A smidgen of guilt formed within me, and I wasn’t sure if it was for lying to him, or the throwing the dagger at his face part. Probably both. “I…I couldn’t.”
“Couldn’t?” His voice had dropped again, becoming lower, thicker. “I have a feeling that if there’s something you want badly enough, nothing will stop you.”
A harsh, bitter-sounding laugh escaped me. “You know nothing.”
“Maybe.” He’d let go of my arm, and before I knew what he was up to, his hand had slipped inside my hood. His cold fingers touched the unmarred skin of my right cheek. I gasped at the contact and started to draw back, but there was nowhere to go. “Maybe I know more than you realize.”
A small measure of unease crawled across my skin.
Hawke bent his head, pressing his cheek to the left side of my hood. “Do you really think I have no idea who you are?”
Every muscle in my body tensed as my mouth dried.
“You have nothing to say to that?” He paused, and his voice was barely above a whisper when he said, “Penellaphe?”
I exhaled noisily, unsure if I was relieved or afraid that I no longer had to wonder if he knew. The confusion spiked my irritation into uncharted territories. “Are you just now figuring that out? If so, I’m concerned about you being one of my personal guards.”
He chuckled deeply, the sound infuriatingly infectious. “I knew the moment you removed the veil.”
My lips parted on a thin inhale. “Why…why didn’t you say something then?”
“To you?” he asked. “Or to the Duke?”
“Either,” I whispered.
“I wanted to see if you’d bring it up. Apparently, you were just going to pretend that you’re not the same girl who frequents the Red Pearl.”
“I don’t frequent the Red Pearl,” I corrected. “But I hear you do.”
“Have you been asking about me? I’m flattered.”
“I’m not sure if I can believe you. You tell a lot of lies, Princess.”
“Don’t call me that,” I demanded.
“I like it better than what I’m supposed to call you. Maiden. You have a name. It’s not that.”
“I didn’t ask for what you liked,” I said, even though I whole-heartedly agreed with his dislike of how I was supposed to be addressed.
“But you did ask why I didn’t tell the Duke about your little explorations,” he countered. “Why would I do that? I’m your guard. If I were to betray you, then you wouldn’t trust me, and that would definitely make my job of keeping you safe much harder.”
His very logical reasoning for not saying anything carried a bitter bite of disappointment, and I didn’t even want to delve into why. “As you can see, I can keep myself safe.”
“I see that.” He drew back, brows furrowed, and then his eyes widened just a fraction as if he’d figured something out.
“Hawke!” a voice called out from the ground below, causing my heart to trip. “Everything okay up there?”
His gaze searched the darkness of my hood for a moment, and then he looked over his shoulder. “Everything is fine.”
“You need to let me go,” I whispered. “Someone is bound to come up here—”
“And catch you? Force you to reveal your identity?” Those amber eyes slid back to me. “Maybe that would be a good thing.”
I sucked in a sharp breath. “You said you wouldn’t betray me—”
“I said I didn’t betray you, but that was before I knew you would do something like this.”
Ice drenched my skin.
“My job would be so much easier if I didn’t have to worry about you sneaking out to fight the Craven…or meet random men in places like the Red Pearl,” he continued. “And who knows what else you do when all believe you’re safely ensconced in your chambers.”
“I imagine that once I brought it to the Duke’s and Duchess’s attention, your penchant for arming yourself with a bow and climbing to the Rise would be one less thing I had to worry about.”
My chest seized with panic, and I blurted out, “You have no idea what he’d do if you went to him. He’d—” I cut myself off.
Taking a slow, even breath, I lifted my chin. “It doesn’t matter. Do what you feel you need to do.”
Hawke stared down at me for so long it felt like a small eternity had passed and then he let go of me, stepping back. Cold air blew in between us. “You better hurry back to your chambers, Princess. We’ll have to finish this conversation later.”
Confusion held me in its grip for only a few moments, but then I snapped out of it. Easing away from the wall, I ran, and even though I didn’t look back, I knew he didn’t take his eyes off me.
Slipping through the old servants’ access, I wasn’t surprised when I found that Tawny was still in my chambers, even though it had taken me nearly an hour before the gates were lifted and I could sneak back in.
