Tawny eased inside, shutting the door behind her. “I…I couldn’t sleep.”
“I haven’t even tried yet,” I admitted.
“I can go back to my room if you’re tired,” she offered.
“You know I won’t be falling asleep anytime soon.” I patted the spot beside me.
Hurrying across the short distance, she snatched the edge of the blanket and slipped under it. Shifting onto her side, she faced me. “I keep thinking about everything, and I wasn’t even there. I can’t imagine what’s going on in your head.” She paused. “Actually, probably something that involves bloody vengeance.”
I grinned despite all that had happened. “That’s not entirely untrue.”
“This is my shocked face,” she replied, and then her smile faded. “I keep thinking about how unreal all of this feels. First with Malessa, and now Rylan. I saw him just after supper. He was alive and well. I’d passed Malessa yesterday morning. She was smiling and looked happy, carrying a bouquet of flowers. It’s like…I can’t process that they’re gone. There one moment and not the next, without any warning.”
Tawny was one of the few who hadn’t been intimately touched by death. Her parents and her older brother and sister were alive. Other than Hannes, no one she knew well or saw often had died.
But even though I was too familiar with it, the death was still a shock, and like Hawke had also said, no less harsh or unforgiving.
I swallowed. “I don’t know what it was like for Malessa.” What I did know was that it had to be terrifying, though saying that wouldn’t help matters. “But for Rylan, it was quick. Twenty or thirty seconds,” I said. “And then he was gone. There wasn’t a lot of pain, and what he did feel, it was over quickly.”
She inhaled deeply, closing her eyes. “I liked him. He wasn’t as stern as Vikter or as standoffish as Hannes and the rest. You could talk to him.”
“I know,” I whispered around the burn in my throat.
Tawny was silent for several moments and then said, “The Dark One.” Her eyes opened. “He seemed more like a…”
She nodded. “It’s not like I didn’t believe he was real. It’s just that he’s talked about like he’s the bogeyman.” She snuggled down, tucking the blanket to her chin. “What if that was the Dark One in the garden, and you managed to wound him?”
“That would be…pretty amazing, and I would brag until the end of time to you and Vikter. But, like I said, I don’t think it was.”
“Thank the gods you knew what to do.” She reached across the bed, finding my hand and squeezing it. “If not…”
“I know.” In moments like this, it was hard to remember that duty bound us together, created our bond. I squeezed her hand back. “I’m just glad you weren’t with me.”
“I would like to say I wished I was there so you didn’t have to face that alone, but in truth, I’m glad I wasn’t,” she admitted. “I would’ve been nothing more than a shrieking distraction.”
“Not true. I’ve shown you how to use a dagger—”
“Being shown the basics of how to use a blade and then using it on another living, breathing person are two very different things.” She pulled her hand back. “I would’ve definitely stood there and screamed. I’m not ashamed to admit that, and my screams probably would’ve brought the guards’ attention sooner.”
“You would’ve defended yourself.” I totally believed that. “I’ve seen how vicious you get when there is only one sweet cake left.”
The skin around her eyes crinkled as she laughed. “But that is a sweet cake. I would push the Duchess off a balcony to get to the last one.”
A short laugh burst from me.
Another quick grin appeared and then faded as she toyed with a loose thread on the blanket. “Do you think the King and Queen will summon you to the capital?”
Muscles tensed along my shoulders. “I don’t know.”
That wasn’t true.
If they thought I was no longer safe in Masadonia, they would demand I return to the capital, almost a year ahead of my Ascension.
But that wasn’t what caused the coldness in my chest to seep into every part of me. The Duchess had proven earlier that ensuring the Ascension wasn’t thwarted was the greatest concern. There was one way to ensure that.
The Queen could petition the gods to move up the Ascension.
Shortly after dawn, when the sun shone brighter than I remembered for a morning so close to winter, I stood beside Vikter. We were at the foot of the Undying Hills and below the Temples of Rhahar, the Eternal God, and Ione, the Goddess of Rebirth. The Temples loomed above us, each constructed from the blackest stone from the Far East and both as large as Castle Teerman, casting half the valley into shadows but not where we stood. It was as if the gods were shining light down on us.
We were silent as we watched Rylan Keal’s linen-wrapped body be lifted onto the pyre.
