The veiled Maiden fountain was only a few feet from us, the sound of trickling water surrounding us. “I lost both of them,” he said, his eyes shadowed, but his gaze no less powerful. “My brother when we were younger, and then my best friend a few years after that. The place that was once filled with happiness and adventure had turned into a graveyard of memories. I couldn’t even think about going back there without them. It was like the place became haunted.”
I didn’t need to open my senses to know that the pain was festering in him, and it wasn’t exactly a good idea to use my ability twice on him, especially when it was evolving. But through our connected hands, I dwelled on the all-too-shallow well of happy thoughts and let it briefly flow through him.
I felt his hand tremble slightly, and then I spoke, hoping to distract him. “I understand. I keep looking around, thinking that the garden should look different. Assuming there’d be a visible change to represent how it now feels to me.”
Hawke cleared his throat. “But it is the same, isn’t it?”
“It took me a very long time to work up the nerve to go back to the cavern. I felt that way, too. Like the water surely must’ve turned muddy in my absence, dirty and cold. But it wasn’t. It was still as calm, blue, and warm as it always was.”
“Did you replace the sad memories with happy ones?” I asked.
A half-smile appeared in the sliver of moonlight cutting across his face as he shook his head. The lines of his face had relaxed. “Haven’t gotten a chance, but I plan to.”
“I hope you do,” I said, knowing that as a Royal Guard, it likely wouldn’t be possible for many years to come. The breeze tossed a strand of hair across my shoulders and chest. “I’m sorry about your brother and friend.”
“Thank you.” He looked up to the star-blanketed sky and said, “I know it’s not like what happened here, to Rylan, but I do understand how it feels.”
I lowered my gaze to where his hand still held mine. My grip was loose and yet rigid, fingers sticking out instead of gripping. I wanted to curl the digits around his. “Sometimes, I think…I think it’s a blessing that I was young when Ian and I lost our parents. My memories of them are faint, and because of that, there’s this…I don’t know, level of detachment? As wrong as this will sound, I’m lucky in a way. It makes dealing with their loss easier because it’s almost as if they’re not real. It’s not like that for Ian. He has a lot more memories than I do.”
“It’s not wrong, Princess. I think it’s just the way the mind and heart work,” he said. “You haven’t seen your brother at all since he left for the capital?”
I shook my head. “He writes as often as he can. Usually, once a month, but I haven’t seen him since the morning he left.” Pressing my lips together, I curled my fingers around his, and my stomach dipped a little. He wasn’t holding my hand any longer. We were holding hands. To a lot of people, that would be nothing. Some would probably even find it silly, but it was huge to me, and I cherished it. “I miss him.” I lifted my gaze, discovering that Hawke was looking down at me. “I’m sure you miss your brother, and I hope…I hope you see him again.”
His head tilted slightly, and his mouth opened as if he were about to say something, but then it closed. A moment passed, and he lifted his other hand, catching a strand of my hair. I sucked in a startled, sharp breath as a wave of shivers followed the glide of his knuckles across the bare skin above my chest. Those shivers didn’t stop there. They traveled down to below my breasts and lower.
Flushed, I dropped his hand and stepped back, turning away. My pulse thrumming, I clasped my fingers together. Was it normal to have such a strong response to a brush of the skin? I wasn’t sure, but I couldn’t imagine that it was. I took a few steps, searching for something to say. Anything.
“I...” I cleared my throat. “My favorite place in the garden is the night-blooming roses. There’s a bench there,” I rambled on. “I used to come out almost every night to see them open. They were my favorite flower, but now I have a hard time even looking at the ones cut and placed in bouquets.”
“Do you want to go there now?” Hawke asked, no more than a foot behind me.
I thought about it, about the silky black petals and the deep violet blooms of the jacaranda trees…and the blood that had pooled on the pathway. The way it had filled the cracks in the stone reminded me of a different night. “I…I don’t think so.”
“Would you like to see my favorite place?”
I glanced over my shoulder as he came to stand by my side. “You have a favorite place?”
“Yes.” He extended his hand once more. “Want to see?”