She gasped. “I thought you were never going to come back.”
I closed the creaky door behind me and faced her, slowly reaching up to pull the hood down.
Tawny drew up short. “Are you…are you okay?” Her gaze searched mine, and I saw a faint tremor radiate through her. “Was it bad? The attack?”
Opening my mouth, I had no idea where to start, recalling all that had happened. I leaned against the door. My confrontation with Hawke still had my heart pounding. My mind was a confusing mess, and my stomach churned with the knowledge that the Craven had reached the top of the Rise.
“Poppy?” she whispered.
I decided to start with the most important. “There were a lot of them. Dozens.”
Her chest moved as she took in a deep breath. “And?”
I wasn’t sure if she really wanted to know, but to be in the dark was far more dangerous than fear of the truth. “And several of them reached the top of the Rise.”
Tawny’s eyes flew open. “Oh, my gods.” She pressed a hand to her chest. “But the shields have lifted—”
“They were stopped, but a lot…a lot of guards died tonight.” I peeled myself away from the door as I unbuttoned my cloak with chilled fingers, letting it fall to the floor. I went to the fireplace and stood there for several minutes, allowing the warmth to beat back some of the coldness. “There were just so many of them that they basically swarmed the front line. If there’d been more…”
“They would’ve breached the wall?”
“It’s more than possible.” Stepping away from the fire, I unhooked the cloak, letting it fall in a messy puddle. I slipped off the bow, carefully placing it in the chest before I closed the lid. “They sent out the horsemen, but at least two Craven had already made it to the top of the Rise by then. If they wait like that again, it could be too late. But I don’t think…I don’t imagine they expected them to be able to do that.”
Tawny sat down on the edge of the bed. “Did you…kill any of them?”
Toeing off my slippers, I looked over at her. “Of course.”
“Good.” Her gaze drifted to the window, to where the torches now burned brightly in the darkness. “There’ll be a lot of black flags raised tomorrow.”
There would be. Each house that had lost a son, a father, a husband, or friend would raise the flag in memoriam. Commander Jansen would visit each and every one of them over the next day or so. Many pyres would be lit.
And I feared that some of those who’d bravely faced down the Craven tonight would return to their homes or the dorms, bitten. It happened every time after an attack.
I plopped down on the bed, catching the scent of burnt wood in my hair. Before I could say anything else, there was a knock on the door.
“I’ll get it.” Tawny rose, and I didn’t stop her, figuring it was Vikter or another Royal Guard checking on us. As she made her way over, I gripped the edge of my braid, quickly unraveling it as I heard Tawny open the door and say, “The Maiden is sleeping—”
Heart slamming against my ribs, I jumped up from the bed and spun around just as Hawke came through the door. My mouth dropped open, mirroring Tawny’s expression.
Hawke kicked the door shut behind him. “It’s time for that talk, Princess.”
The blood had been wiped from Hawke’s face, and his dark hair was damp, curling against his temples and forehead. His broadsword was absent, but the two shorter swords were still attached to his waist. Standing in my chambers with his booted feet braced shoulder-width apart, and the curve of his jaw hard, Hawke reminded me so very much of Theon, the god of Accord and War.
He appeared no less dangerous than he had on the Rise.
And it was clear by the fiery burn of his amber gaze that he wasn’t here to make peace.
He glanced over to where Tawny stood, struck as silent and still as I was. “Your services are no longer needed this evening.”
Tawny’s mouth dropped open.
Snapping out of my stupor, I had a very different reaction. “You don’t have the authority to dismiss her!”
“I don’t?” He raised a dark brow. “As your personal Royal Guard, I have the authority to remove any threats”
“Threats?” Tawny frowned. “I’m not a threat.”
“You pose the threat of making up excuses or lying on behalf of Penellaphe. Just like you said she was asleep when I know for a fact that she was on the Rise,” he countered, and Tawny snapped her mouth shut.
She turned to me. “I have a feeling I’m missing an important piece of information.”
“I didn’t get a chance to tell you,” I explained. “And it wasn’t that important.”