For as long as I could remember, everyone said that—even Vikter—and it grated on my nerves and sat like a boulder on my shoulders. “The future of the entire kingdom rests on me being given to the gods upon my nineteenth birthday?”
Her already thin lips became almost non-existent.
“What would happen if I didn’t Ascend?” I demanded, thinking of the first Maiden. It hadn’t sounded like she’d Ascended, and everyone was still here. “How would that stop the others from Ascending? Would the gods refuse to give their blood so freely—”
I sucked in a sharp gasp as the Priestess cocked her hand back. It wouldn’t be the first time she had smacked me, but this time, the stinging blow didn’t land.
Hawke had moved so fast that I hadn’t seen him leave the corner. But now, he had the Priestess’s wrist in his grasp. “Remove your fingers from the Maiden’s chin. Now.”
Priestess Analia’s eyes had grown wide as she stared up at Hawke. “How dare you touch me?”
“How dare you lay a single finger on the Maiden?” His jaw flexed as he glared down at the woman. “Perhaps I was not clear enough for you. Remove your hand from the Maiden, or I will act upon your attempt to harm her. And I can assure you, me touching you will be the least of your concerns.”
I might’ve stopped breathing as I watched them. No one had ever intervened during one of the Priestess’s tirades. Tawny couldn’t. If she did, she would face worse, and I’d never expect nor want that. Rylan had often turned in the other direction, as did Hannes. Even Vikter had never been so bold. He’d usually find a way to interrupt, to stop the situation from escalating. But I’d been slapped on more than one occasion in front of him, and there was nothing he could do.
But Hawke now stood between us, clearly prepared to follow through on his threat. And while I knew I would most likely pay for this later, as would he, I wanted to jump up and hug him. Not because he had protected me—I’d been slapped harder by stray branches while walking through Wisher’s Grove. There was a far pettier reason. Seeing the Priestess’s usual smugness vanish under the weight of shock and witnessing the way her mouth hung open and how her cheeks mottled with red was almost as satisfying as throwing the book in her face.
Vibrating with rage, she let go of my chin, and I leaned back. Hawke released her wrist, but he remained there. Her chest rose and fell under the gown as she placed both hands flat on her legs.
She turned her head to me. “The mere fact that you would even speak such a thing shows that you have no respect for the honor bestowed upon you. But when you go to the gods, you’ll be treated with as much respect as you have shown today.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“This session is over,” she answered instead, rising from her seat. “I have too much to do with the Rite only two days away. I have no time to spend with someone as unworthy as you.”
I saw Hawke’s eyes narrow, and I stood, placing the book on the stool as I spoke before Hawke could. “I’m ready to return to my chambers,” I said to him and then nodded at the Priestess. “Good day.”
She didn’t respond, and I started for the door, relieved when Hawke fell into step behind me. I waited until we were halfway across the banquet hall before speaking.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” I told him.
“I should’ve allowed her to hit you? In what world would that have been acceptable?”
“In a world where you end up punished for something that wouldn’t even have hurt.”
“I don’t care if she hits like a baby mouse, this world is fucked up if anyone finds that acceptable.”
Eyes widening, I stopped and looked at him. His eyes were like shards of amber, his jaw just as hard. “Is it worth losing your position over and being ostracized for?”
He glared down at me. “If you even have to ask that question, then you don’t know me at all.”
“I hardly know you at all,” I whispered, irritated by the sting his words left behind.
“Well, now you know that I will never stand by and watch someone hit you or any person for no reason other than they feel they can,” he shot back.
I started to tell him that he was being ridiculous and was missing the point, but he wasn’t being ridiculous. This world we lived in was messed up, and the gods knew that wasn’t the first time I’d thought that. But it had never hit me with such clarity before.
Silent, I turned from him and started walking. He was right beside me. Several moments passed. “It’s not like I’m okay with how she treats me. It took everything in me not to throw the book at her.”
“I wish you had.”
I almost laughed. “If I had, she would’ve reported me. She’ll probably report you.”
“To the Duke? Let her.” He shrugged. “I can’t imagine that he’s okay with her striking the Maiden.”
