Hawke looked over his shoulder at me, a faint smile playing at his lips. “I have incredible tracking skills, Princess.”
“I have incredible tracking skills,” I muttered under my breath the following afternoon.
“What?” Tawny turned to me, frowning.
“Nothing. I’m just talking to myself,” I said, taking a deep breath and pushing thoughts of Hawke out of my mind. “You look beautiful.”
And that was true.
Tawny’s hair was twisted up with a few tight curls framing her face. Her lips matched her mask and gown, a deep and vibrant shade of red. The thin, sleeveless dress hugged her lithe form. She wasn’t just beautiful as she walked toward where I stood by the fireplace. She was confident and at ease with her body and herself, and I was in awe of her.
“Thank you.” She straightened the material along her shoulder and then dropped her hand. “You look absolutely stunning, Poppy.”
A flutter erupted in my chest and spread to my belly. “Do I?”
“Gods, yes. Have you not looked at yourself yet?”
I shook my head no.
Tawny stared at me. “So, you put on the dress—this absolutely beautiful, tailor-made dress—and haven’t even looked at yourself? Not only that, you let me do your hair. I could’ve made it look like a nest for birds.”
A nervous giggle left me. “I really hope you didn’t.”
She shook her head. “You are so…weird sometimes.”
I was. Admittedly. But it was hard to explain why I hadn’t looked at myself yet. It was so rare that I saw myself in anything other than white, and even when I dressed differently to sneak out, I didn’t really look at myself. And this was still different because it was allowed. Because some who knew me would see me.
Hawke would see me.
The flutter turned into large birds of prey that began pecking away at my insides. I was so…nervous.
“Come on.” Tawny caught my hand and dragged me into the bathing chamber where the only mirror was located. She marched me straight to where the nearly full-length mirror was propped against the corner. “Look.”
I almost closed my eyes, as silly as that was, but I looked. I stared at my reflection, not quite sure I recognized myself, and it had nothing to do with the lack of veil and the red domino mask that had been delivered along with the gown.
“What do you think?” Tawny asked, her reflection appearing behind me.
What did I think? I felt…naked.
The gown was beautiful. No doubt there. The crimson gossamer sleeves, shaded just enough to hide the scars on my inner arms, were long and flowing, and had a delicate lace edge at the cuffs. The flimsy fabric was opaque at the breast and down to my thighs, the gown skimming my curves and shielding those areas. The skirt was loose, and a thicker band of gossamer created the illusion of tiers every few inches, but everything else was as translucent as a nightgown.
I really should’ve tried the dress on. It had been hanging in my wardrobe for long enough. I had no idea why I hadn’t.
I knew that if I tried it on, I probably would’ve sent it back.
Tawny had talked me into keeping most of my hair down. Only the sides were pulled back from my face, secured by tiny pins. The rest fell to the middle of my back in loose waves.
Hawke would see me in this dress.
“Maybe I could use my hair as a cloak?” I suggested, gathering the strands into two sections and pulling it over my shoulders.
“Oh my gods.” Tawny laughed, shooing my hands away. She brushed the heavy waves back. “You can’t see anything.”
“I know, but…” I placed my cool hands against my flushed cheeks.
“You’ve never been allowed to wear anything like this,” she finished for me. “I understand. It’s okay to be nervous.” She stepped back and dug around in the little bag she’d brought with her. “But you look beautiful, Poppy.”
“Thank you,” I murmured, glancing at my reflection. I did feel beautiful in this gown. Anyone would.
Tawny returned to my side, a pot in one hand, and a slim brush in the other. “Keep your lips parted and hold still.”
I did as she ordered and held completely still as she painted my lips the same shade as my dress. When she was finished, she stepped aside. My lips were…bright.
I’d never worn paint on my lips or eyes before. Obviously, it wasn’t allowed for me. Why? My skin was supposed to be as pure as my heart or something. I had no idea. Once, the Duchess had explained it to me, but I might’ve zoned out halfway through that conversation.
“Perfect,” Tawny murmured, placing the pot and brush back into her bag. “You ready?”
Not at all.
But I needed to be. The Rite would begin at dusk, and the sun was already setting.
Pulse pounding, I nodded. Tawny smiled at me, and I think I smiled back. Or at least I hoped I did as I followed her out into the main chamber. I felt a little dizzy as she reached for the door, opening it. Hawke would be out there with Vikter, and I wanted to turn back and run—to where, I had no idea. Maybe to the bed, where I could wrap the blanket around—
Vikter stood alone.
