It was then I learned that the attack on the Rise hadn’t been the only one that night. The Descenters had set fire to several of the opulent homes along Radiant Row, drawing guards from the Rise and the castle. That was where Hawke had been after he’d left the garden, which explained the soot on his face.
The fires had been a smart move by the Descenters. I had to give them that. With the guards distracted, the Descenters were able to move through the night, taking out guards stationed around the castle before they even knew they were there. They were able to commence wholesale slaughter before the guards who’d gone to Radiant Row could even be summoned.
No one could be positive what message the attack on the Rite had been meant to send, or even if they had been searching for me. None of the Descenters were taken alive that night, and any of those who had escaped, had slipped back into the shadows.
The Ascended had done what the Duchess said they would do. They got their hands dirty, but their assistance had come too late. Most who’d been left in that room had died. Only a few had survived, most so traumatized that they couldn’t even recall what had happened.
Well over a hundred had died that night.
Gods, I’d rather be asleep than awake.
At least when I slept, I didn’t think about the Duke burning from where he had been hung and impaled. I couldn’t think about Dafina’s one blue eye, or how Loren had tried to go back to her friend, only to be struck down. I wouldn’t remember how it had felt to crawl over people who were dead or dying, unable to do anything to help him. The metal wolf masks didn’t haunt my sleep. Neither did that smile Vikter had given me, or how he’d told me that he was proud. Asleep, I didn’t think about how the last words he’d ever spoken were a plea for forgiveness for him not protecting me. And I couldn’t remember how my gift had failed me when I needed it the most.
I wished I had never said what I did in that garden.
I wished…I wished I’d never gone to the Rite or gone out into the willow. If I’d been in my room where I was expected to be, we wouldn’t have been in the thick of it. The attack still would’ve happened, and people still would’ve died, but maybe Vikter would still be here.
However, a tiny voice in the back of my mind whispered that the moment Vikter learned of what was happening, he would’ve gone down there anyway, and I would’ve followed. Death had come for him, and that voice also whispered that death would’ve found a way.
In the days I spent lost to the deep nothingness, I couldn’t acknowledge what I’d done to Lord Mazeen and how I felt about it now.
Or how I didn’t feel.
There wasn’t an ounce of regret. My nails dug into my palms. I would do it again. Gods, I wished I could, and that disturbed me.
When I was out of it, I didn’t think, and I didn’t care about anything.
But now I was awake, and all I had were my thoughts, the pain, and the anger.
I wanted to find every single Descenter and do to them what I’d done to the Lord.
I’d tried the second night I was awake. I donned my cloak and mask and grabbed the short sword Vikter had given me years before since my dagger was lost to the chaos of that room the night of the Rite. I’d planned to pay Agnes a visit.
She’d known. Nothing could convince me otherwise. She’d known, and her attempts to warn me hadn’t been enough. The blood that had been spilled that night was on her hands—Vikter’s blood tainted her skin. My mentor and friend, who’d drunk her hot cocoa and comforted her. She could’ve stopped all of this.
Hawke had caught up to me halfway through Wisher’s Grove and all but dragged me back to the castle. The chest of weapons had been removed from my room at that point, and the servants’ access barred from the stairwell.
And so, I sat. I waited.
Each evening I’d been awake, I waited for the Duchess to summon me. For punishment to be rendered. Because I’d done something so expressly forbidden that it made everything I’d ever done before an afterthought.
I’d killed an Ascended.
Maiden or not, there had to be some kind of punishment for that. I had to be found unworthy.
A knock drew my gaze from the window. The door opened, and Hawke strode in, closing the door behind him. He was dressed in the uniform of the guards, all black except for the white Royal Guard mantle.
No one had replaced Vikter’s position yet. I didn’t know why. Maybe after seeing what I was capable of, the Duchess realized that I no longer needed as much protection. But protecting myself would be kind of hard to do without access to any weapons. Or maybe it was the fact that I’d already gone through three guards in one year. Or it could be because so many had died during the attack, and they were shorthanded.
My back tensed as Hawke and I stared at one another from across the room.
Things had been weird between us.
