I couldn’t look away. “I promise. I won’t forget.”
Some hours later, a noise stirred me from sleep. I was on my side, and a long, warm body was wrapped around mine. One leg was thrust between my thighs, and I was tangled in arms. Although I was still half-asleep, every part of me immediately became aware of the unfamiliar sensations of being in someone’s hold. The feeling of skin against skin, the rough, short hairs against my flesh, the biceps under my head, and the warm breath glancing off my cheek. All of it was wonderful and new. Even with the cobwebs of sleep still clouding my thoughts, I knew this feeling wouldn’t be something easy to walk away from.
The last thing I remembered was lying facing Hawke, him toying with my hair while he told me how he’d gotten some of his smaller scars. Most of them had been earned through fighting, though a few were from when he was a reckless, adventurous child. I’d meant to share with him the truth about some of mine, but I must’ve drifted off.
Hawke shifted behind me, lifting his head as the sound came again. It was a soft knock on the door. Carefully, he slipped his leg out from between mine. He stilled for a second, and then I felt his fingertips on my arm. They coasted down and then over the flare of my hip to where the blanket lay. He tugged it up over my chest as he eased himself free, making sure the pillow had replaced his arm under my head. A sleepy, pleased smile tugged at my lips.
The bed dipped as he rose, and I heard him stop by the foot of the bed. I blinked open my eyes. One of the oil lamps still burned, casting a soft buttery glow around the room. It was still pitch-black beyond the small window, though I saw Hawke straighten as he pulled on his breeches, leaving them unbuttoned. My stomach dipped at the sight. He went to the door like that, shirtless and half-undressed. Wouldn’t that make it obvious to whoever was out there what had transpired in here?
I waited for the panic to set in, the concern and fear of being discovered in a very compromising, forbidden position.
It didn’t come.
Maybe it was because I was still only half-awake. Perhaps the pleasant languidness in my muscles had somehow infiltrated my brain and melted my common sense.
Maybe I just didn’t care about being caught.
Hawke cracked open the door, and whoever was outside spoke too low for me to hear. I didn’t pick up Hawke’s response, but I saw that he accepted something he had been handed. He was only at the door for a couple of moments before he closed it again, placing whatever he carried on the chair.
Seeing that I was awake, he came to my side. Wordlessly, he reached down, catching a strand of hair and brushing it back from my face.
“Hi,” I whispered, closing my eyes as I pressed my cheek to his palm. “Is it time to get up?”
“Is everything okay?”
“Everything is fine. I just need to go handle something,” he answered. I opened my eyes. He stared down at me as he dragged his thumb across my cheek, just under the scar. “You don’t need to get up yet.”
“Are you sure?” I yawned.
A faint grin appeared. “I am, Princess. Sleep.” He tucked the blanket around me once more and then rose. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
I wanted to say something, somehow acknowledge what had transpired between us, and what it meant to me, but I wasn’t sure how to say it, and my eyes were getting heavy. I fell back to sleep, but I didn’t stay there long. I woke for a second time, the lamp still burning, and the bed empty beside me.
Stretching my limbs, I pressed my lips together at the strange, dull ache between my legs. I didn’t need the reminder of last night, but there it was. I glanced around the room, my gaze snagging on the chair. My clothing was folded there. Had it been Magda who’d come to the door? Or someone else? Either way, whoever it was, the state of undress in which Hawke had answered the door revealed everything.
I bit down on my lip as I lay there, staring at the small window. Like before, there was no panic or dread. People talked. One way or another, what had happened here would travel beyond the cobblestone streets. It would eventually make its way to the capital, and then to the Queen. Even if by some small chance it didn’t, the gods had to know that I was no longer an actual maiden. Whether or not that meant I was still the Maiden in their eyes, I had no idea.
But I was no longer the Maiden in mine.
I couldn’t go back to that life.
A brief burst of fear pierced my chest, but that was okay because a surge of determination quickly doused it like water does flames.
I wouldn’t go back to that life of no rights, of hiding my gift and being unable to help people, of allowing others to do whatever they wanted with me and to me because I had no choice or was constantly put in a position where I had to accept whatever was done out of fear for someone else. Because even though I knew the Queen would never treat me poorly, I would still be expected to hide my gift, to be quiet and unseen, amicable, and appeasing. Every single one of those things went against the very core of my nature.
