“So, I know you’re lying,” he replied. I wondered what exactly made him believe that it was me the guards had been talking about. “And I understand why you would. Those men speak of you with such awe that before I even met you, I half expected you to be a child of the gods. They would never report you.”
“That may be the case, but you heard them talking about it. Others could hear them, as well.”
“Perhaps I should be clearer in what I said about hearing rumors. They were actually speaking to me,” he clarified. “Since I too have helped those who are cursed die with dignity. I did so in the capital and do so here, as well.”
My lips parted as my stomach steadied, but my heart flipped and flopped around like a fish out of water.
“Those who come back cursed have already given all for the kingdom. Being treated as anything other than the heroes they are, and being dragged in front of the public to be murdered is the last thing they or their families should have to go through.”
I didn’t know what to say as I stared at him. He was speaking my own thoughts, and I knew there were others out there who believed the same. Obviously. But to know that he was willing to risk high treason to do what was right…
“I’ve kept you up long enough.”
I arched a brow. “That is all you have to say about me being on the Rise?”
“I ask only one thing of you.” He rose, and I prepared for him to tell me to stay away from the Rise. I’d probably tell him I would. Of course, I wouldn’t, and I didn’t think he’d believe me. “The next time you go out, wear better shoes and thicker clothing. Those slippers are likely to be the death of you, and that dress…the death of me.”
Hawke hadn’t reported my presence, but he did tell someone.
I discovered that when I woke up only a few hours after he’d left and went to see if Vikter was up for training. There wasn’t a single part of me that was surprised to find him waiting for me and more than ready to get physical. I’d wanted to talk to him about what had happened with the Craven reaching the top of the Rise.
Vikter wanted to talk about what Hawke had told him. Apparently, after he’d left my room, he went straight to Vikter. I wasn’t exactly mad about that. Mostly just annoyed with Hawke feeling the need to tell Vikter anything. But it confirmed that Hawke figured Vikter would be aware of my presence on the Rise, or at the very least, not surprised or angered by it.
Hawke had miscalculated the whole not-being-angered part.
Vikter frowned as he prowled around me, eyeing my stance. He was checking to make sure my legs were braced, and my feet were planted shoulder-width apart. “You shouldn’t have been on the Rise.”
“But I was.”
“And you were caught.” Vikter stopped in front of me. “What would you have done if it had been another guard who discovered you?”
“If it were anyone else, I wouldn’t have been caught.”
“This isn’t a joke, Poppy.”
“I didn’t say anything funny,” I said. “I’m being honest. Hawke is…he’s fast, and he’s very well trained.”
“Which is why we’re working on your hand-to-hand combat.”
My lips thinned. “My hand-to-hand fighting skills aren’t bad.”
“If that was true, he wouldn’t have caught you. Go,” Vikter ordered.
Keeping my chin low, I threw a punch. He blocked with his forearm, and I pulled back, looking for an opening, though not finding one. So, I made one. I shifted as if to kick, and his arms dropped a fraction of an inch. My opening appeared, and I swung, slamming my fist into his stomach.
He grunted softly. “Nice move.”
I dropped my arms, smiling. “It was, wasn’t it?”
Vikter smirked, but it faded quickly. “I know you’re probably tired of me saying this,” he started, “but I’m going to say it again. You need to be more careful. And you’re throwing punches with your arm instead of your core.”
I was getting tired of hearing him say that. “I am careful, and I’m throwing a punch like you taught me.”
“Your swings are weak. Limp. That’s not how I taught you.” He grabbed my arm, shaking it like a wet noodle. “You don’t have a lot of upper body strength. Your strength is here.” He placed his hand in front of my stomach. “You will inflict way more damage this way. When you throw a punch, your torso and hips should move with you.”
I nodded and did what he said. I missed, but I could feel the difference in the swing. “Hawke isn’t going to report me to His Grace.”
“You really think that?” He blocked my next punch. “Better.”
“If he was going to say anything, he would’ve gone straight to the Duke.”
“There could be a hundred reasons why he hasn’t said anything yet.”
