I might’ve stopped breathing.
“Guard Flynn will take Ryan’s place, effective immediately,” the Duke said, confirming what I had already guessed the moment I walked into the room. But hearing him say it aloud was an entirely different thing. “I’m sure this is surprising, as he’s new to our city and quite young for a member of the Royal Guard.”
I was wondering exactly that. The Duke sounded like he too was questioning it.
“There are several Rise Guards in line to be promoted, and bringing on Hawke is no slight to them.” The Duke sat back, crossing one leg over the other. “But the Commander has assured us that Hawke is better suited to this task.”
I couldn’t believe this was happening.
“Guard Flynn may be new to the city, but that isn’t a weakness. He’s able to look at possible threats with fresh eyes,” Commander Jansen spoke up then, nearly parroting what Vikter had said before. “Any number of guards would’ve overlooked the potential of a breach occurring in the Queen’s Gardens. Not due to lack of skill—”
“Debatable,” murmured the Duke.
The Commander wisely continued without acknowledging the comment. “But because there is a false sense of security and complacency that often comes with being within one city for too long. Hawke does not have such familiarity.”
“He also has recent experience with the dangers outside the Rise,” the Duchess spoke, and my gaze sharpened on her. “Your Ascension is a little less than a year from now, but even if you’re summoned sooner than expected or at the time of your Ascension, having someone with that kind of experience is invaluable. We won’t have to pull from our Huntsmen to ensure that your travel to the capital is as safe as possible. The Descenters and the Dark One are not the only things to fear out there, as you know.”
I did know.
And what she said made sense. There were fewer Huntsmen, and not many guards were suited for travel outside the Rise. Those who were had to excel at…
Wasn’t that what Hawke had said he was really good at?
“The possibility of you being summoned to the capital unexpectedly played a role in my decision,” Jansen stated. “We plan trips outside the Rise at least six months in advance, and there could be a chance that when and if the Queen requests your presence in the capital, we’d have to wait for the Huntsmen to return. With Hawke being assigned to you, we would be able, for the most part, to avoid that situation.”
The gods hated me.
And that wasn’t exactly surprising considering all the things I regularly did that were forbidden. Maybe they had been watching, and this was my punishment. Because how in the world did the Commander not think a single Rise Guard was better suited or qualified?
Was Hawke that good?
My head moved then without any command from my brain. I looked to where Hawke stood and found his gaze fixed on me. A shiver curled its way down my spine. He inclined his head in acknowledgement, and I swore there was a faint glimmer to his amber eyes as if he were amused by all of this. But surely that had to be my paranoia.
“As a member of the Maiden’s personal Royal Guard, it is likely that a situation may occur where you will see her unveiled.” The Duchess’s tone was soft, even a little sympathetic, and then it struck me. I knew what would occur now. “It can be distracting, seeing someone’s face for the first time, especially a Chosen, and that could interfere with your ability to protect her. That is why the gods allow this breach.”
For some reason, I had been so caught up in fear of being discovered that I’d forgotten what had happened when Rylan was brought in to work with Vikter.
“Commander Jansen, if you will, please step outside,” the Duke said, and my wide gaze shot to him. There was a smile on his face, one that was wholly pleased and not at all forced and brittle.
I didn’t even realize the Commander had left until the click of the door closing behind him jolted me.
“You are about to bear witness to what only a select few have seen, an unveiled Maiden,” Teerman announced to Hawke, but his gaze was centered on me, to where my hands trembled in my lap. A real smile appeared on his face, turning my stomach. “Penellaphe, please, reveal yourself.”
There had been a handful of times in my life where reality felt more like a dream.
The night I’d heard my mother’s screams and my father’s shouts to run was one of them. Everything had felt hazy, as if I was there but somehow disconnected from my body. My parents being slaughtered was far more serious and traumatizing than what was happening right now. Still, I was on the brink of possibly being discovered. And if Hawke told the Duke where I’d been…
My mouth dried as a fist clenched deep in my chest.
Perhaps there was some truth to what Vikter had said about me wanting to be found unworthy. But even if that were true, I would want to be as far away from the Duke as possible if and when that occurred.
Hawke hadn’t seen my full face the night at the Red Pearl, but he’d seen enough that it could trigger recognition. At some point, he was bound to figure it out. Probably after he heard me speak. However, I hadn’t considered that moment occurring here in front of the Duke and Duchess.
