He chuckled, and I grinned into his shoulder. “You have to let me go, though.”
“I know.” I sighed, yet I remained where I was, thinking that the moment we stepped outside of the willow, we would be back in the real world, no longer in our haven where I was Poppy, and who I was mattered. “I don’t want to.”
He was silent for so long that I feared that I’d said the wrong thing, but then his arm tightened around me again. When he spoke, his voice was strangely rough. “Neither do I.”
I almost asked why we had to, but I managed to stop myself. Hawke stood then, taking me with him, and I reluctantly lowered my legs. We stood there for another all-too-short moment, his arm around me, my arms stretched above me, and our bodies still connected.
Then I took a deep breath, opened my eyes, and took a step back. I couldn’t see him, but I wasn’t surprised when his hand found mine, and he led me toward the willow branches.
He stopped. “Ready?”
Not at all, but I said yes, and we walked out from underneath the willow, my chest threatening to become heavy. I refused to let that happen. At least not right this moment. I had all night for everything I felt to become memories.
I had many nights ahead for that.
We found our way back to the gas-lamp-lit walkway, the garden silent except for the sound of the wind and our steps. I looked down the shadowy paths, wondering what had happened to the hushed conversations and soft moans. We rounded the corner, nearing the fountain—
And came face to face with Vikter, sans mask.
My heart lurched in my chest as I stumbled back a step. Hawke turned as if to catch me, but I gained my footing. “Oh, my gods,” I whispered, looking up at Vikter. “You about gave me a heart attack.”
He stared at me for a long moment and then turned to Hawke. A muscle in his jaw clenched as he looked down to where Hawke still held my hand.
Slowly, Vikter looked up while I tried to pull my hand free. Hawke held on for a moment and then let go. I clasped my hands together, my eyes wide behind my mask.
“It’s time to go back to your room, Maiden.” Vikter bit out, voice low.
I winced at his tone.
“I was in the process of escorting Penellaphe back to her room,” Hawke replied.
Vikter’s head snapped in his direction. “I know exactly what you were in the process of doing.”
My mouth dropped open.
“Doubtful,” Hawke murmured.
Which was the wrong thing to say. “You think I don’t know?” Vikter stepped into Hawke’s space, and while Hawke was an inch or two taller, they were eye to eye. “It only takes one look at both of you to know.”
One look at both of us? Blinking, I lifted my fingers to my lips that were still humming and felt puffy. My gaze flew to Hawke’s mouth. His lips did look swollen.
Hawke held his ground and Vikter’s stare, and I really had no idea what he could say. “Nothing happened, Vikter.”
“Nothing?” Vikter snarled. “Boy, I may have been born at night, but I wasn’t born last night.”
“Thanks for pointing out the obvious,” Hawke retorted. “But you’re stepping way over the line.”
“I am?” Vikter laughed, but there was no humor to the sound. “Do you understand what she is?” he demanded, voice so low it was barely audible. “Do you even understand what you could’ve caused if anyone other than I had come upon you two?”
I stepped forward. “Vikter—”
“I know exactly who she is,” Hawke shot back. “Not what she is. Maybe you’ve forgotten that she’s not just a godsdamn inanimate object whose only purpose is to serve a kingdom, but I haven’t.”
“Hawke.” I whirled on him.
“Oh, yeah, that’s rich, coming from you. How do you see her, Hawke?” Vikter stepped in more. Suddenly, they were as close as Hawke and I had been under the willow. “Another notch in your bedpost?”
I gasped, spinning back around. “Vikter.”
“Is it because she’s the ultimate challenge?” Vikter continued, and my lips parted.
Hawke’s chin dipped. “I get that you’re protective of her. I understand that. But I’ll tell you just one more time, you’re way out of line.”
“And I’ll promise you this…it will be over my dead body before you spend another moment alone with her.”
Hawke smiled then, one side of his lips curling up. There was no dimple. His features seemed to sharpen in the moonlight, creating shadows under his eyes and on his cheekbones. “She thinks of you as a father,” he said, his voice so soft it sent a chill down my spine. “It would hurt her greatly if something unfortunate were to happen to you.”
“Is that a threat?” Vikter’s brows lifted.
