“Shut up,” I hissed.
“I’m not done yet,” he said, his chest pressing against my back. “What about sneaking off to fight the Craven on the Rise? Or that diary—?”
“I get your point, Hawke. Can you stop talking now?”
“You’re the one who started this.”
“Actually, no, I did not.”
“What?” A low laugh left him. “You said, and I quote, ‘this is wildly, grossly, irrefutably…’”
“Did you just learn what an adverb is today? Because that is not what I said.”
Hawke sighed. “Sorry.”
He didn’t sound sorry about it at all.
“I didn’t realize we were back to pretending we hadn’t done all those other inappropriate things,” he said. “Not that I’m surprised. After all, you’re a pure, untainted, and untouched Maiden. The Chosen.”
Oh, my gods….
“Who’s saving herself for a Royal husband. Who, by the way, will not be pure, untainted or untouched—”
I moved to jab him with my elbow, but forgot I was currently wrapped in one blanket and draped with another. All I managed to do was uncover the front of my body, revealing it to the cold air.
“I hate you.” I scrambled to fold myself back up into my blanket cocoon.
“See, that’s the problem. You don’t hate me.”
I had no response to that.
“You know what I think?”
“No. And I don’t want to know.”
He ignored that. “You like me.”
My brows knitted together as I stared out over the small clearing.
“Enough to be wildly inappropriate with me.” A pause. “On multiple occasions.”
“Good gods, I’d rather freeze to death at this point.”
“Oh, right. We’re pretending none of that happened. I keep forgetting.”
“Just because I don’t bring it up every five minutes doesn’t mean I’m pretending it didn’t happen.”
“But bringing it up every five minutes is so much fun.”
The corners of my lips tipped up as I lifted the edges of the blanket above my chin. “I’m not pretending none of that stuff happened,” I admitted in a low voice. “It’s just that…”
“That it shouldn’t have happened?”
I didn’t want to say that. I felt like once I did, I couldn’t take it back. “It’s just that I’m not supposed to…do any of that. You know that. I am the Maiden.”
Hawke was quiet for several moments. “And how do you really feel about that, Poppy?”
After several false starts when I tried to answer him, I closed my eyes and just answered truthfully. “I don’t want it. I don’t want to be given to the gods and then, after that, if there is an after part, I don’t want to be married off to someone I’ve never met, who will probably…”
“Probably what?” His voice was quiet, soothing even.
I swallowed hard. “Who will probably be…” I sighed. “You know how Royals are. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and flaws, well, they are unacceptable.” Warmth finally crept into my cheeks. The words tasted like ash. “If I end up as an Ascended, I’m sure whoever the Queen pairs me with will be the same.”
Hawke didn’t say anything for a long moment, and I was so grateful, I almost rolled around and hugged him. Nothing he could’ve said would’ve made what I said any less humiliating to admit.
“Duke Teerman was a cunt,” he said. “And I’m glad he’s dead.”
A shocked laugh burst from me, loud enough that I saw the pacing guard stop. “Oh, gods, that was loud.”
“It’s okay.” He sounded as if he smiled.
Grinning into the blanket, I said, “He was definitely that, but it’s…even if I didn’t have these scars, I wouldn’t be excited. I don’t understand how Ian did it. He barely even knew his wife, and I…I don’t think he’s happy. He never speaks about her, and that’s sad, because our parents loved each other. He should have that.”
I should have that, Maiden or not.
“I heard that your mother refused to Ascend.”
“It’s true. My father was a firstborn son. He was wealthy, but he wasn’t chosen,” I said. “Mom was a Lady in Wait when they met. It was accidental. His father—my grandfather—was close to King Jalara. My father went to the castle with him once, and that’s when he saw my mother. Supposedly, it was love at first sight.” My smile faded. “I know that sounds silly, but I believe it. It happens—at least for some.”
“It’s not silly. It does exist.”
A slight frown pulled at my lips. His voice sounded off. I couldn’t explain it exactly, but it made me wonder if he’d seen someone and had fallen in love with them after just one conversation. I thought of how he’d admitted to being in love before.
