But especially Hawke.
I hadn’t seen him since I’d stepped into the Duke’s private office, and knowing that he’d sensed that something was wrong left me with a gurgling feeling of anxiety and embarrassment, even though what Teerman had done wasn’t my fault. I just didn’t want Hawke to figure out that something was wrong, and he was observant enough to do so.
Granted, staying in my room for two days would probably also send up a red flag, but at least he hadn’t borne witness to how carefully I had to move while my back healed.
I didn’t want Hawke to see me as weak, even though as the Maiden, he would expect exactly that.
And maybe it had to do with the weird mix of relief and disappointment I felt every time he showed no recognition that he’d met me at the Pearl.
Dragging my gaze from the bed, I returned to watching the torches beyond the Rise. The fires were calm tonight, as they had been for several nights, but when the flames danced like mad spirits, driven by the winds of twilight? It meant the mist would not be far behind. And sweeping, terrible death followed the thick, white fog.
Absently, my hand slipped through the thin folds of the dressing gown to the bone handle of the dagger strapped to my thigh. My fingers curled around the cool hilt, reminding me that I would be ready if and when the Rise fell.
Just as I would be ready if the Dark One tried to come for me again.
My hand drifted from the handle to a few inches above my knee, brushing over the patch of uneven skin on my inner thigh. Hawke had come so incredibly close to touching the scar. What would he have done if he had? Would he have jerked his hand away? Or pretended as if he hadn’t felt anything?
I pulled my hand away. I wasn’t going to think about that. I curled my fingers into a fist as I cut off those thoughts. There was no reason to go down that road. Nothing good would come from doing so. It didn’t matter if he recognized me or not if I was just one of many girls he’d kissed in dimly lit rooms. It also didn’t matter if he had gone back to the Red Pearl like he’d promised—
I shook my head as if I could scatter my thoughts, but it didn’t work. One thing I’d discovered over the last two days of near isolation was that I could continue telling myself it didn’t matter, over and over, but it did.
Hawke had been my first kiss, even if he didn’t know that.
Silvery moonlight seeped through the chamber as I crept silently toward the west windows. Placing my fingers on the cool glass, I counted the torches. Twelve on the Rise. Twenty-four below. All aflame.
That was good.
I pressed my forehead to the thin glass that did very little to keep the chill from finding its way into the castle. In the west, where Carsodonia was nestled between the Stroud Sea and the Willow Plains, there was no need for glass windows. Summer and spring were eternal there, where autumn and winter forever reigned here. It was one of the things I looked forward to when I returned to the capital. The warmth. The sunshine. The scent of salt and sea, and all the glittering bays and coves.
Tawny, who had never seen the beaches, would absolutely love them. A tired grin tugged at my lips. When she’d been summoned by one of the Mistresses, Tawny had sent me a look that said she might’ve been happier scrubbing the bathing chambers than spending the evening attempting to please the unappeasable.
I often felt the same when it was time to meet with the Priestess. I’d rather spend the evening plucking my own body hair from very sensitive areas than spend hours with that dragon of a woman.
Perhaps I needed to be better at hiding how I felt when it came to her and the other Priestesses.
I still couldn’t believe she’d gone to the Duke, all because I didn’t spend half of my day listening to her and the others complain about everyone else.
Wrapping my arms around myself, I wished for what felt like the hundredth time that my brother was still in Masadonia. Ian had nightmares too, and if he were still here right now, he’d distract me with silly, made-up tales.
Did he still have nightmares after his Ascension? If not, then wasn’t that something else to look forward to?
My gaze traveled along the Rise, catching sight of a guard patrolling along the top of the wall.
I’d rather be out there than in here.
The Ascended would be shocked to hear such a thing, as would most others. To even think it—that I, the Maiden, the Chosen, who would go to the gods, would want to exchange places with a commoner, a guard, would be an affront to not only the Ascended but also to the gods themselves. All over the kingdom, people would do anything to be in the presence of the gods. I was…
I was privileged no matter what I suffered, but at least if I were out there, on the Rise, I could be doing something productive. I’d be protecting the city and all those who enabled me to have such a comfortable life. Instead, I was in here, reaching an all new height of self-pity when in reality, my Ascension would do more than protect one city.
It would ensure the entire future of the kingdom.
Wasn’t that doing something?
