I thought maybe I should say something but…what? Thank you seemed inappropriate. And I thought that it wasn’t entirely fair that he had given me this, while I gave him nothing of the sort. Plus, I thought that I should probably look to see if Kieran or any of the other guards had noticed what Hawk had done—what we’d done under the blankets, but I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I couldn’t get any words out.
“I know you’re not going to admit it,” Hawke said, voice low and thick. “But you and I both will always know that I was right.”
My lips curved into a faint, sleepy smile.
He was right.
When I woke just before dawn, I couldn’t believe how soundly and deeply I’d slept. It was as if I hadn’t been lying on the hard ground but in the lushest of beds.
I didn’t think I would’ve woken up on my own if it hadn’t been for the sound of hushed conversation near me.
“We made it farther than I thought we would,” Hawke said, his voice low. “We should reach Three Rivers before nightfall.”
“We can’t stay there,” came the response, and I recognized Kieran’s voice. “You know that.”
There was a lot of Descenter activity at Three Rivers, so that made sense. I blinked open my eyes. Through the gloom, I saw them standing a few feet from me. I flushed when my gaze lifted to Hawke. There wasn’t much I could see of his face, but I thought about what we’d done.
“I know.” Hawke’s arms were crossed. “If we break halfway to Three Rivers, we can ride through the night and make it to New Haven by morning.”
“You ready for that?” Kieran asked, and my brows knitted.
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“You think I haven’t noticed what’s been going on?”
My heart kicked against my chest. Immediately, my mind conjured up the image of Kieran patrolling while Hawke had whispered such indecent, wicked words in my ear. Had Kieran seen us?
Oh gods. My skin prickled and turned hot, but under the embarrassment, I was surprised to find there wasn’t a single ounce of regret. I wouldn’t take back a second of what I felt.
Hawke didn’t answer, and my mind quickly went to the worst-case scenarios. Did he regret it? What we’d done wasn’t just forbidden for me. While I wasn’t aware of the exact rules established for Royal Guards, I was pretty sure that what Hawke and I had done, what we’d been doing, wasn’t something the Commander would overlook.
But Hawke had to know that.
Just like I knew. And yet, I still did it.
“Remember what your task is,” Kieran stated when Hawke didn’t respond.
Kieran stared at Hawke and repeated. “Remember what your task is.”
“I haven’t forgotten for one second.” His voice hardened. “Not one.”
“Good to know.”
Hawke started to turn toward me, and I closed my eyes, not wanting them to realize that I’d heard their conversation. I felt him stop, followed a moment later by the touch of his fingers on my cheek.
I opened my eyes, and I had no idea what to say as I looked up at him. All thoughts scattered as he dragged his thumb along the curve of my cheek and then over my lower lip, sending a shivery wave of awareness through me.
“Good morning, Princess.”
“Morning,” I whispered.
“You slept well.”
I grinned even as my cheeks heated and despite the conversation I’d overheard. “You were right.”
“I’m always right.”
“Do I have to prove it to you again?” he asked.
My body woke up and was fully on board with that idea. However, my brain also started functioning. “I don’t think that will be necessary.”
“Shame,” he murmured. “We have to get moving.”
“Okay.” I sat up, wincing at the stiffness in my joints. “I just need a couple of minutes.”
Hawke’s hand found mine after I peeled myself free from the blanket. He helped me stand, straightening the tunic I wore. His hands lingered on my hips in a familiar, intimate way that tugged at my chest. My gaze lifted to his, and even in the shadows of the Blood Forest, the intense way he looked down ensnared me.
“Thank you for last night,” he said, his voice pitched low for only me to hear.
Surprise flickered through me. “I feel like I should be thanking you.”
“While it pleases my ego to know you feel that way, you don’t need to do that.” His fingers threaded with mine. “You trusted me last night, but more importantly, I know that what we shared is a risk.”
He stepped closer to me, and all I could smell was that pine and dark spice of his. “And it is an honor that you’d take that risk with me, Poppy. So, thank you.”
That sweet, swelling motion swept through me, but there was a strange heaviness to his voice. With our hands joined, I opened my senses, something I hadn’t done since the night of the Rite.