I looked up and down the hall, expecting to see Hawke, but the corridor was otherwise empty.
“You both look lovely,” Vikter said. It was…weird seeing him in anything but black and without the white mantle of a Royal Guard. He was dressed for the Rite in a deep crimson, sleeveless tunic and breeches that matched.
“Thank you,” Tawny said, curling her arm around mine as I murmured the same thing.
The corners of his lips turned up as he focused on me. “You sure you’re ready, Poppy?”
“She is,” Tawny answered, patting my arm.
“I am,” I said, realizing that Vikter wouldn’t move forward if I didn’t say anything.
He nodded, and then the three of us started down the hall. Was Hawke not working tonight? I figured both of them would be on duty with me being at the Rite, but what if I’d assumed wrong? But he’d said he was…curious to see me. Didn’t that mean that even if he wasn’t on duty, he’d be here?
My heart thumped as we walked down the stairs to the second floor. It shouldn’t matter if he was here or what he’d said. I wasn’t dressed for him.
But where was he?
I told myself not to ask. I reminded myself over and over, but I blurted it out anyway. “Where’s Hawke?”
“He had to meet with the Commander, I believe. He will meet us at the Rite.”
Relief swept through me, and on its heels came the almost sweet thrill of anticipation. I exhaled roughly. If my question or reaction appeared odd to Vikter, he didn’t show it. Tawny, on the other hand, squeezed my arm. I glanced at her.
She grinned, and if the mask hadn’t covered her eyebrows, I knew one of them would be raised.
We made our way to the foyer, and there were many people—commoners and Ladies and Lords, both fully Ascended and those in Wait, and staff, all forming a sea of crimson. Cologne and perfumes mixed with the sounds of laughter and conversation.
It was…a lot to take in as we passed one of the statues. The first thing I did was lock down my gift, fortifying my walls. But my heart was still pounding as we entered the hall of banners. The archway of the Great Hall loomed ahead, brightly lit.
Air seemed to leak in and out of my lungs as we then entered the Great Hall.
There were so many people. Hundreds stood before the raised dais, between the pillars, and in the windowed alcoves. Normally, I would be on the dais, removed from the throng, but not tonight. It still shocked me that the Duke and Duchess hadn’t demanded that I join them, but there simply hadn’t been any space. Not when there were at least half a dozen Temple clergy on the dais, including Priestess Analia, and just as many Royal Guards.
I looked around, trying to control my breathing. The white and gold banners usually hanging between the windows and behind the dais had been replaced by the deep crimson banners of the Rite, embossed with the Royal Crest. Deep red blossoms flowed from urns, variations of roses and other similarly hued flowers. Up by the dais there was a break in the color, a splash of white amongst the red. For once, it wasn’t me who stood out. Dressed in white tunics and gowns, the second sons and daughters stood with their families. Behind them, the parents of the third sons and daughters crowded, their children in their arms. All of them, even the parents, bore wreaths of red roses and twine upon their heads.
“If I never see another rose, I will live happily,” Tawny commented, following my gaze. “You have no idea how many thorns I had to pull out of my fingers while making those crowns.”
“They’re beautiful, though,” I said as Vikter scanned the crowd that continued to file in.
Most paid us no mind as we walked among them. Only a few did a double-take when their gazes passed over us. Eyes rounded around their masks as they either recognized Tawny or Vikter, knowing that I had to be the one in between them. My cheeks heated, but there were so few of them that noticed. To everyone else, I was…just like them. For the most part, I was blending in. I was no one.
The pressure eased in my chest as my pulse slowed. Breathing became so much easier, and the mental walls blocking out my gift no longer felt as if they were seconds away from crumbling.
I wasn’t the Maiden right now.
I was Poppy.
Briefly closing my eyes, muscles strung tight as a bow relaxed. This…this was what I’d been looking forward to—when I could just be Poppy.
And that made this moment, this night, a little magical.
Opening my eyes, I looked up at the dais again, ignoring the far left of the stage where the Priestess stood. I spotted the Duchess, speaking with one of the Royal Guards I recognized. I generally saw him outside the Duke’s office. I scanned the dais, but I didn’t see the Duke. I wondered where he was when one of the Priests joined the Duchess and the Royal Guard. My gaze dropped to those before the dais, and my excitement dimmed as I thought of the Tulis family. They had to be up there with their son, preparing to say goodbye to yet another child. Tonight would not be a celebration for them, not—