Tawny glanced at Vikter and then said, “They’re almost done with the third sons and daughters.”
I checked out the dais. “The Duke still hasn’t arrived?
“No,” she whispered. “Odd, right?”
It was very odd. Had something happened when he went to see the Descenter the night before? If so, then something would’ve been announced. Between the missing Duke, my suspicions concerning Lord Mazeen, and Agnes’s unexpected presence, my mind was all over the place as the ceremony continued. Honest to the gods, it sounded like the Priest was speaking a different language. Maybe he was. I was unable to pay attention, and that was a shame because I’d always been curious about the—
The back of my neck tingled, and the strongest sense of awareness swept over me. I couldn’t explain it, but I knew that when I looked over my shoulder, I would see him.
And I was right.
The next breath I took seemed to go nowhere as my gaze swept over the crimson-hued breeches and red tunic that showed just a hint of skin below his throat, as well as the carved line of his jaw and his lush lips. The curve of the red domino mask drew the eye to the rise of his cheekbones. A strand of dark hair tumbled over his forehead, brushing the stiff fabric.
Hawke looked like I imagined one of the gods waiting in the Temples appeared—striking and unattainable, alluring in a way that was a little frightening.
And I knew that he was looking at me just as intently as I was him. A wave of shivers followed his gaze as it tracked over me with such concentration that it felt like a caress. Every inch of my skin, what was exposed and what wasn’t, became hyperaware. The flutter was back with a vengeance.
“Hi,” I said, and immediately wished I’d kept my mouth shut.
One side of his lips kicked up, and that dimple of his made an appearance. “You look…lovely,” he said, and my stomach dipped in the most pleasant way possible. He turned to Tawny. “As do you.”
Tawny smiled. “Thank you.”
He glanced at Vikter. “You, as well.”
Vikter snorted, and I smiled while Tawny giggled. “You do look exceptionally handsome tonight,” she said, and I swore Vikter’s cheeks deepened in color as I turned back to the dais.
“Sorry for the delay,” Hawke said as he came to stand behind me.
“Is everything okay?” I asked as I looked up at the dais. If Lord Mazeen knew about what had happened with Priestess Analia, then she’d definitely gone to the Duke as expected. I doubted she’d left out what Hawke had done.
“Of course,” he replied. “I was pulled to assist with security sweeps. I didn’t think it would take as long as it did.”
I wanted to ask if anyone had said anything to him about what had happened with the Priestess. Still, if I said it in front of Vikter, he’d have questions, and I didn’t want him to worry.
As those given to the Court and to the Temples were led out, the Duchess stepped off the dais, stopping to speak to the families and then some other Court members. Next to the dais, music began to play, and servants entered from the access doors, carrying trays of champagne. Ladies and Lords, along with those in Wait, broke into smaller groups. Merchants and other commoners joined them.
Vikter was eyeing the front before he turned to me. “I need to speak to the Commander,” he said. When I nodded, he turned to Hawke.
“I have her,” Hawke answered before Vikter could even speak, and that stupid, funny motion hit my stomach again.
Expecting Vikter to challenge the statement, I was surprised when he accepted the answer. Was he coming around to liking Hawke? Trusting him? Or did he just want to catch the Commander before he lost sight of him?
Probably the latter.
“Have I missed anything?” Hawke moved to my right, standing about a foot or so behind me.
“You haven’t,” Tawny answered. “Unless you were looking forward to a bunch of prayers and teary-eyed goodbyes.”
“Not particularly,” he commented dryly.
That reminded me. I looked at Tawny. “Did they call out the Tulis family?”
Her brow creased. “You know, I don’t think they did.”
Did that mean they hadn’t come? If so, that would be considered treason. Guards would go to their home, the child would still be sent to serve the gods, and Mr. and Mrs. Tulis would most likely be imprisoned.
The only way they’d have a chance was if they left the city, but no one came in and out of the city without the Royals knowing. They’d have to be incredibly well connected to even attempt such a feat, and even if they did, where would they go? Word would be sent to all surrounding cities and towns to be on the lookout for them.
Knowing all of that, I still understood why they’d take the risk. It was their only child.