I snorted. “You don’t know the Duke.”
“What do you mean?”
“He would probably applaud her,” I said. “They share a lack of control when it comes to their tempers.”
“He’s hit you,” Hawke stated. “Is that what she meant when she said that you’d grown fond of the cane?” He grabbed my arm, turning me to face him. “Has he used a cane on you?”
The disbelief and anger filling those golden eyes sent a wave of nausea through me. Oh, gods. Realizing what I’d basically just admitted, I felt the blood drain from my face and then rapidly flood back in. I pulled at my arm, and he let go. “I didn’t say that.”
He was staring straight ahead, his jaw flexing. “What were you saying?”
“J-just that the Duke is more likely to punish you than he is the Priestess. I have no idea what she meant by the cane,” I continued in a rush. “She sometimes says things that make no sense.”
Hawke glanced down at me, his lashes lowered. “I must’ve misread what you said then.”
I nodded, relieved. “Yes. I just don’t want you to get into trouble.”
“And what about you?”
“I’ll be fine,” I was quick to say as I started walking again, aware of the darting glances passing servants sent our way. “The Duke will just…give me a lecture, make it a lesson, but you would face—”
“I’ll face nothing,” he said, and I wasn’t so sure about that. “Is she always like that?”
I sighed. “Yes.”
“The Priestess seems like a…” He paused, and I glanced over at him. His lips were pursed. “A bitch. I don’t say that often, but I say it now. Proudly.”
Nearly choking on my laugh, I looked away. “She…she is something, and she’s always disappointed in my…commitment to being the Maiden.”
“Exactly how are you supposed to prove you are?” he asked. “Better yet, what are you supposed to be committed to?”
I almost jumped on him in that moment and wrapped my arms around him. I didn’t, because it would be grossly inappropriate. Instead, I gave him a sedate nod. “I’m not quite sure. It’s not like I’m trying to run away or escape my Ascension.”
“Funny question,” I muttered, my heart still thumping from what I’d almost exposed.
“It was a serious one.”
My heart lurched in my chest as I stopped in the narrow, short hall and approached one of the windows that faced the courtyard. I stared up at Hawke, and everything about him said that it was, in fact, a genuine inquiry. “I can’t believe you’d ask that.”
“Why?” He came to stand behind me.
“Because I couldn’t do that,” I told him. “I wouldn’t.”
“It seems to me that this honor that has been bestowed upon you comes with very few benefits. You’re not allowed to show your face or travel anywhere outside the castle grounds. You didn’t even seem all that surprised when the Priestess moved to strike you. That leads me to believe it’s something fairly common,” he said, his brows dark slashes above his eyes. “You are not allowed to speak to most, and you are not to be spoken to. You’re caged in your room most of the day, your freedom restricted. All the rights others have are privileges for you, rewards that seem impossible for you to earn.”
I opened my mouth, but I didn’t know what to say. He’d pointed out all that I didn’t have, and made it so painfully clear. I looked away.
“So, I wouldn’t be surprised if you did try to escape this honor,” he finished.
“Would you stop me if I did?” I asked.
I frowned, not even sure I wanted to know why he’d asked that, but I answered honestly anyway. “I know Vikter cares about me. He’s like…he’s like I imagine my father would have been if he were still alive. And I’m like Vikter’s daughter, who never got to take a breath. But he would stop me.”
Hawke said nothing.
“So, would you?” I repeated.
“I think I would be too curious to find out exactly how you planned to escape to stop you.”
I coughed out a short laugh. “You know, I actually believe that.”
“Will she report you to the Duke?” he asked after a moment.
Pressure settled on my chest as I looked at him. He was staring out the window. “Why would you ask?”
“Will she?” he asked instead.
“Probably not,” I said, lying all too easily. The Priestess probably went straight to the Duke. “She’s too busy with the Rite. Everyone is.” As the Duke would be, so I might get lucky and at least have a delay between now and when I would inevitably be summoned. Hopefully, that meant that Hawke would also get lucky. If he were removed from his post, it was unlikely that I would ever see him again.
The sadness that thought brought forth meant that it was far past time to change the subject. “I’ve never been to a Rite.”