I wasn’t sure if it was because of what had happened in the garden and then with Vikter, or if it had been what I’d done in that room after Vikter’s death. It could’ve been all of that. But he was quiet when he was around me, and I had no idea what he was feeling or thinking. My gift was hidden away behind a wall so thick that it couldn’t even crack.
He said nothing as he stood there. Just crossed his arms over his chest and stared at me. He’d done that a time or five hundred since I woke. Probably because when he tried to talk to me, all I did was stare at him.
Which was also probably why things were weird.
My eyes narrowed as the silence stretched between us. “What?”
“Then why are you here?” I demanded.
“Do I need a reason?”
“Are you just checking to make sure I haven’t figured a way out of the room?” I challenged.
“I know you can’t get out of this room, Princess.”
“Don’t call me that,” I snapped.
“I’m going to take a second to remind myself that this is progress.”
My brows furrowed. “Progress with what?”
“With you,” he answered. “You’re not being very nice, but at least you’re talking. That’s progress.”
“I’m not being mean,” I shot back. “I just don’t like to be called that.”
“Uh-huh,” he murmured.
“Whatever.” I tore my gaze from his, feeling…I didn’t know what I was feeling. I squirmed, uncomfortable, and it had nothing to do with how hard the stone was beneath me.
I wasn’t mad at Hawke. I was just angry with…everything.
“I get it,” he said quietly.
When I looked at him, I saw that he’d moved closer, and I hadn’t heard him. He was only a few feet from me now. “You do?” I lifted my brows. “You understand?”
Hawke stared at me, and in that moment, I felt something other than anger and pain. Shame burned through me like acid. Of course, Hawke knew, at least to some extent. But still, he probably knew better than a lot of other people.
“For what?” The hardness had eased from my tone.
“I said this to you before, shortly after everything, but I don’t think you heard me,” he said. I thought about those vague sensations of him being beside me. “I should’ve said it again sooner. I’m sorry for everything that has happened. Vikter was a good man. Despite the last words we exchanged, I respected him, and I’m sorry that I couldn’t do anything.”
Every muscle in my body locked up. “Hawke—”
“I don’t know if me being there—like I should’ve been—would’ve changed the outcome,” he went on, “but I’m sorry that I wasn’t. That there was nothing I could do by the time I did get there. I’m sorry—”
“You have nothing to apologize for.” I rose from the ledge, my joints stiff from sitting for so long. “I don’t blame you for what happened. I’m not mad at you.”
“I know.” He looked above me and out the window to the Rise. “But that doesn’t change that I wish I would’ve done something that could’ve prevented this.”
“There are a lot of things I wish I would’ve done differently,” I admitted, staring at my hands. “If I’d gone to my room—”
“If you’d gone to your room, this still would’ve happened. Don’t put this on yourself.” A heartbeat later, I felt his fingers under my chin. He lifted my gaze to his. “You’re not to blame for this, Poppy. Not at all. If anything, I—” He cut himself off with a low curse. “Don’t take on the blame that belongs to others. You understand?”
I did, but that changed nothing, so I said, “Ten.”
His brows knitted. “What?”
“Ten times, you’ve called me Poppy.”
One side of his lips tipped up. The faintest trace of the dimple appeared. “I like calling you that, but I like calling you Princess more.”
“Shocker,” I replied.
He dipped his chin. “It’s okay, you know?”
“Everything that you’re feeling,” he said. “And everything that you’re not.”
My breath caught as my chest squeezed, and it wasn’t just pain doing that. It was something lighter, something warmer. How he knew was proof that, in some way, he’d been where I was right now. I didn’t know if I moved or if he did, but my arms were suddenly around him, and he was holding me just as tightly as I was him. My cheek was plastered to his chest, below his heart, and when his chin dropped to the top of my head, I shuddered in relief. The tender hug didn’t fix the world. The pain and anger were still there. But Hawke was so warm, and his embrace was…gods, it felt like hope, like a promise that I wouldn’t always feel this way.
We stood there for some time before Hawke pulled back, and as he did, he smoothed the unruly strands of hair back from my face, sending a shiver of recognition through me.