She opened the door. “Because everyone should be able to live a little, even for a few hours.”
My mouth dropped open as she parroted what I’d thought to myself minutes ago. Stunned, I stood there.
Giving me a wink, she closed the door.
Her figuring out who I was couldn’t be a coincidence. Repeating back to me what I’d been thinking earlier? There was no way. A rough laugh escaped my lips. The woman may be a Descenter, or at the very least, she wasn’t a fan of the Ascended. But she might also be a Seer.
I didn’t think there were any of them left.
And I still couldn’t believe that Vikter was here—that he came here often enough that one of the ladies in red liked him. I wasn’t sure why I was so surprised. It wasn’t like Royal Guards were forbidden from seeking pleasure or even marrying. Many were quite…promiscuous since their lives were rife with danger and often far too short. It was just that Vikter had a wife who’d passed long before I even met him, dying in childbirth along with the babe. He still loved his Camilia as much as he had when she lived and breathed.
But what could be found here had nothing to do with love, did it? And everyone got lonely, no matter if their heart belonged to someone they could no longer have or not.
A little saddened by that, I turned around in the narrow stairwell lit by oil wall sconces. I exhaled heavily. “What have I gotten myself into?”
Only the gods knew, and there was no turning back now.
I slipped my hand inside the cloak, keeping it close to the hilt of the dagger as I climbed the steps to the second floor. The hallway was wider and surprisingly quiet. I didn’t know what I expected, but I’d thought I would hear…sounds.
Shaking my head, I counted until I reached the sixth door on the left. I tried the handle and found it unlocked. I started to open the door but stopped. What was I doing? Anyone or anything could be waiting beyond this door. That woman downstairs—
The sound of a male chuckle filled the hallway as the door beside me opened. Panicked, I quickly backed into the room in front of me, closing the door behind me.
Heart pounding, I looked around. There were no lamps, just a tree of candles on a mantel. A settee sat in front of an empty fireplace. Without even looking behind me, I knew the only other piece of furniture had to be a bed. I drew in a deep breath, catching the scent of the candles. Cinnamon? But there was something else, something that reminded me of dark spices and pine. I started to turn—
An arm curled around my waist, pulling me back against a very hard, very male body.
“This,” a deep voice whispered, “is unexpected.”
Caught off guard, I looked up. A mistake that Vikter had taught me never to make. I should’ve gone for my dagger, but instead, I stood there as the arm around my waist tightened, and his hand settled at my hip.
“But it’s a welcome surprise,” he continued, sliding his arm away.
Snapping out of my stupor, I whirled to face him, the hood of the cloak remaining in place as my hand went for the dagger. I looked up…and then up some more.
Oh, my gods.
I froze, utter shock rippling through me, shorting out all common sense when I saw his face in the soft glow of the candlelight.
I knew who he was, even though I’d never spoken with him.
Everyone in Castle Teerman knew when the Rise Guard arrived from Carsodonia, the capital, a few months ago. I’d been no different.
I wanted to lie to myself and say that it was due to his striking height, placing him nearly a foot taller than me. Or it was because he moved with the same inherent, predatory grace and fluidity that belonged to the large, gray cave cats that normally roamed the Wastelands but that I had seen once in the Queen’s palace as a child. The fearsome, wild animal had been caged, and the way it continuously prowled back and forth in the too-small enclosure had equally fascinated and horrified me. I’d seen Hawke pacing in the same manner on more than one occasion, as if he too were caged. It could’ve been the sense of authority that seemed to bleed from his pores even though he couldn’t be much older than I was—maybe the same age as my brother or a year or two older. Or perhaps it was his skill with the sword. One morning while I stood beside the Duchess on one of the many balconies at Castle Teerman, overlooking the training yard below, she’d told me Hawke had come from the capital with glowing recommendations and was well on his way to becoming one of the youngest Royal Guards. Her gaze had been fixed on Hawke’s sweat-slick arms.
So had mine.
Since his arrival, I’d found myself hidden in the shadowy alcoves more than a few times, watching him train with the other guards. Other than the weekly City Council sessions held in the Great Hall, it was the only time I saw him.
My interest could simply be because Hawke was…well, he was beautiful.
It wasn’t often that could be said about a male, but I could think of no better word to describe him. He had dark, thick hair that curled at the nape of his neck and often fell forward, brushing equally dark brows. The planes and angles of his face made me yearn for some talent with a brush or a pen. His cheekbones were high and wide, nose surprisingly straight for a guard. Many of them had suffered at least one broken nose. His square jaw was firm, and his mouth well formed. The few times I’d seen him smile, the right side of his lip curved up, and a deep dimple appeared. If he had a matching one in his left cheek, I didn’t know. But his eyes were by far his most captivating feature.
