“What would you call her?”
Hawke appeared to mull that over while still sprawled halfway across me. “A…good friend.”
Part of me was relieved that he hadn’t referred to her as something derogatory like I’d overheard other men do before when speaking of women they’d been intimate with, but a good friend? “I didn’t know friends behaved this way.”
“I’m willing to wager you don’t know much about these sorts of things.”
The truth in his statement was hard to ignore. “And you wager all of this on just one kiss?”
“Just one kiss? Princess, you can learn a wealth of things from just one kiss.”
Staring at him, I couldn’t help but feel…very inexperienced. The only thing I could tell from his kiss was what it had made me feel. Like he was seeking to possess me.
“Why didn’t you stop me?” His gaze swept over the mask and then lower, to where I realized the cloak had parted, exposing the too-thin gown and its rather daring neckline. Honestly, I didn’t know what I’d been thinking when I slipped on the garment. It was almost like I’d subconsciously been preparing myself for…something. My stomach tumbled. More likely, the gown was false bravado.
Hawke’s gaze found mine. “I think I’m beginning to understand.”
“Does that mean you’re going to get up so I can move?”
Why haven’t you made him get up? whispered that stupid, very reasonable, and very logical voice. That was a great question. I knew how to use a man’s weight against them. More importantly, I had my dagger and access to it. But I hadn’t gone for it, nor had I truly made an attempt to put space between us. What did that mean? I…I supposed I felt safe. At least, at the moment. I may know very little about Hawke, but he wasn’t a stranger, at least he didn’t feel that way to me, and I wasn’t afraid of him.
Hawke shook his head. “I have a theory.”
“I’m waiting with bated breath for this.”
That dimple in his right cheek appeared once more. “I think you came to this very room with a purpose in mind.”
He was right about that, but I doubted he would be right about the actual reason.
“It’s why you didn’t speak or attempt to correct my assumption of who you were. Perhaps the cloak you borrowed was also a very calculated decision,” he continued. “You came here because you want something from me.”
I started to deny what he suggested, but no words rose to the tip of my tongue. Silence wasn’t a denial or agreement, but my stomach dipped again.
He shifted ever so slightly, his hand coming to rest against my right cheek, his fingers splayed out. “I’m right, aren’t I, Princess?”
Heart skipping all over the place, I tried to swallow, but my throat had dried. “Maybe…maybe I came here for…for conversation.”
“To talk?” His brows rose. “About what?”
“Lots of things,” I said.
His expression smoothed out. “Like?”
My mind was uselessly empty for several seconds, and then I blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “Why did you choose to work on the Rise?”
“You came here tonight to ask that?”
Not a single thing about his tone or his look said he believed me, but I nodded while I added that this was yet another example of how I was really bad at making conversation with people.
He was quiet and then said, “I joined the Rise for the same reason most do.”
“And what is that?” I asked, even though I knew most of the reasons.
“My father was a farmer, and that was not the life for me. There aren’t many other opportunities offered than joining the Royal Army and protecting the Rise, Princess.”
His eyes narrowed as surprise flickered across his features. “What do you mean by that?”
“I mean, there aren’t many chances for children to become something other than what their parents were.”
“You mean there aren’t many chances for children to improve their stations in life, to do better than those who came before them?”
I nodded as best I could. “The…the natural order of things doesn’t exactly allow that. A farmer’s son is a farmer or they—”
“They choose to become a guard, where they risk their lives for stable pay that they most likely won’t live long enough to enjoy?” he finished. “Doesn’t sound much like an option, does it?”
“No,” I admitted, but I had already thought that. There were jobs Hawke could’ve strived for. Trader and hunter, but they too were hazardous, as they required going outside the Rise frequently. It just wasn’t as dangerous as joining the Royal Army and going to the Rise. Was the source of his anguish due to what he’d seen as a guard? “There may not be many choices, but I still think—no, I know—that joining the guard requires a certain level of innate strength and courage.”
“You think that of all the guards? That they are courageous?”
“Not all guards are good men, Princess.”