I wasn’t sure, and I wanted nothing more than to be able to close my eyes and find sleep, but I knew it wouldn’t come. Not for hours.
On nights like this, when I knew sleep would evade me, I caved to the urge to sneak out and explore the silent and dark city until I found places that didn’t sleep, spots like the Red Pearl. Unfortunately, that would be the height of stupidity after the attempted abduction. Even I wasn’t that reckless and—
A flame beyond the Rise began to dance, snapping me forward. I pressed both palms to the window, staring at the fire and refusing to blink. “It’s nothing,” I told the empty room. “It’s just a breeze—”
Another flash moved, and then another and another, the whole line of torches beyond the wall rippling wildly, spitting sparks as the wind picked up. I took a breath, but it seemed to go nowhere.
The one in the middle was the first to be snuffed, sending my heart slamming against my ribs. The others rapidly followed, pitching the land beyond the Rise into sudden darkness.
I took a step back from the window.
Dozens of fiery arrows shot into the air, arcing high above the Rise and then racing downward, slamming into the tinder-filled trenches. A wall of fire erupted, running the entire length of the Rise. The flames were no defense against the mist or what came with it.
The fire made what was in the fog visible.
Returning to the window, I threw the latch and flung it open. Cold air and a kind of unearthly silence poured into the chamber as I gripped the stone ledge and leaned out, squinting.
Smoke wafted up and weaved through the flames, spilling into the air and onto the ground.
Smoke didn’t move like that.
Smoke didn’t creep under the tinder, a thick, murky white against the black of night. Smoke didn’t blanket flames, suffocating them until they were extinguished and all that remained was a heavy, unnatural mist.
The mist wasn’t empty.
It was full of twisted shapes that had once been mortal.
Horns blared from all four corners of the Rise, shattering the tense quiet. Within seconds, what few lights had shone through windows went dark. A second call of warning went out, and the entire castle seemed to shudder.
Snapping into action, I grabbed the window and latched it into place before I spun around. I’d have roughly three minutes, possibly less, before all exits were sealed. I started forward—
A moment later, the adjoining door swung open, and Tawny burst in, her white nightgown flowing around her and the mass of brown and gold curls spilling over her shoulders.
“No.” Tawny stumbled to a halt, the whites of her wide eyes a stark contrast to her brown skin. “No, Poppy.”
Ignoring her, I raced over to the chest, throwing open the heavy lid and rooting around until I found the bow. Rising, I tossed it onto the bed.
“You cannot be planning to go out there,” she exclaimed.
“I will be fine.” I situated the quiver along my spine.
“Fine?” She gaped at me as I turned to her. “I can’t believe I have to point out the obvious, but here I am. You’re the Maiden. The Chosen. You cannot go out there. If they don’t kill you, His Grace will if he catches you.”
“He won’t catch me.” I snatched up a black, hooded cloak and shrugged it on, securing it at my neck and breast. “The Duke will be hiding in his room behind a dozen Royal Guards if not more, right alongside the Duchess.”
“The Royal Guards will come for you.”
I retrieved the curved bow by the grip. “I’m positive Vikter left for the Rise the moment he heard the horns.”
“And Hawke? Their duty is to protect you.”
“Vikter knows I can protect myself, and Hawke won’t even know I’ve left my room.” I paused. “He doesn’t know about the servants’ entrance.”
“You’re injured, Poppy. Your back—”
“My back is almost completely healed. You know that.”
“And what of the Dark One? What if this is a ploy—?”
“This is no ploy, Tawny. I saw them in the mist,” I told her, and her face grayed. “And if the Dark One tries to come for me, I will be ready for him, too.”
She followed me as I crossed the room. “Penellaphe Balfour, stop!”
Surprised, I spun around and found her standing right behind me. “I have less than two minutes, Tawny. I will be trapped in here—”
“Where it’s safe,” she reasoned.
I grasped her shoulder with my free hand. “If they breach the walls, they will take the city, and they will find a way into the castle. And then there will be no stopping them. That, I know. They got to my family. They got to me. I will not sit and wait for that to happen once more.”
Her eyes frantically searched mine. “But you didn’t have the Rise to protect you then.”
That was true, but… “Nothing is infallible, Tawny. Not even the Rise.”
“And neither are you,” she whispered, her lower lip trembling.