“And you’ve never snuck into one?”
I dipped my chin. “I’m offended that you’d even suggest such a thing.”
He chuckled. “How bizarre that I could think that you, who has a history of misbehaving, would do such a thing.”
I grinned at that.
“You haven’t missed much, to be honest. There’s a lot of talking, a bunch of tears, and too much drinking.” His gaze slid to mine. “It’s after the Rite where things can get…interesting. You know how it is.”
“I don’t know,” I reminded him, even though I had an idea of what he spoke of. Tawny had told me that once the ritual of the Rite was completed, and the Mistresses and stewards took the new Ladies and Lords in Wait, and the Priests left with the third daughters and sons, the celebration changed. It became more…frantic and raw. Or at least that was what I’d interpreted from Tawny, but it seemed too bizarre to imagine the Ascended being involved in anything like that. They were always so…cold.
“But you know how easy it is to be yourself when you wear a mask.” His voice was low as his gaze held mine. “How anything you want becomes achievable when you can pretend that no one knows who you are.”
Warmth infused my cheeks. Yes, I did know that, and how kind of him to remind me. “You shouldn’t bring that up.”
His head tilted. “No one is close enough to overhear.”
“That doesn’t matter. You…we shouldn’t talk about that.”
I started to say yes, but something stopped me. I pulled my gaze from his. Outside the window, the violet-hued butterfly bushes stirred softly in the breeze.
Hawke was quiet for several moments before asking, “Would you like to go back to your room?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Not particularly.”
“Would you like to go out there instead?”
“You think it would be safe?”
“Between you and me, I would think so.”
The corners of my lips lifted. I liked that he’d included me, acknowledging that I could hold my own. “I used to love the courtyard. It was the one place where, I don’t know, my mind was quiet, and I could just be. I didn’t think or worry…about anything. I found it so very peaceful.”
“But not anymore?”
“No,” I whispered. “Not anymore. It’s strange how no one speaks of Rylan or Malessa. It’s almost as if they never existed.”
“Sometimes remembering those who died means facing your own mortality,” he said.
“Do you think the Ascended are uncomfortable with the idea of death?”
“Even them,” he answered. “They may be godlike, but they can be killed. They can die.”
Neither of us spoke for several minutes as servants and others passed behind us. Several Ladies in Wait had stopped and pretended to take in the view of the garden while talking about the Rite, but I knew they were lingering near where we stood not because of the stunning flowers and lush greenery or because it was so rare for me to be seen, but because of the beautiful man who stood beside me. He seemed unaware of them, and even though I kept my gaze forward, I could feel his stare every couple of moments. Eventually, one of the Mistresses came along, shooing the Ladies away, and we were left alone once more.
“Are you excited about attending the Rite?”
“I am curious,” I admitted. The Rite was only two days away.
“I’m curious to see you.”
My lips parted on a soft inhale. I didn’t dare look at him. If I did, I feared I’d do something incredibly stupid. Something that the first Maiden could’ve done that had made the Duchess feel that she was unworthy.
“You’ll be unveiled.”
“Yes.” I also wouldn’t be expected to wear the color white. It would almost be like going to the Red Pearl because I would be able to blend in, and no one would know who I was—what I was. “But I will be masked.”
“I prefer that version of you,” he said.
“The masked version of myself?” I asked, guessing that he was thinking of our time at the Red Pearl.
“Honest?” His voice sounded closer, and when I took another deep breath, the scent of leather and pine surrounded me. “I prefer the version of you that wears no mask or veil.”
I opened my mouth, but as was becoming commonplace where Hawke was concerned, I didn’t know what to say. It felt like I should discourage such statements, but those words wouldn’t come to the surface either, just as they hadn’t before.
So, I did the only thing I could think of. I changed the subject. “I remember you said your father was a farmer.” I cleared my throat. “Do you have any other siblings? Any Lords in Wait in the family? A sister? Or…” I rambled on. “There’s only Ian for me—I mean, I only have one brother. I’m excited to see him again. I miss him.”
Hawke was quiet for so long that I had to look to make sure he was still there and still breathing. He was. He stared down at me, his amber eyes cool. “I had a brother.”