Vikter had been resigned when I joined him, not prepared to train but dressed in white and veiled. He knew he wasn’t going to talk me out of this and said nothing as we walked to where funerals for all those who resided in Masadonia were held. While my presence had drawn many shocked glances, no one had demanded to know why I was present as we made the trek to the pyre. And even if they had said anything, it wouldn’t have changed my decision. I owed it to Rylan to be here.
Surrounded by members of the Royal Guard and the guards from the Rise, we stood near the back of the small crowd. I didn’t want to get closer out of respect for the guards. Rylan was my personal guard, he was a friend, but he was their brother, and his death affected them differently.
As the white-robed High Priest spoke of Rylan’s strength and bravery, of the glory he would find in the company of the gods, of the eternal life that awaited him, the icy ache in my chest grew.
Rylan looked so small on the pyre, as if he’d shrunken in size as the Priest sprinkled oil and salt over the body. A sweet scent filled the air.
The Commander of the Royal Guard, Griffith Jansen, stepped forward, the white mantle draped from his shoulders rippling in the breeze as he carried forth the lone torch. Commander Jansen turned in our direction and waited. It took me a moment to realize why.
As the one who had worked the closest with Rylan, he would be given the task of lighting the pyre. He started to step forward, but stopped, his gaze swinging to me. It was clear he didn’t want to leave my side, not even when I was surrounded by dozens of guards, and it was highly unlikely that anything would occur.
Oh gods, it struck me then that my presence interfered with his desire or need to pay his respects. I didn’t for one second think that was why he’d initially resisted the idea of me coming the night before, but I hadn’t even considered how it would impact him.
Feeling like a selfish brat, I started to tell him that I would be safe while he paid his respects.
“I have her,” a deep voice said from behind me, one that shouldn’t be familiar but was.
My stomach dipped as if I were standing on a ledge, while at the same time, my heart sped up. I didn’t even need to turn around to know whom it was.
After everything that had happened, I had almost forgotten about Hawke. Almost being the keyword, because this morning, I had woken, wishing I had waited for him to come back to the Red Pearl.
To possibly be taken and used in whatever terrible manner my enemies deemed, or to be killed before I had the chance to experience all the things that people only whispered about seemed all too frightening a reality.
Vikter’s steely blue-gray gaze shifted over my shoulder. A long, tense moment passed as several guards looked on. “Do you?”
“With my sword and with my life,” Hawke replied, coming to stand at my shoulder.
The dipping motion returned to my stomach in response to his promise, even though I knew that was what all guards said, no matter if they were from the Rise or if they protected the Ascended.
“The Commander tells me you’re one of the best on the Rise.” Vikter’s jaw hardened as he spoke quietly so only Hawke and I could hear him. “Said that he hasn’t seen your level of skill with a bow or sword in too many years.”
“I’m good at what I do.”
“And what is that?” Vikter challenged.
The simple, short answer from lips that had felt as soft as they had firm, was a shock. But the one word didn’t frighten me. I had quite the opposite reaction, and that probably should’ve disturbed me. Or, at the very least, concerned me.
“She is the future of this kingdom,” Vikter warned, and I squirmed in a strange mix of embarrassment and fondness. He’d said what everyone from the Duchess to the Queen would say, but I knew he spoke those words because of who I was and not what I represented. “That is who you stand beside.”
“I know who I stand beside,” Hawke answered.
A hysterical giggle climbed its way up my throat. He honestly had no idea who he stood next to. By the grace of the gods, I was able to stop that laugh.
“She is safe with me,” Hawke added.
And I wasn’t.
Vikter looked at me, and all I could do was nod. I couldn’t speak. If I did, Hawke might recognize my voice, and then…gods, I couldn’t even begin to fathom what would occur.
With one last look of warning in Hawke’s direction, Vikter pivoted on his heel and stalked toward the guard who held the torch. My heart hadn’t slowed as I dared one quick peek in Hawke’s direction.
I immediately wished I hadn’t.
In the bright, early morning sun, with blue-black hair swept back from his face, his features were harder, harsher, and somehow all the more beautiful. The line of his lips was firm. No hint of a dimple to be seen. He had on the same black uniform he had worn the night at the Red Pearl, except now he also wore the leather and iron armor of the Rise, his broadsword at his side, the bloodstone blade a deep ruby.