Cheers rang out, the mood of the crowd shifting rapidly, but the blond man still showed no reaction.
“And we will honor their faith in the people of Solis by not shielding those you suspect of supporting the Dark One, who seek nothing but destruction and death,” she said. “You will be rewarded greatly in this life and in the one beyond. That, we can promise you.”
There was another round of cheers, and then someone yelled out, “We will honor them during the Rite!”
“We will!” the Duchess cried out, pushing back from the ledge. “What better way to show the gods our gratitude than to celebrate the Rite?”
His and Her Grace stepped back from the balcony then, side by side, almost touching but not quite as they both lifted their hands on opposite sides of the bodies and began to wave—
“Lies!” a voice shouted from the crowd. It was the blond man. “Liars.”
Time seemed to stop. Everyone froze.
“You do nothing to protect us while you hide in your castles, behind your guards! You do nothing but steal children in the name of false gods!” he yelled. “Where are the third and fourth sons and daughters? Where are they really?”
Then there was a sound, a sharp intake of breath that came from everywhere, both inside and outside of me.
The blond man’s cloak parted as he yanked out his hand. There was a shout—a scream of warning—from below. A guard astride a horse turned, but he wasn’t fast enough. The blond man cocked back his arm and—
“Seize him!” shouted Commander Jansen.
The man threw something. It wasn’t a dagger or a rock. It was too oddly shaped for that as it ripped through the air, headed straight toward the Duke of Masadonia. He moved incredibly fast, becoming almost nothing but a blur as Vikter shouldered me back. Hawke’s arm folded around my waist, and he hauled me against him as the object flew past us, smacking into the wall. It thumped off the ground, and my gaze lowered to where it came to rest.
It was…it was a hand.
Vikter knelt, picking it up and rising, the line of his mouth tense. “What in the name of the gods?” he muttered.
But it wasn’t just any hand. It was the clawed, grayish hand of a Craven.
I looked at the blond man. A Royal Guard had him on his knees, arms twisted behind his back. Blood smeared his mouth.
“From blood and ash,” he yelled, even as the guard gripped the back of his head. “We will rise! From blood and ash, we will rise!” Over and over, he screamed the words, as even the guards dragged him through the crowd.
The Duke turned back to the crowd and laughed, the sound cold and dry. “And just like that, the gods have revealed at least one of you, haven’t they?”
Hawke quickly ushered Tawny and me back inside the castle, while Vikter moved to talk to the Commander.
“Where in the world did that man get a Craven’s hand?” Tawny asked, the skin around her mouth tight as we walked past the Great Hall and under the banners.
“He could’ve been outside the Rise and cut it off one of those who was killed last night,” Hawke answered.
“That’s…” Tawny placed her hand to her chest. “I really have no words for that.”
Neither did I, but the appendage might have been from a cursed who’d turned inside the Rise. I kept that to myself as we passed several servants. “I can’t believe he said what he did about the children—the third and fourth sons and daughters.”
“Neither can I,” Tawny said.
What a terrible thing to claim. Those children, many who were adults by now, were in the Temples, serving the gods. While I didn’t agree with there being no exceptions, insinuating that they were being stolen as if done for nefarious purposes was outrageous. There only needed to be a few words spoken for them to behave like an infection, tainting a person’s mind. I didn’t even want to imagine what the parents of those children were now thinking.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if more people thought along those same lines,” Hawke commented, and both Tawny and my heads swiveled in his direction. He walked beside me, only a step behind. He raised his brows. “None of those children have been seen.”
“They’ve been seen by the Priests and Priestesses and the Ascended,” Tawny corrected.
“But not by family.” His gaze flickered over the statues as we headed toward the stairs. “Perhaps if people could see their children every so often, beliefs like that could easily be dismissed. Fears allayed.”
He had a point, but…
“No one should make claims like that without any evidence,” I argued. “All it does is cause unnecessary worry and panic—panic that the Descenters have created and then will exploit.”
“Agreed.” He glanced down. “Watch your step. Wouldn’t want you to continue with your new habit, Princess.”
“Tripping once isn’t a habit,” I shot back. “And if you agree, then why would you say you wouldn’t be surprised if more felt the same way?”