My eyes narrowed. “I know that. Bravery and strength do not equal goodness.”
“We can agree on that.” His gaze dropped to my mouth, and my chest felt inexplicably tight.
“You said your father was a farmer. Is he…has he gone to the gods?”
Something crept across his face, gone too quickly for me to decipher. “No. He is alive and well. Yours?”
I gave a small shake of my head. “My father—both of my parents are gone.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said, and it sounded genuine. “The loss of a parent or a family member lingers long after they’re gone, the pain lessening but never fading. Years later, you’ll still find yourself thinking that you’d do anything to get them back.”
He was right, and I thought that this was perhaps the source of the pain he felt. “You sound like you know firsthand.”
I thought of Finley. Had Hawke known him well? Most of the guards were close, developing a bond thicker than blood, but even if he hadn’t known Finley, there were surely others he knew that had been lost. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry for whoever it is that you’ve lost. Death is…”
Death was constant.
And I saw a lot of it. I wasn’t supposed to, as sheltered as I was, but I saw death all too frequently.
His head tilted, sending a tumble of dark locks over his forehead. “Death is like an old friend who pays a visit, sometimes when it’s least expected and other times when you’re waiting for her. It’s neither the first nor the last time she’ll pay a visit, but that doesn’t make any death less harsh or unforgiving.”
Sadness threatened to take up residence in my chest, crowding out the warmth. “That it is.”
He dipped his head suddenly, his lips nearing mine. “I doubt the need for conversation led you to this room. You didn’t come here to talk about sad things that cannot be changed, Princess.”
I knew why I came here tonight, and Hawke was right, yet again. It wasn’t to talk. I came here to live. To experience. To choose. To be anyone other than who I was. None of those things included talking.
But I’d had my first kiss tonight. I could stop there or tonight could be a night of many firsts, all of my choosing.
Was I…? Was I really considering this, whatever this was? Gods, I truly was. Tiny tremors rocked me. Could he feel them? They piled in my stomach, forming little knots of anticipation and fear.
I was the Maiden. The Chosen. My earlier convictions about what the gods concerned themselves with weakened. Would they find me unworthy? Panic didn’t seize me like it should. Instead, a spark of hope did, and that unsettled me more than anything. The tiny glimmer of hope felt traitorous and wholly concerning, given that being deemed unworthy resulted in one of the most serious consequences.
If I were to be found unworthy, I’d face certain death.
I’d be exiled from the kingdom.
As far as I knew, there had only been one person who’d been found unworthy upon Ascension. Their name had been erased from our histories, as well as any piece of information about who they were and whatever deeds had caused his or her exile. They’d been forbidden to live among mortals, and without family, support, or protection, faced certain death. Even the villages and the farmers with their small Rises and guards suffered staggering mortality rates.
While my Ascension was different from the others, I could still be found unworthy, and I imagined my punishment would be just as grave, but I didn’t have the mental capacity to deal with that.
That was a lie.
I didn’t want to deal with that. I should, but I wasn’t leaving the room. I wasn’t stopping Hawke. I’d already made up my mind even if I didn’t understand why he was still here, with me.
Dampening my lower lip with my tongue, I felt dizzy and even a little faint, and I never felt faint. Those impossibly thick lashes lowered, and his gaze was so intent on my mouth that it was like a caress. I shivered.
Those eyes of his seemed even brighter than before as his finger traced the outline of my mask, all the way to where the satin ribbon disappeared under the fall of my hair. “May I remove this?”
Unable to speak, I shook my head no.
Hawke halted for a moment, and then the half-smile appeared—no dimple this time, though. He trailed his finger away from the mask, then ran it along the line of my jaw and down my throat, to where the cloak was fastened. “How about this?”
His fingers were deft, and he brushed the cloak aside and then trailed just one fingertip along the neckline, following the rapid rise and fall of the swell of my breast. A riot of sensations followed his finger, so many I couldn’t make sense of them all.
“What do you want from me?” he asked, toying with the small bow between my breasts. “Tell me, and I’ll make it so.”