My attention shifted as the Duchess drew near, flanked by several Royal Guards who, like Vikter and Hawke, had swapped out their white mantles and typical black garb.
“Penellaphe,” she said, her well-practiced smile in place.
“Your Grace,” I murmured as demurely as possible.
She nodded at Tawny and Hawke, her gaze lingering on him for a few seconds. I bit down on the inside of my cheek to stop myself from smiling. “Are you enjoying the Rite?”
Considering I only saw a few minutes of it, I nodded. “Is His Grace not attending?”
“I believe he is running late,” she answered smoothly, but the corners of her mouth tightened. She stepped closer, lowering her voice. “Remember who you are, Penellaphe. You are not to mingle or socialize.”
“I know,” I assured her.
Her dark eyes briefly met mine, and then she was on her way, like a jeweled hummingbird, buzzing from one group of people to the next. Laughter rang out from the floor, drawing my attention. I saw Loren and Dafina.
“I have a question,” Hawke said.
I inclined my head. “Yes?”
“If you’re not supposed to mingle or socialize, which are the same thing, by the way,” he said, and I grinned, “what is the point of you being allowed to attend?”
My grin faded.
“That is actually a good question,” Tawny remarked, hands lightly clasped in front of her.
“I’m not sure what the point is, to be honest,” I admitted.
For several minutes, none of us spoke. I lost sight of the Duchess, and the Duke still hadn’t appeared from what I could tell.
I sighed as I glanced at Tawny.
She really did look absolutely beautiful tonight, the red complementing the richness of her brown skin. I knew what she was so vividly focused on without following her gaze. Her expression could only be described as wistful as she watched couples pair off for some waltz I probably would never have been able to master even if I’d been allowed. Her eyes tracked their movements fervently, and I knew for a fact that she knew every step of that dance. Why was she here and not out there with the rest of them?
Of course, I knew the answer.
It was because of me.
Guilt settled in my chest like a stone. “Tawny?”
She twisted toward me. “Yes?”
“You don’t have to stand here beside me. You can go and have fun.”
“What?” Her nose scrunched against the mask. “I’m having fun. Aren’t you?”
“Of course, but you don’t have to be right beside me. You should be out there.” I gestured to the dancers and beyond, to where people huddled together in groups of three and four. “It’s okay.”
“I’m fine.” She plastered on a bright smile, and my heart squeezed. “I’d rather be standing here with you than out there without you.”
“You’re the best,” I said, wishing I could hug her. Instead, I reached between us and squeezed her arm. “You really are, but I don’t need you to be my shadow tonight. I already have two of them.”
Tawny’s gaze flicked over my shoulder. “You really only have one. Vikter is still with the Commander.”
“And one is all I need. Please.” I squeezed her arm again. “Tawny, go. Please.”
Her gaze searched mine, and I could tell that she was waffling. Before she could decide not to, I lied, “I’m actually feeling very tired. I didn’t sleep all that well last night, so I don’t plan to be down here for much longer.”
Tawny’s entire body practically vibrated with the effort required not to throw her arms around me, but she managed a subdued nod as I released her hand. She gave me one last long look and then headed down the steps, crossing the floor to where Dafina and Loren stood with three Lords in Wait.
I smiled, relieved. I hoped she let herself enjoy her night, and to ensure that, I knew I needed to leave. If I stayed down here for any amount of time, standing between the enormous, red geraniums, she would come back.
I felt Hawke step closer before he even spoke, and a shivery wave of warmth danced over my skin. I turned my head to the right, to where he stood no more than a few inches behind me.
“That was kind of you,” he commented as he stared out over the floor.
“Not particularly. Why should she stand here and do nothing just because that’s all I can do?”
“Is that really all you can do?”
“You were standing right here when Her Grace reminded me that I am not to mingle or—”
“She said socialize,” I corrected.
“But you don’t have to stay here.”
“I don’t.” I turned back to the floor, swallowing another sigh. I did have to leave. The idea of returning to my chambers held little appeal, but if I didn’t, Tawny would return to my side. “I would like to go back to my room.”
No. “Of course.”
“After you, Princess.”
I turned, eyes narrowing as he stepped aside. “You need to stop calling me that.”