Delano appeared with a basket, and it made me wonder exactly why such things were kept handy. My gaze flickered over the cell. Were they in the business of keeping their prisoners healthy? Better yet, was this where all the Ascended and the Lord from the keep had ended up?
When Hawke faced me, we were once again alone. “Why don’t you lie—?” He glanced around the cell, his gaze centering on the threadbare mattress as if he just realized there was no bed. His shoulders tensed. “Why don’t you lie down?”
“I’m fine standing, thanks.”
Impatience brimmed just under the surface as he stalked toward me, basket in hand. “Would you rather I get on my knees?”
A terrible razor-sharp smile pulled at my lips as I started to agree—
“I don’t mind.” His gaze dropped as he bit down on his lower lip. “Doing so would put me at the perfect height for something I know you’d enjoy. After all, I’m always craving honeydew.”
Air punched out of my lungs in shock, but anger quickly crashed into it. I peeled away from the wall, hurrying to the cot. I sat down slower than I stood as I shot him an icy stare. “You’re repulsive.”
Chuckling under his breath, he walked over to the cot and knelt. “If you say so.”
“I know so.”
A half-grin appeared as he placed the basket on the floor. A quick glance showed there were bandages and tiny jars. Nothing that could be fashioned into an ineffective weapon. He gestured for me to recline, and after muttering a curse, I did as he requested.
“Language,” he murmured, and when he reached for my tunic once more, I lifted it myself. “Thank you.”
I gritted my teeth.
A small smile appeared as he shifted onto his knees, pulling a clear bottle from the basket. He unscrewed the lid, and a bitter, sharp scent hit the musty air.
“I want to tell you a story,” he said, his brows lowered as he eyed the wound.
“I am not in the mood for story time—” I gasped as he took hold of my shirt. I gripped his wrist with both hands, barely feeling the cold of the chain against my stomach. “What are you doing?”
“The blade damn near ripped out your ribcage,” he said, eyes flashing an unholy gold once more. “It extends up the side of your ribs.”
The wound wasn’t that bad, but it did crawl up my side.
“I’m guessing this happened when the sword was wrestled from you?” he asked.
I didn’t answer, and when I didn’t let go of his wrists, I expected him to simply break my hold, but instead, he sighed. “Believe it or not, I’m not trying to undress you so I can take advantage of you. I’m not here to seduce you, Princess.”
What should have come as a relief had the opposite effect. The burn in my chest crept into my throat, forming a knot I could barely breathe around as I stared up at him. Of course, he wasn’t trying to seduce me. Not since he’d already succeeded in doing so, getting me to not only let my guard down but to also trust him. I’d opened up to him, shared with him my dreams of becoming something else, my dread of returning to the capital and—oh, gods—my gift. I’d shared so much more than just words. I’d let him into my room, into my bed, and then into me. He’d whispered that my touch had consumed him, and he’d worshipped my body, my scars. He’d told me that they made me even more beautiful, and I…
I’d liked him.
I’d done more than just like him.
Gods, I’d fallen for him even though it was forbidden. I’d fallen for him enough that I knew deep down it had played a role in my decision to tell the Queen that I would refuse the Ascension. A tremor coursed through my fingers as the burn in my throat filled the backs of my eyes.
“Was any of it true?” The question erupted from me in a hoarse voice I barely recognized, and the moment the words were set free, I wanted to take them back because I knew…I already knew the answer.
Hawke went as still as the statues that had adorned the foyer in Castle Teerman. I jerked my hands away. A muscle ticked in his jaw as his lips remained pressed firmly together.
A ragged, brittle sob climbed up my throat, and it took everything in me to keep it inside. That did very little to ease the shame that sat in the center of my chest like a hot coal. I will not cry. I will not cry.
Unable to look at him any longer, I closed my eyes. It didn’t help. I immediately saw how he’d gazed at me, lips swollen and glossy. Anger and shame, and a deep hurt I’d never experienced before pricked at my eyelids.
I felt his hands move then, carefully lifting the tunic, stopping short of exposing my entire chest. This time, his knuckles didn’t brush my skin, and like before, even in the dim light, I knew the paler, almost shiny patches of scarred flesh were visible, especially to the eyes of an Atlantian. Last night, I’d disrobed for him and had let him look his fill, believing what he’d said. He’d been so convincing, and my stomach churned at the thought of what he must’ve really thought.
