“I know you’re not like the other members of the Court.”
“I’m not a member of the Court,” I pointed out.
“You’re the Maiden. You’re viewed as a child of the gods by the commoners. They see you higher than an Ascended, but I know you’re compassionate. That night at the Red Pearl, when we talked about death, you genuinely felt sympathy for any losses I’d experienced. It wasn’t a forced nicety.”
“How do you know?”
“I’m a good judge of people’s words,” he remarked. “You wouldn’t speak out of fear of being discovered until I referred to Tawny as your maid. You defended her at the risk of exposing yourself.” He paused. “And I saw you.”
He tipped forward again, lowering his voice. “I saw you during the City Council. You didn’t agree with the Duke and Duchess. I couldn’t see your face, but I could tell you were uncomfortable. You felt bad for that family.”
“So did Tawny.”
“No offense to your friend, but she looked half-asleep throughout most of that. I doubt she even knew what was going on.”
I couldn’t exactly argue that point, but what he had seen was me briefly losing control of my gift. However, that didn’t change the fact that I wasn’t okay with what was happening to the Tulis family.
“And you know how to fight—and fight well. Not only that, you’re obviously brave. There are many men—trained men— who wouldn’t go out on the Rise during a Craven attack if they didn’t have to. The Ascended could’ve gone out there, and they’d have a higher chance of surviving, yet they didn’t. You did.”
I shook my head. “Those things are just traits. They don’t mean you know me well enough to care about what does and doesn’t happen to me.”
His eyes fixed on mine. “Would you care what happens to me?”
“Well, yes.” My brows knitted in a frown. “I would—”
“But you don’t know me.”
I snapped my mouth shut. Dammit.
“You’re a decent person, Princess.” He sat back. “That’s why you care.”
“And you’re not a decent person?”
Hawke lowered his gaze. “I’m many things. Decent is rarely one of them.”
I had no idea how to respond to that little bit of honesty.
“You’re not going to tell me what the Duke did, are you?” He sighed, his back bowing slightly in the chair. “You know, I’ll find out one way or another.”
I almost laughed. I was confident that was one thing no one would ever speak about. “If you think so.”
“I know so,” he replied, and a heartbeat passed. “It’s weird, isn’t it?”
His gaze met mine again, and I felt a hitch in my chest. I couldn’t look away. I felt…ensnared. “How it feels like I’ve known you longer. You feel that, too.”
I wanted to deny it, but he was right, and it was weird. I said none of that because I didn’t want to acknowledge it. Doing so felt like a start down a road I couldn’t travel. Knowing that caused a deep, twisting sensation in my chest, and I didn’t want to acknowledge that either.
Because it felt a lot like disappointment. And didn’t that mean I’d already begun to travel that road? I broke eye contact, my gaze falling to my hands.
“Why were you on the Rise?” he asked, changing the subject.
“Wasn’t it obvious?”
“Your motivation wasn’t. At least, tell me that. Tell me what drove you to go up there to fight them.”
Easing open my fingers, I slipped two of them under the sleeve of my right arm. They skimmed my skin until the tips brushed over two jagged tears. There were others, along my stomach and my thighs.
It would be easy to lie, to come up with any number of reasons, but I wasn’t sure if there was any harm in the truth. Was three instead of two knowing the truth somehow earth-shattering? I didn’t think it was.
“The scar on my face. Do you know how I got it?”
“Your family was attacked by some Craven when you were a child,” he answered. “Vikter…”
“He filled you in?” A faint, tired smile pulled at my lips. “It’s not the only scar.” When he said nothing, I slipped my hand out from under my sleeve. “When I was six, my parents decided to leave the capital for Niel Valley. They wanted a much quieter life, or so I’m told. I don’t remember much from the trip other than my mother and father being incredibly tense throughout the whole thing. Ian and I were young and didn’t know a lot about the Craven, so we weren’t afraid of being out there or stopping at one of the smaller villages—a place I was told later hadn’t seen a Craven attack in decades. There was just a short wall, like most of the smaller towns, and we were staying at the inn only for one night. The place smelled like cinnamon and cloves. I remember that.”