I couldn’t Ascend.
And that meant there were two options ahead of me. I either attempted to disappear and hid—living behind the veil for so long would be a benefit here since so few people knew what I looked like. However, there were enough that could give a description. I was sure that every city and town would be notified to keep an eye out for me, but I knew how to remain unseen.
But where would I go? How would I survive? And what would happen to Hawke if I disappeared while he was supposed to be escorting me?
I didn’t assume that my now very unknown, uncertain future included Hawke. However, my chest still fluttered. What we’d shared last night had to mean something more than simply seeking physical gratification. He could find that anywhere, but he had chosen me.
And I chose him.
That had to mean something that went beyond last night—something that I never thought I’d get the chance to experience.
Whether or not Hawke was a part of my life or not, the only other option was to go to the Queen and be honest. Now that scared me because I…I didn’t want to disappoint her. But she had to understand. She had with my mother, and I was the Queen’s favorite. She had to understand that I couldn’t be this. And if she didn’t, I needed to make her.
Sitting up, I kept the blanket wrapped around me.
I knew what I couldn’t do, but I didn’t know what that meant in the long-term for the kingdom or for me. The sky outside the window started to lighten. I would talk to Hawke about it, and I wouldn’t wait. He needed to know, and I wanted to know what he thought.
What he’d say.
Knowing that dawn was fast approaching, I rose and got ready, using the remaining water to quickly wash up. The water was cold, but since I had no idea when we’d have access to clean water again, I wasn’t complaining. Relieved to be wearing clean clothes, I strapped the dagger to my thigh. I was just finishing braiding my hair when the knock came.
Figuring Hawke would’ve just come in, I approached with caution. “Yes?”
“It’s Phillips,” came the familiar voice.
I opened the door, and he rushed in, forcing me back as he closed the door behind him. He turned, his cloak parting to reveal his hand on the hilt of his sword.
Warning bells went off as I took a step back.
“Are you alone?” he demanded, his gaze going to the bathing room.
“Yes.” My heart kicked up. “Has something happened?”
He turned back to me, his eyes wide. “Where is Hawke?”
“I…I don’t know. What’s going on?”
“Something about this place isn’t right.”
My brows lifted.
“Things haven’t been right about this whole damn thing. Should’ve listened to my instincts. They’ve kept me alive this whole time, but I didn’t listen this time,” he rattled on as he went to where a small saddlebag was placed. “I did some looking around here. Didn’t see one single Ascended. And Lord Halverston? Seen no evidence of the Royal.”
“I was told he’s hunting with his men,” I assured him. “I asked Magda where he was yesterday.”
My bag in hand, he faced me, his dark brows arched. “What Ascended do you know that would go hunting?”
“I don’t know any that would, but we don’t know every Ascended.”
“You know who we don’t know? This Kieran fellow.” He stopped in front of me. “We know nothing about him.”
Confused by where he was going with all of this, I shook my head. “I don’t know any of you.”
Except for Hawke. Him, I knew.
“You’re not understanding what I’m saying. I’ve never seen Kieran. Not until the morning he showed up at the Rise. Couldn’t get anything from him other than that he worked in the capital. Everything else was short, vague answers.”
I recalled how I’d seen them speaking often throughout the trip. Still, Kieran’s unwillingness to answer questions from a stranger meant nothing. “A lot of guards are on the Rise. Do you know everyone?”
“I know enough to find it suspicious that a new transfer is part of the team tasked to escort the Maiden,” he stated. “He was personally requested by Hawke, another relatively new transfer that, somehow, in a matter of months, became one of the most important people in the entire kingdom’s Royal Guard.”
I sucked in a sharp breath. “What are you talking about?”
“Hawke is another that no one knows hardly anything about. But he showed up, and now you’re down not one but two personal Royal Guards.”
My mouth dropped. “I was there when both Rylan and Vikter were killed—”
“And I know it’s not normal that several guards were passed over to become your guard in favor of a boy who’s barely a man,” he cut me off. “I don’t care what recommendations he came to Masadonia with, or whatever the Commander said about him. Hawke requested Kieran, and here we are, in a keep where no Ascended can be found.”