I felt the now-familiar razor-sharp sadness that cut so deep inside him, but there was something else. It wasn’t regret, but it tasted lemony. I concentrated until his emotions became mine, and I could filter through them and understand what I was feeling. Confusion. That was what I felt. Confusion and conflict, which wasn’t surprising. I felt a lot of that myself.
“You okay?” Hawke asked.
Severing the connection, I nodded as I let go of his hand. “I should get ready.”
Feeling his gaze on me as I stepped to the side, I looked up. The faintest gray light was filtering through the leaf-heavy branches. My gaze connected with Kieran’s.
He’d been watching us the entire time, and the set to his jaw said that he wasn’t happy.
Kieran looked concerned.
Whatever worry I had that the conversation with Kieran would change Hawke’s behavior faded before it could even take form. The relief swirling through me should’ve been a warning that things were…well, they were escalating.
They had already escalated.
I shouldn’t be comforted. If anything, both of us being reminded of our duties was very badly needed, but I wasn’t just relieved. I was thrilled and hopeful.
But what could I be hopeful for? There was no future for us. I may be Poppy now, but I was still the Maiden, and even if I was found to be unworthy upon the Ascension, that didn’t mean there’d be a happily ever after for me with Hawke. I’d most likely be exiled, and I would never expect anyone else to suffer that.
It wasn’t like I thought that what we were or what we meant to one another had grown to a place where Hawke would go into exile with me. That was silly. That was…
That sounded like the kind of epic love my mother had felt for my father.
Either way, last night had felt like a dream. That was the only way I could describe it. And I wasn’t going to let the what-ifs or the consequences ruin the memory and what it had meant to me. I’d cross that bridge when it came time to do so.
Right now, all I could really focus on was not falling off Setti.
My cheeks stung from the icy wind as we traveled through the Blood Forest, the red maple leaves and gray-crimson bark a blur.
We had moved into the heart of the forest, where the trees were less dense, allowing more light rays to come through. The sun didn’t warm the air, though. If anything, it got cooler the farther in we went, the trees even odder.
Trunks and branches twisted, spiraling upward, their boughs tangling. It couldn’t be the wind. All the trees stood straight, and the bark…it seemed wet, almost as if the sap was leaking.
I’d been right earlier about snow falling if it rained. A few hours into the ride, flurries swirled and drifted, blanketing the lush, vibrant green grass on either side of the beaten path. I’d put my gloves back on, but I didn’t think my fingers had ever thawed from the night. I secured my hood, but it could only shield my face to a certain degree, and I had no idea how much longer we had to go. The forest seemed endless.
We slowed as thick, gnarled roots broke free from the ground and climbed across our path as if they were trying to reclaim the patch of earth used by the living.
Loosening my grip on the pommel, I looked down, somewhat awed by the strength of the roots as the horses carefully navigated the obstruction. Something along the ground caught my attention. I looked to my right, beyond Airrick’s horse. Next to one of the trees was a pile of rocks placed so neatly, that I couldn’t imagine they’d naturally gotten that way. A couple of feet farther, there was another grouping of stones. But this time, they weren’t in a pile but placed in a perfect pattern. To my left, I saw another pristine circle of stones. There were more, some with a rock placed in the center, others empty, and even some where the stones had been placed in a way that looked like an arrow slashing through the circle.
Like the Royal Crest.
Unease trickled down my spine. There was no way these stones had fallen in these patterns naturally. I turned in the saddle to point them out to Hawke—
Suddenly, one of the horses up front reared, nearly throwing Kieran from his seat. He held onto the lead, calming the horse as he rubbed its neck.
“What is it?” asked Noah, a Huntsman who was riding in front of us as we all came to a stop.
Phillips lifted his finger, silencing the group. Holding my breath, I looked around. I didn’t hear or see anything, but I felt Setti’s muscles twitch under my legs. He began to prance, backing up. I placed my hand on his neck, trying to calm him as Hawke pulled on the reins. The other horses started to move nervously.
Hawke quietly tapped the area where my dagger was attached, and I nodded. Reaching into my cloak, I unsheathed the blade and took hold of it. I scanned the trees, still—
It came out of nowhere. A burst of black and red, leaping into the air and slamming into Noah’s side. Startled, the horse rose up, and Noah went down, hitting the ground hard. Suddenly, the thing was on top of him, snapping at his face with jagged teeth as he struggled to hold it off.