“Because agreeing doesn’t mean I don’t understand why some would think that,” he answered, and I snapped my mouth shut. “If the Ascended are truly concerned about those claims being believed, all they need to do is allow the children to be seen. I can’t imagine that would interfere too badly with their servitude to the gods.”
I didn’t think that would.
Glancing at Tawny, I saw her staring at Hawke as we strode down the second-floor hall, headed toward the older portion of the castle. “What do you think?” I asked.
Tawny blinked as she looked over at me. “I think you are both saying the same thing.”
A half-grin formed on Hawke’s face, and I didn’t say anything as we climbed up the staircase. Hawke stopped us near Tawny’s door. “If you don’t mind, I need to speak to Penellaphe in private for a moment.”
My brows lifted behind the veil while Tawny sent a poorly concealed glance between us as the corners of her lips tilted up. She then waited for me to signal whether it was fine or not.
“It’s fine,” I told her.
Tawny nodded and then opened her door, stopping long enough to say, “If you need me, knock.” She paused. “Princess.”
Hawke chuckled. “I really do like her.”
“I’m sure she’d love to hear that.”
“Would you love to hear that I really like you?” he asked.
My heart skipped a beat, but I ignored the stupid organ. “Would you be sad if I said no?”
“I’d be devastated.”
I snorted. “I’m sure.” We reached my door. “What did you need to talk about?”
He motioned to the room, and figuring what he had to say was something he didn’t want overheard, I went to open the door—
“I should enter first, Princess.” He easily side-stepped me.
“Why?” I frowned at his back. “Do you think someone could be waiting for me?”
“If the Dark One came for you once, he’ll come for you again.”
A chill danced down my spine as Hawke entered the room. Two oil lamps had been left burning by the door and bed, and wood had been added to the fireplace, casting the room in a soft, warm glow. I didn’t stare too long at the bed, which meant that I somehow ended up staring at Hawke’s broad back as he scanned the room. The edges of his hair brushed the collar of his tunic, and those strands looked so…soft. I hadn’t touched them that night at the Red Pearl, and I wished I had.
I needed help.
“Is it okay for me to enter?” I asked, clasping my hands together. “Or should I wait out here while you inspect under the bed for stray dust bunnies?”
Hawke looked over his shoulder. “It’s not dust bunnies I’m worried about. Steps, on the other hand? Yes.”
“Oh, my gods—”
“And the Dark One will keep coming until he has what he wants,” he said, looking away. I shivered. “Your room should always be checked before you enter it.”
I folded my arms over my chest, chilled despite the fire. I watched as he circled back to the door, quietly closing it.
Hawke faced me, one hand on the hilt of a short sword, and the flipping in my chest doubled. His face was so strikingly pieced together. From the wide set of his lips, the upward slant of his eyebrows, to the shadowy hollows under his high, broad cheekbones, he could’ve been the muse for the paintings that hung in the city’s Atheneum.
“Are you all right?” Hawke asked.
“Yes. Why do you ask?”
“Something appeared to happen to you as the Duke addressed the people.”
I made a mental note to remember exactly how observant Hawke was. “I was…” I started to say that I’d been fine, but I knew he wouldn’t believe that. “I got a little dizzy. I guess I haven’t eaten enough today.”
His intense gaze tracked over what he could see of my face, and even with the veil, I felt unbearably exposed when he looked at me like he did then. “I hate this.”
“Hate what?” I asked, confused.
Hawke didn’t respond immediately. “I hate talking to the veil.”
“Oh.” Understanding rippled through me as I reached up and touched the length that hid my hair. “I imagine most people don’t enjoy it.”
“I can’t imagine you do.”
“I don’t,” I admitted and then glanced around the room as if I expected Priestess Analia to be hiding somewhere. “I mean, I’d prefer if people were able to see me.”
He tilted his head to the side. “What does it feel like?”
Air hitched in my throat. No one…no one had ever asked me that before, and while I had a lot of thoughts and feelings about the veil, I wasn’t sure how to put them into words even though I trusted Hawke.
Some things, once spoken, were given a life of their own.