“I’m just letting you know that is the only reason I’m not making your promise come true this very second,” he warned. “But you need to step back. If you don’t, someone is going to get hurt, and that someone won’t be me. Then Poppy will get upset”—he turned to me—“and that’s the sixth time I’ve said it,” he added, and all I could do was stare at him. “I don’t want to see her upset, so step. The fuck. Back.”
“Both of you need to stop,” I whispered, grabbing Vikter’s arm, but he didn’t budge. “Seriously. This is escalating over nothing. Please.”
They didn’t look away from each other, and it was almost like I wasn’t there. Finally, Vikter stepped back. I didn’t know if he saw something in Hawke’s face, or if it was me tugging on his arm, but he took another step away, his skin unusually pale in the moonlight.
“I’ll be guarding her for the rest of the evening,” Vikter stated. “You’re dismissed.”
Hawke smirked, and I shot him a glare he didn’t even seem to notice. He said nothing as Vikter took my arm and turned. I went with him, having taken only a couple of steps before I looked over my shoulder.
The space where Hawke had stood was empty.
I looked around quickly, not seeing him. Where had he—?
“I don’t even know what to say to you right now,” Vikter stated. “Gods. After I finished talking to the Commander, I couldn’t find you, but I ran into Tawny. She said you returned to your room. I went to check on you, and when you weren’t there, I figured you could be here. But I did not expect to find this.”
It seemed as if he knew exactly what he wanted to say.
“Dammit, Poppy, you know better than this. You know what’s at risk, and I’m not talking about the fucking kingdom.”
Hearing him curse caught my attention. I looked up as he stalked along, bringing me with him.
“If anyone had seen you with him, missing a few days of training would’ve been the least of my fears,” he went on, and my stomach dropped. “And Hawke knows better. Dammit, he never should’ve laid a hand—”
“Nothing happened, Vikter.”
“Bullshit, Poppy. You looked like you’d been thoroughly kissed. I hope that was all.”
“Oh, my gods,” I exclaimed, my face flaming.
“Don’t lie to me.”
“We were coming back in to go to my room—”
Vikter stopped, looking down at me with wide eyes and lifted eyebrows.
“Not what you’re thinking,” I insisted, and that was the truth. “Please. Just let me explain what happened,” I said, desperately trying to figure out how to fix this.
“I don’t think I want to know.”
I ignored that. “After you left to speak to the Commander, I felt bad because Tawny wouldn’t leave my side. I knew that as long as I stayed at the Rite, she would feel as if she had to stay with me. So, I told her I was going back to my room so she could have fun.”
“That doesn’t explain how you ended up out here with him.”
“I was getting to that,” I said, trying to be patient. “Hawke knew I didn’t want to go back to my room, and he knew how much I used to love the gardens. So, he brought me out so I could…so I could get past what happened here with Rylan. That’s why we were out here.”
“I feel like you’re leaving a lot out.”
At this point, I knew I couldn’t continue lying, at least not about everything. “We walked around, and Hawke showed me a place he enjoyed in the garden. I…I asked him to kiss me.”
Vikter looked away, jaw locking.
“And we did kiss. Okay? It happened, but that was all. He stopped it before it went any further,” I told him, speaking the truth. “I know I shouldn’t have asked him—”
“He shouldn’t have been so willing to oblige you.”
“That’s not the point.”
“That is the point, Poppy.”
“No, it’s not.” I pulled my arm free, closing my hands into fists before I picked something up and threw it. “He’s not the damn point!”
Shock flickered over his face.
I made an effort to lower my voice. “This whole stupid thing is the point. The fact that I can’t do anything is the point. That I can’t have one night to do something normal and fun and enjoyable. That I can’t experience anything without being warned to remember what I am. That every privilege you have, and Tawny has, and everyone else has, I don’t have.” My voice cracked as the back of my throat started to burn. “I have nothing.”
His expression softened. “Poppy—”
“No.” I took a step back, his features blurring. “You don’t understand. I can’t celebrate my birthdays because that’s ungodly. I’m not allowed to go to picnics at the Grove or to supper with others because I’m the Maiden. I’m not allowed to defend myself because that would be unseemly. I don’t even know how to ride a horse. Nearly every book is forbidden to me. I can’t socialize or make friends because my sole purpose is to serve the kingdom by going to the gods—something no one will even explain. What does that actually mean?”