How he must’ve really felt when he touched the scars, kissed them.
He spoke into the silence then, startling me. “This may burn.”
I thought his voice sounded gruffer than normal, but then I felt him lean closer, and the first splash of lukewarm liquid hit the wound. Air hissed through my teeth as scorching pain lanced the right side of my stomach and up my ribs. The bitter astringent scent rose as the liquid bubbled in the cut, and I welcomed the sting, focusing on it instead of the throbbing ache in my chest.
Tipping my head back, I kept my eyes closed as more liquid splashed along the injury, creating more foam and sending another wave of pain shuddering across my midsection.
“Sorry about that,” he muttered, and I almost believed that he was. “It will need to sit for a bit to burn out any infection that may have already been making its way in there.”
Maybe it would burn through my stupid heart.
Silence fell, but it didn’t last long. “The Craven were our fault,” he said, startling me. “Their creation, that is. All of this. The monsters in the mist. The war. What has become of this land. You. Us. It all started with an incredibly desperate, foolish act of love, many, many centuries before the War of Two Kings.”
“I know,” I said, clearing my throat. “I know the history.”
“But do you know the true history?”
“I know the only history.” My eyes opened, and I shifted my gaze away from the chains and twisted bones.
“You know only what the Ascended have led everyone to believe, and it is not the truth.” He reached over, plucking up the chain that crossed a part of my stomach. I tensed as he carefully moved it aside. “My people lived alongside mortals in harmony for thousands of years, but then King O’Meer Malec—”
“Created the Craven,” I cut him off. “Like I said—”
“You’re wrong.” He shifted so he sat back, one leg drawn up, and his arm resting on his knee. “King Malec fell hopelessly in love with a mortal woman. Her name was Isbeth. Some say it was Queen Eloana who poisoned her. Others claim it was a jilted lover of the King’s who stabbed her because he apparently had quite the history of being unfaithful. But either way, she was mortally wounded. As I said, Malec was desperate to save her. He committed the forbidden act of Ascending her—what you know as the Ascension.”
My heart lodged somewhere in my throat, next to the messy knot of emotion.
His gaze lifted and met mine. “Yes. Isbeth was the first to Ascend. Not your false King and Queen. She became the first vampry.”
Lies. Utter, unbelievable lies.
“Malec drank from her, only stopping once he felt her heart begin to fail, and then he shared his blood with her.” His head tilted, those golden eyes glittering. “Perhaps if your act of Ascension wasn’t so well guarded, the finer details would not come as a surprise to you.”
I started to sit up but remembered the wound and the fizzing liquid. “Ascension is a Blessing from the gods.”
He smirked. “It is far from that. More like an act that can either create near immortality or make nightmares come true. We Atlantians are born nearly mortal. And remain so until the Culling.”
“The Culling?” I asked before I could stop myself.
“It’s when we change.” His upper lip curled, and the tip of his tongue prodded a sharp canine. I knew this. It was in the history books. “The fangs appear, lengthening only when we feed, and we change in…other ways.”
“How?” Curiosity had seized me, and I figured that whatever I could learn would help if I managed to get out of this.
“That’s not important.” He reached for a cloth. “We may be harder to kill than the Ascended, but we can be killed,” he went on. I also knew that. Atlantians could be killed just like a Craven could. “We age slower than mortals, and if we take care, we can live for thousands of years.”
I wanted to point out everything was important, especially how Atlantians changed in other ways, but curiosity got the best of me. “How…how old are you?”
“Older than I look.”
“Hundreds of years older?” I asked.
“I was born after the war,” he answered. “I’ve seen two centuries come and go.”
“King Malec created the first vampry. They are…a part of all of us, but they are not like us. Daylight does not affect us. Not like it does the vampry. Tell me, which of the Ascended have you ever seen in the daylight?”
“They do not walk in the sun because the gods do not,” I answered. “That is how they honor them.”
“How convenient for them, then.” Hawke’s smirk turned smug. “Vamprys may be blessed with the closest possible thing to immortality, like us, but they cannot walk in daylight without their skin starting to decay. You want to kill an Ascended without getting your hands dirty? Lock them outside with no possible shelter. They’ll be dead before noon.”