They reminded me of cool honey, a striking color I’d never seen before, and he had this way of looking at you that left you feeling stripped bare. I knew this because I felt his stare during the Councils held in the Great Hall, even though he’d never seen my face or even my eyes before. I was sure his regard was due to the fact that I was the first Maiden in centuries. People always stared when I was in public, whether they were guards, Lords and Ladies in Wait, or commoners.
His stare could also just be a product of my imagination, driven by my small, hidden desire that he was as curious about me as I was of him.
Perhaps it was all those reasons why he caught my interest, but there was another one that I was a little embarrassed to even acknowledge.
I’d purposely reached out with my senses when I saw him. I knew it was wrong to do when there was no good reason. Nothing to justify the invasion. And I had no excuse other than wondering what often made him pace like a caged cave cat.
Hawke was always in pain.
Not the physical kind. It was deeper than that, feeling like chips of sharp ice against my skin. It was raw and it felt never-ending. But the anguish that seemed to follow him like a shadow never overwhelmed him. If I hadn’t prodded, I never would have felt it. Somehow, he kept that kind of agony in check, and I knew of no one else who could do that.
Not even the Ascended.
Only because I never felt anything from them, although I knew they felt physical pain. The fact that I never had to worry about picking up residual pain from them should make me seek out their presence, but instead, it gave me the creeps.
“I wasn’t expecting you tonight,” Hawke spoke. He was giving me that half-smile of his now, the one that showed no teeth, made the dimple in his right cheek appear, but never quite reached his eyes. “It’s only been a few days, sweetling.”
I opened my mouth and then clamped it shut as realization rose. I blinked. He thought I was someone else! Someone he’d obviously met here before. I glanced down at my cloak—the borrowed garment. It was rather distinctive, a pale blue with an edging of white fur.
Did he think I was Britta?
She and I were about the same height, a little under average, and the cloak hid the shape of my body, which was not nearly as thin as hers. No matter how active I was, I could not achieve the willowy frame of Duchess Teerman or some of the other Ladies.
Inexplicably, there was a little part of me, the same bit that was hidden, that was…disappointed, and maybe even a little envious of the pretty maid.
My gaze swept over Hawke. He wore the black tunic and breeches that all guards wore under their armor. Had he come straight here after his shift? I gave the room a quick once-over. There was a small table beside the settee, where two glasses sat. Hawke hadn’t been alone in here before I arrived. Could he have been with another? Behind Hawke, the bed was made and didn’t appear as if anyone had…slept in it.
What should I do? Turn and run? That would be odd. He’d be sure to ask Britta about it, but as long as I returned the cloak and mask without her knowing, I would be in the clear.
Except Vikter was most likely still downstairs, and the woman was, too—
My gods, she had to be a Seer. Instinct told me she had known this room was occupied. She’d sent me here on purpose. Had she known that Hawke was here and likely to mistake me for Britta?
It seemed too unreal to believe.
“Did Pence tell you I was here?” he asked.
My breath caught as my heart started pounding like a hammer against my ribs. I thought Pence was a guard on the Rise, one around Hawke’s age. A blond, if I remembered correctly, but I hadn’t seen him downstairs. I shook my head.
“Have you been watching for me, then? Following me?” he asked, tsking softly under his breath. “We’ll have to talk about that, won’t we?”
There was an odd threat to his voice, one that gave me the impression that he was not all that pleased by the idea of Britta following him.
“But not tonight, it seems. You’re strangely quiet,” he observed. From what I knew of Britta, she was rarely ever demure.
But the moment I spoke, he’d know I wasn’t the maid, and I…I wasn’t ready for him to discover that. I wasn’t sure what I was ready for. My hand was no longer on the dagger, and I didn’t know what that meant. All I knew was that my heart was still racing.
“We don’t have to talk.” He reached for the hem of his tunic, and before I could take another breath, he pulled it over his head, tossing it aside.
My lips parted and my eyes widened. I’d seen a man’s chest before, but I’d never seen his. The muscles that flexed and bunched under the thinner shirts the guards trained in were now on display. He was broad of shoulder and chest, all lean muscles defined by years of intense training. There was a fine dusting of hair under his navel that disappeared behind his breeches. My gaze dipped even lower, and heat returned, a different kind that didn’t just flush my skin but also invaded my blood.