A few days ago, I would’ve agreed, but not anymore. Not after what he’d confessed the night prior. “I don’t think he’s going to, Vikter. I don’t have anything to worry about, and neither do you. I didn’t tell him you were the one who trained me.”
“Poppy,” he said. He said it in the same way he had when I asked if he thought I could hide a broadsword under my veil. I still believed I could. I just needed to position it right— “You don’t know him.”
“I know that.” I crossed my arms as Vikter backed off. “But you don’t know him either.”
“You don’t know what his motivations are—why he would keep quiet.”
I knew what he’d said about the Red Pearl, and I was sure it also applied to the Rise. But it was more than that. The fact that Hawke was willing to risk being charged with high treason to help those who’d been cursed spoke volumes about who he was as a person. It didn’t feel right sharing that with Vikter, though. There was a reason we didn’t know the identities of others in the network.
So, I went with, “He said that if he had, he knew I wouldn’t trust him, which would make his job harder. You have to admit, he has a point.”
“He does, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be careful.” Vikter fell silent for a moment. “And I understand. I do.”
“Like I said before, he’s an attractive young man—”
“That has nothing to do with it.”
“And you’ve been surrounded by old men like me.”
“You’re not all that old.”
He blinked. “Thanks.” A pause. “I think.”
“It has nothing to do with how he looks. I’m not saying that I don’t think he’s attractive. I do, but that’s not why I trust him.” And that was the truth. My faith didn’t stem from what he looked like. “I’m not that foolish.”
“I’m not suggesting you are.” He thrust a hand through his hair. “So, you trust him?”
“I…I told him why I needed to be out on that Rise. I told him about the night my family was attacked. You know how he responded? Even though he said at first that I shouldn’t be out there, he listened to my reasons, and the only thing he said was that I needed to wear better shoes.” I figured I’d keep the part about my gown to myself. “I trust him, Vikter. Is there a reason I shouldn’t?”
Vikter sighed heavily as he looked away. “He hasn’t given us any reason to doubt him. I know that. It’s just that we don’t know him, and you’re important to me, Poppy. Not because you’re the Maiden, but because you’re…you.”
A knot of emotion formed in my chest and fought its way up my throat. I didn’t give him a chance to realize what I was doing. I launched myself at him, wrapping my arms around his waist and hugging him tightly. “Thank you,” I murmured against his chest.
Vikter was as stiff as a guard on the Rise for their very first time, but then he put his hands on my back. And patted me.
“You know I’ll never replace your father, nor would I ever try to, but you’re like a daughter to me.”
I hugged him tighter.
He patted me again. “I worry about you. Partly because it’s my job, but mostly because it’s you.”
“You’re important to me, too.” My words were muffled against his chest. “Even though you think my punches are weak.”
His chuckle was rough as he dropped his chin to the top of my head. “Your punches are weak when you’re not doing them correctly.” He pulled back, clasping my cheeks. “But, girl, your aim is deadly. Don’t ever forget that.”
“The gods have not failed us. The Ascended have not failed you.” The Duke’s voice carried from where he stood on the balcony of the castle wall that evening. Below him, a mass of people filled the open yard, and under the glow of oil lamps and torches, I could see several wore all black, the somber color of death. Among them were guards astride horses, keeping an eye on the nervous crowd.
I’d never known His Grace to address the people like this. He and the Duchess were never in front of so many, not even during the Councils or the Rite. I couldn’t have been more surprised when both Vikter and Hawke arrived after supper to escort me to the balcony.
Then again, how many years had it been since such a significant movement of Craven reached the Rise?
Black flags had been raised over too many homes, and too many funeral pyres had been lit at dawn. The air was still choked with ash and incense.
“Because of the gods’ Blessing,” Teerman continued, “the Rise did not fall last night.”
Standing back, next to Tawny, and flanked by Vikter and Hawke, I wondered exactly how the gods’ Blessing had kept the wall from falling. It had been the guards, men like the archer, who had chosen death over allowing the Craven to come over the top.
“They reached the top!” a man shouted. “They almost made it over the Rise. Are we safe?”