I closed my eyes. “They came at night, in the mist. There was no time once they appeared. My father…he went out onto the street to try and fend them off while my mother hid us, but they came through the door and the windows before she could even step outside.” The memory of my mother’s screams forced my eyes open. I swallowed. “A woman—someone who was staying at the inn—was able to grab Ian and pull him into this hidden room, but I hadn’t wanted to leave my mom and it just…” Dark and disjointed flashes of the night attempted to piece themselves together. Blood on the floor, the walls, running down my mother’s arms. Losing my grip on her slippery hand, and then grabbing hands and snapping teeth. The claws… And then the soul-crushing, fiery pain until, finally, nothing. “I woke up days later, back in the capital. Queen Ileana was by my side. She told me what had happened. That our parents were gone.”
“I’m sorry,” Hawke said, and I nodded. “I truly am. It’s a miracle you survived.”
“The gods protected me. That’s what the Queen told me. That I was Chosen. I came to learn later that it was one of the reasons the Queen had begged my mother and father not to leave the safety of the capital. That…that if the Dark One became aware of the Maiden being unprotected, he’d send the Craven after me. He wanted me dead then, but apparently, he wants me alive now.” I laughed, and it hurt a little.
“What happened to your family is not your fault, and there could be any number of reasons for why they attacked that village.” He dragged a hand through his hair, pushing the now-dry strands back from his forehead. “What else do you remember?”
“No one…no one in that inn knew how to fight. Not my parents, none of the women, or even the men. They all relied on the handful of guards.” I rubbed my fingers together. “If my parents knew how to defend themselves, they could’ve survived. It might’ve been just a small chance, but one nonetheless.”
Understanding flickered across Hawke’s face. “And you want that chance.”
I nodded. “I won’t…I refuse to be helpless.”
“No one should be.”
Blowing out a little breath, I stilled my fingers. “You saw what happened tonight. They reached the top of the Rise. If one makes it over, more will follow. No Rise is impenetrable, and even if it were, mortals come back from outside the Rise cursed. It happens more than people realize. At any moment, that curse could spread in this city. If I’m going down—”
“You’ll go down fighting,” he finished for me.
“Like I said, you’re very brave.”
“I don’t think it’s bravery.” I returned to staring at my hands. “I think it’s…fear.”
“Fear and bravery are often one and the same. It either makes you a warrior or a coward. The only difference is the person it resides inside.”
My gaze lifted to him in stunned silence. It took me a moment to formulate a response. “You sound so many years older than what you appear.”
“Only half of the time,” he said. “You saved lives tonight, Princess.”
I ignored the nickname. “But many died.”
“Too many,” he agreed. “The Craven are a never-ending plague.”
Letting my head rest against the back of the chair, I wiggled my toes toward the fire. “As long as an Atlantian lives, there will be Craven.”
“That is what they say,” he said, and when I glanced back at him, a muscle flexed along his jaw as he stared at the dwindling fire. “You said that more come back from outside the Rise cursed than people realize. How do you know that?”
I opened my mouth. Dammit. How would I know that?
“I’ve heard rumors.”
His gaze slid to me. “It’s not spoken about a lot, and when it is, it’s only whispered.”
Unease stirred. “You’re going to need to be more detailed.”
“I’ve heard that the child of the gods has helped those who are cursed,” he said, and I tensed. “That she has aided them, given them death with dignity.”
I didn’t know if I should be relieved that was all he’d heard and that he hadn’t brought up my gift. But the fact that he, someone who hadn’t been in the city all that long, had heard such rumors wasn’t exactly reassuring.
If Vikter found out that Hawke had heard such a thing, he would not be happy. Then again, I doubted if Vikter would allow me to assist him after the last time anyway.
“Who has said such things?” I asked.
“A few of the guards,” he told me, and my stomach sank even further. “I didn’t believe them at first, to be honest.”
I schooled my features. “Well, you should’ve stuck with your initial reaction. They’re mistaken if they think I would commit outright treason against the Crown.”
His gaze flickered over my face. “Didn’t I just tell you that I was a good judge of character?”