Knowing I shouldn’t, but somehow unable to stop myself, I placed my hand in his. Hawke was quiet as he led me around the fountain and down the main path. It wasn’t until he veered off to the left where the mild, sweet scent of lavender filled the air, that I knew where he was leading me.
At the very edge of the southern side of the Queen’s Garden was a large, several-hundred-year-old weeping willow. Its branches nearly reached the ground, creating a thick canopy. In the warmer months, tiny, white blossoms clung to the leaves.
“You’re a fan of the weeping willow?” I asked as it came into view. Several lanterns hung from poles outside the willow, the flames still inside the glass enclosures.
He nodded. “Never saw one until I got here.”
I wasn’t surprised that he hadn’t seen one in the capital. The trees, with their shallow roots, were known to break through the ground, but I wondered what village he’d lived in that had farming and caverns but no weeping willows. “Ian and I used to play inside. No one could see us.”
“Play? Or do you mean hide?” he asked. “Because that’s what I would’ve done.”
I cracked a grin. “Well, yes. I would hide, and Ian would tag along like any good big brother.” I looked up at him. “Have you gone under it? There’re benches, but you can’t see them now.” I frowned. “Actually, anyone could be under there right now, and we wouldn’t know.”
“No one is under there.”
My brows lifted above the mask. “How can you be sure?”
“I just am. Come on.” He tugged on my hand as he strode forward. “Watch your step.”
I wondered if his certainty had to do with his excellent tracking skills. I easily navigated the low, stone wall, trailing behind him as we passed one of the lanterns. Hawke reached out with his free hand, brushing aside several of the leafy branches. I stepped inside and, within a handful of seconds, we were pitched into almost complete darkness as the branches drifted back into place. The moonlight couldn’t break through the heavy fall, and only the faintest glow from the nearby lanterns seeped into the willow.
I looked around, seeing only the outline of the trunk. “Gods, I forgot how dark it is in here at night.”
“It feels like you’re in a different world under here,” he commented. “As if we’ve stepped through a veil and into an enchanted world.”
I grinned, his words reminding me of Ian. “You should see it when it’s warmer. The leaves bloom—oh! Or when it snows, and at dusk. The flakes dust the leaves and the ground, but not a lot makes it inside here. Then it really is like a different world.”
“Maybe we’ll see it.”
“You think so?”
“Why not?” he asked, and I sensed his body angle toward mine. When he spoke next, I felt his breath against my forehead. “It will snow, will it not? We’ll sneak off just before dusk and come out here.”
Fully aware of how close he was standing now, I nervously dampened my lips. “But will we be here? The Queen could summon me to the capital before then,” I said, acknowledging something I had tried not to think of.
“Possibly. If so, then I guess we’ll have to find different adventures, won’t we?” he said. “Or should I call them misadventures?”
I laughed then. “I think it will be hard to sneak off anywhere in the capital, not with me…not with me being so close to the Ascension.”
“You need to have more faith in me if you think I can’t manage to find a way for us to sneak off. I can assure you that whatever I get us involved in won’t end with you on a ledge.” In the darkness, I thought I felt his fingertips caress my left cheek, but the touch was too soft and too brief to be sure. “We’re out here on the night of the Rite, hidden inside a weeping willow.”
“It didn’t seem all that difficult.”
“That’s only because I was leading the way.”
I laughed again. “Sure.”
“Your doubt wounds me.” His hand pulled on mine as he turned away. “You said there were benches in here? Wait. I see them.”
I stared at the shadowy form of what I assumed was the back of his head. “How in the world do you see those benches?”
“Uh, no.” I squinted into the gloom.
“Then I must have better eyesight than you.”
I rolled my eyes. “I think you’re just saying you can see them, and we’re probably a second away from tripping—”
“Here they are.” Hawke stopped. Unbelievably, he sat down as if he could perfectly see the seats.
I was left staring, my mouth hanging open. Then I realized that it was quite possible he could see me gaping like a dying fish, so I closed my mouth. Maybe his eyesight was better than mine.
Or my eyesight was poorer than I realized.
“Would you like to sit?” he asked.
“I would, but unlike you, I can’t see in the dark—” I gasped as he tugged on my hand, pulling me down. Before I knew it, I was sitting in his lap—his lap.
“Comfortable?” he asked, and he sounded like he was smiling.