The center of my chest burned.
“Is that why you were at the Red Pearl? Looking for love?”
“I don’t think someone goes looking for love there.”
“You never know what you’ll find there.” He was quiet for a moment. “What did you find, Poppy?”
His question was so soft, it was almost…seductive. “Life.”
I closed my eyes again. “I just want to experience things before my Ascension.” Before whatever happened during the Ascension. “There’s so much I haven’t experienced. You know that. I didn’t go there looking for anything in particular. I just wanted to experience—”
“Life,” he answered. “I get it.”
“Do you? Really?” I didn’t think even Tawny got it.
“I do. Everyone around you can do basically whatever they want, but you’re shackled by archaic rules.”
“Are you saying that the word of the gods is archaic?”
“You said it, not me.”
My nose wrinkled. “I’ve never understood why it is the way it is.” I opened my eyes. “All because of the way I was born.”
“The gods chose you before you were even born.” He felt closer, like if we weren’t wrapped up, I’d feel his breath on the back of my neck. “All because you were ‘born in the shroud of the gods, protected even inside the womb, veiled from birth.’”
“Yes,” I whispered, opening my eyes. “Sometimes, I wish…I wish I was…”
Someone different. Someone other than the Maiden. Thinking it was one thing. Saying it out loud was another. I’d come close to admitting it to Vikter, but that was as close as I would let myself get with those words.
It was far past time to switch gears. “Never mind. And I don’t sleep well. That’s another reason why I was at the Pearl.”
“Sometimes. Other times, my head doesn’t…go quiet. It replays things over and over,” I said, the shivering easing a little.
“What is your mind so loud about?” he asked.
The question caught me off guard. No one other than maybe Tawny—not even Vikter—had ever asked me that. Ian would’ve if he were still near. “Lately, it’s been the Ascension.”
“I imagine you’re excited to meet the gods.”
I snorted like a piglet. “Far from it. It actually terrifies—” I sucked in a sharp breath, shocked that I had so willingly admitted that out loud.
“It’s okay,” he said, seeming to sense my disbelief. “I don’t know much about the Ascension and the gods, but I’d be terrified to meet them.”
“You?” Disbelief compounded on top of itself. “Terrified?”
“Believe it or not, some things do scare me. The secrecy around the actual ritual of the Ascension is one of them. You were right that day when you were with the Priestess. It is so similar to what the Craven do, but what is done to stop aging—stop sickness for what has to be an eternity in the eyes of a mortal?”
My stomach shifted with unease. “It’s the gods—their Blessing. They make themselves seen during the Ascension. To even look upon them changes you,” I explained, but my words sounded uncomfortably hollow.
“They must be a sight to behold.” While I sounded empty, he sounded as dry as a whole swath of the Wastelands. “I’m surprised.”
“You.” His chest touched my back again when he took a deep breath. “You’re just not what I expected.”
Most would look forward to meeting the gods, to possibly becoming an Ascended. Ian did, just like Tawny, and all the Ladies and Lords in Wait, but not me or my mother, and that made us different. Not in a unique way. Not in a special way. But in a way that made it…difficult to be who we were, even if our reasons were vastly different.
I shook my head. “I should be asleep. So should you.”
“The sun will be up sooner than we realize, but you’re not going to sleep anytime soon. You’re as tense as a bowstring.”
“Well, sleeping on the hard, cold ground of the Blood Forest, waiting for a Craven to attempt to rip my throat out, or a barrat to eat my face isn’t exactly soothing.”
“A Craven will not get to you. Neither will a barrat.”
“I know. I have my dagger under my bag.”
“Of course, you do.”
I smiled into the night.
“I bet I can get you relaxed enough that you sleep like you’re on a cloud, basking in the sun.”
I snorted again, rolling my eyes.
“You doubt me?”
“There is nothing anyone or anything in this world could do that would make that happen.”
“There is so much you don’t know.”