rolled her eyes. “There’s nothing for me to do.”
“Have you even spoken to him?” She tapped her chin, glancing at him.
She tilted her head. “You do realize you will have to actually speak in front of him at some point.”
“I’m speaking right now,” I pointed out, even though I knew that wasn’t what she’d meant.
Her eyes narrowed. “You’re whispering, Poppy. I can barely hear you.”