“Had?” My senses stretched out, and I didn’t even have a chance to control them. I opened myself up, and I locked my legs to stop myself from taking a step back. I didn’t feel anything strange, but I felt Hawke’s anguish, the bitterly cold pain that pelted my skin. It was sharper. This was where his pain stemmed from.
He’d lost a brother.
I reacted without thought to what he would think or to the fact that we were not alone. It was an uncontrollable urge, as if the gift itself had a hold of me.
I touched just his hand with mine and squeezed it in hopes that it would be construed as a gesture of sympathy. “I’m sorry,” I said, and I thought of warm beaches and salty air. Those thoughts quickly changed to how I’d felt when Hawke had kissed me.
The taut lines of Hawke’s expression smoothed out as he stared out the window. He blinked, not once but twice.
Lifting my fingers from his, I clasped my hands together, hoping that he hadn’t realized that I’d done something. He stood there, though, as if he’d been struck immobile. I lifted my brows. “Are you okay?”
He blinked again. This time, he laughed softly. “Yes. It’s…I just had the strangest feeling.”
“Is that so?” I watched him closely.
Hawke nodded as he rubbed the palm of his hand over his chest. “I don’t even know how to explain it.”
Now I was starting to worry that I’d somehow done something other than relieve his pain. What, I wasn’t sure, but if my gifts were evolving, anything was possible. I reached out with my senses once more, and all I felt in return was warmth. “Is it a bad feeling? Should we find a Healer?”
“No. Not at all.” Hawke’s laugh was stronger then, less uncertain. His eyes, now a warm honey, met mine. “My brother is not dead, by the way. So, no need for sympathy.”
Now it was my turn to blink repeatedly. “Oh? I just thought…” I trailed off.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to visit the garden?”
Thinking it was far past time for me to lock myself away before I did yet another reckless thing, I shook my head. “I think I would like to go back to my room now.”
He hesitated for a moment but then nodded. Neither of us spoke as we made our way. Apparently, Hawke was trying to figure out why he felt…happier, lighter. And I was left wondering what exactly had happened to his brother to cause that kind of reaction, especially if his brother was still alive.
It took less than twenty-four hours for me to, yet again, do something utterly reckless. This time, however, I may end up regretting it. Of all the ways I’d thought I might die, it had never occurred to me that it could happen while borrowing a book from the Atheneum.
There were far more dangerous things I’d done in my eighteen years of life, times where I would’ve been more likely to die in the process. Utter heaps of examples where even I had been a bit surprised that I’d walked away with my limbs and life intact. But here I was, one wrong step away from plummeting to my death, clutching the supposed diary of one Miss Willa Colyns, the book that Loren and Dafina had been talking about. Obviously, the book would most definitely be the type of reading material Priestess Analia would expressly forbid. And if I were caught with it in my possession, it would be yet another reason for her to believe that I wasn’t respectful of my duty as the Maiden.
So, of course, I had to read it. I’d been so very bored all day.
I’d already read every book Tawny had snuck me at least three times, and I couldn’t bring myself to read another too-familiar page even one more time. She had yet again been commandeered by the Duchess and the Mistresses, and I knew I might not even see her the following morning. So, I had another day of staring—uninterrupted except for my training with Vikter—at four stone walls. And the longer I stayed in my room with nothing to occupy my mind, the more I thought about what Hawke had said about all the rights that had been stripped away from me.
It wasn’t like I didn’t already know that, but it wasn’t something that others appeared to even acknowledge. Maybe it was because they were with me constantly, so everything had become the norm. But to Hawke, who was new, none of this was normal.
And that was what led me to travel unaccompanied through Wisher’s Grove to the Atheneum while Hawke stood outside my chamber door, thinking I was inside. Vikter was…well, I had no idea where he was. I had a feeling based on how tired and sad his eyes had looked this morning, that he’d been called upon the night before to take care of one of the cursed and hadn’t invited me.
I also had a feeling that he wasn’t going to involve me going forward, which irritated me. Of course, I planned to discuss that with him the first chance I got. I wouldn’t be cut out when I could help people. And he would just have to deal with it.
But right now, I needed to focus on not dying, or worse yet, getting caught.