“Penellaphe.” The Duke’s tone carried a thread of warning. I was taking too long. “We do not have all day.”
“Give her a moment, Dorian.” The Duchess turned to her husband. “You know why she hesitates. We have time.”
I was not hesitating for the reason they believed—why the Duke smiled with such relish. Of course, I was uncomfortable baring my face, my scars in front of Hawke. Truthfully, though, that was the least of my concerns at the moment, but the Duke was probably internally screaming with twisted joy.
The man absolutely loathed me.
Dorian Teerman pretended that he didn’t, that he thought I was this miracle-born, a Chosen, just like his wife believed. But I knew better. The time spent in his other office proved exactly how he felt about me.
I wasn’t sure what it was about me that he hated, but there had to be something. As far as I knew, he was at least somewhat decent toward the Ladies and Lords in Wait. But me? He loved nothing more than discovering something that made me uncomfortable, only to then exploit it. And if I really wanted to make his day, I’d give him something to be disappointed in, a reason to continue his lessons.
Face burning as if on fire—from anger and frustration more than embarrassment—I reached for the clasps along the chains at the same moment Tawny rose, nearly tearing them apart as I unhooked them. The veil loosened, and before it could fall, Tawny caught the sides and helped ease the headdress off.
Cool air kissed my cheeks and the nape of my neck. I stared straight at the Duke. I wasn’t sure what he saw in my face, but his smile faded, and his eyes turned to shards of obsidian. His jaw clenched, and I knew I shouldn’t, but I couldn’t stop myself…
It was just a hint of a grin, one that probably wasn’t noticeable to anyone but the Duke, but he saw it. I knew he did.
I was sure I’d pay for it later, but at that moment, I didn’t care.
Someone shifted to my right, ending my epic stare-off with the Duke, and reminding me that we weren’t the only two in the room. He wasn’t the only one looking at me.
The right side of my face was visible to Hawke, the side that the Duke often said was beautiful. The side I imagined matched my mother’s.
Drawing in a shallow breath, I turned my head until I completely faced Hawke. No side profiles. No hiding or mask that covered the two scars. My hair was secured in a braid and then wrapped in a knot, so it too provided no curtain. He saw everything that had been bared at the Red Pearl and then some. He saw the scars. I braced myself. Just like the Duke knew I would, because deep down, whether Teerman knew why or not, Hawke’s reaction would affect me.
It would hurt more than it should.
But I’d be damned if I let it show.
Lifting my chin, I waited for the look of shock or revulsion, or even worse, pity. I expected nothing less. Beauty was highly coveted and worshipped, flawlessness even more.
Because beauty was considered godlike.
Hawke’s golden gaze roamed my face, his stare so potent that it felt like a caress along the scars, my cheeks, and then my lips. A shiver danced across my shoulders as his eyes came back to mine. Our gazes locked. Held. The air seemed to be sucked from the room, and I felt flushed, as if I’d been sitting out in the sun for too long.
I didn’t know what I saw as I stared back at him, but there was no shock etched into his expression, no revulsion, and especially no pity. His face wasn’t empty, exactly. There was something there, in his eyes and in the set of his mouth, but I had no idea what it was.
But then the Duke spoke, his tone deceptively pleasant. “She’s truly unique, isn’t she?”
“Half of her face is a masterpiece,” the Duke murmured, and my skin flashed cold and then hot as my stomach twisted. “The other half a nightmare.”
A tremor coursed down my arms, but I kept my chin high and resisted the urge to pick up something, anything, and throw it at the Duke’s face.
The Duchess spoke, though saying what, I wasn’t sure. Hawke’s gaze remained fastened on mine as he stepped forward. “Both halves are as beautiful as the whole.”
My lips parted on a sharp inhale. I couldn’t even look to see what the Duke’s reaction was, though I was sure it was nothing short of cataclysmic.
Hawke placed a hand on the hilt of his broadsword and bowed slightly, his gaze never once leaving mine. “With my sword and with my life, I vow to keep you safe, Penellaphe,” he spoke, voice deep and smooth, reminding me of rich, decadent chocolate. “From this moment until the last moment, I am yours.”
Closing my bedroom door behind me, I leaned against it and exhaled raggedly. He’d said my name when he took his vow as my guard. Not what I was but who I was, and that was…