I turned to Tawny, but before I could speak, she said, “I know. I understand.” She came forward. “I appreciate that you want me to come with you, Poppy, but I can’t.”
A feather could’ve knocked me over. “You…you don’t want to?” She’d been so excited about seeing the capital.
But if I wasn’t here, then her time would become hers, at least a good majority of it. I pressed my lips together.
“I want to. Badly.” She stopped in front of me, clasping my hands. “And I hope you believe that, but the idea of going out there like this terrifies me.”
I…I wanted to believe her.
She brought our joined hands up to her chest. “Not only that, but what Hawke said is true. So many guards are…they are gone. And the ones going with you cannot be focused on me. I can’t fight. Not like you can. I can’t do what you did.”
What I did? Did she mean when I defended myself or…or what I’d done to the Lord?
“I can’t go,” she whispered.
Closing my eyes, I exhaled raggedly. She was right. So was Hawke. It would be irresponsible and illogical for Tawny to travel with us. And while I was worried about leaving her behind in a city in such a state of unrest, I was arguing because…because…
I was leaving everything familiar behind.
So much had happened. So many losses. And while I didn’t have the brain space or the emotional capacity to worry about the possibility of the Ascension moving up or even being found unworthy by the gods, I wasn’t borrowing tomorrow’s problems. But everything kept shifting and changing, and Tawny was…she was the last of what used to be.
What if I didn’t see her again?
Drawing in a shaky breath, I couldn’t let myself think like that. I couldn’t let Tawny think that. I opened my eyes. “You’re right.”
Tears gathered in her eyes. “I hate being right.”
“Thank the gods, there’s someone rational in this room,” Hawke muttered.
My head shot in his direction. “No one asked you for your input.”
Commander Jansen whistled under his breath.
“Well, you got it, Princess.” He smirked when I dropped Tawny’s hands and turned to him. He walked to the door and then stopped. “And I have more input for you. Pack lightly. And don’t bother taking that damn veil. You won’t be wearing it.”
Eyes closed and chin lifted to the rising sun, I reveled in the feel of the cool morning air kissing my bare cheeks and brow as I stood beside the black walls of the Rise. It was such a small thing, but it had been years since the sun and wind had touched every part of my face. My skin prickled pleasantly, and even the reason I was able to do this didn’t tarnish the moment.
The veil made me a very obvious moving target as we traveled to Carsodonia. The best way for us to avoid Descenters and the Dark One was to ensure that no one we came into contact with realized who I was, which was why our group was gathering near the Rise, and I wore a plain dark brown cloak with a heavy sweater underneath it, and my lone pair of breeches and boots. I had no idea what people would think when they saw me, but they definitely wouldn’t think of the Maiden.
It was also why I’d said my goodbyes to Tawny in my room. The few castle staff that would be moving about may recognize Tawny as my companion, and Hawke was taking no chances by ignoring the possibility that Descenters could still be among those who worked in the castle.
And that made it even harder to say goodbye to Tawny. Anything could happen between now and when she joined me in the capital, and I’d have no idea until someone decided to tell me. That caused my stomach to twist with helplessness because there was nothing I could do about any of that. I could only hope that I would see her again. I could believe that I would.
But I wouldn’t pray.
The gods had never answered my prayers before.
And it no longer felt right to ask them for anything when I…I could no longer deny what Vikter had claimed.
That I wanted to be found unworthy.
I sighed, concentrating on the sensation of the wind lifting the wisps of hair from around my forehead and temple.
The Duchess hadn’t come to say goodbye.
It didn’t surprise me. And it didn’t hurt like it had before. There wasn’t even disappointment, and I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad one.
“You look like you’re enjoying yourself.”
Opening my eyes at the sound of Hawke’s voice, I turned around and almost wished I’d kept my eyes closed.
Hawke wasn’t dressed like a guard as he stood next to a massive black horse. His dark brown breeches hugged his long legs, showcasing the strength of his body. His tunic was heavy and long-sleeved, suited for cold weather, as was the fur-lined cloak. In the sunlight, his hair was the color of a raven’s wings.
Somehow, he looked even more striking dressed as a commoner.
And he was staring at me, one eyebrow raised while I was…well, I was just gawking at him. My cheeks heated. “It feels nice.”
“For the air to touch your face?” he asked, figuring out what I was talking about.
“I can only imagine that it does.” His gaze flickered across my face. “I much prefer this version.”
Biting down on my lip, I reached out and lightly rubbed the side of the horse’s nose. “He’s beautiful. Does he have a name?”
“Been told it’s Setti.”
I smiled at that. “Named after Theon’s warhorse?” Setti nudged my hand for more pets. “He has big hooves to fill.”
“That he does,” Hawke replied. “I’m assuming you can’t ride a horse.”
I shook my head no. “I haven’t been on one since…” My smile widened. “Gods, it was three years ago. Tawny and I snuck out to the stables and managed to climb on one before Vikter arrived.” My smile faded as I dropped my hand and stepped back. “So, no, I can’t ride.”
“That will be intriguing.” He paused. “And torturous since you’ll be riding with me.”
My heart skipped over itself as I looked over at him. “And why is that intriguing? And torturous?”
One side of his lips curved up. The dimple appeared. “Besides the fact that it will allow me to keep a very close eye on you? Use your imagination, Princess.”
My imagination didn’t fail me then. “That’s inappropriate,” I told him.
“Is it?” He dipped his chin. “You’re not the Maiden out here. You’re Poppy, unveiled and unburdened.”
My gaze met his, and the surge of anticipation and relief proved that under the pain and anger, other emotions simmered. “And what of when I arrive at the capital? I will become the Maiden once more.”
“But that’s neither today nor tomorrow,” he said, turning back to one of the saddlebags on his horse. “I brought something for you.”
I waited, wondering what it could be since the only thing I’d been able to pack was underclothing and two additional sweater-tunics.
Opening one of the leather bags, he reached inside and pulled out something folded in a cloth. He unwrapped it as he turned to me.
My heart stopped and then sped up when I saw what he held in his hand, recognizing the ivory-hued handle and the reddish-black blade.
“My dagger.” My throat clogged. “I thought…I thought it was lost.”
“I found it later that night.” A sheathe lay under it. “I didn’t want to give it to you when I had to worry about you running off and using it, but you’ll need it for this trip.”
The fact that he was making sure I was equipped to defend myself in case it was needed meant the world to me. But the fact that he’d found the dagger and kept it safe for me…
“I don’t know what to say.” I cleared the hoarseness from my throat as he handed it over. The moment my fingers curled around the handle, I let out a shaky breath. “Vikter gave me this on my sixteenth birthday. It’s been my favorite.”
“It’s a beautiful weapon.”
The clog dissipated, and all I could do was nod as I carefully sheathed the dagger and then secured it to my right thigh. It took a moment for me to speak. “Thank you.”
Hawke didn’t respond. When I looked up, I saw a small group approaching. Two unfamiliar men on horses and six other men, leading their mounts toward us.
I recognized two of the guards immediately. I’d played cards with them at the Red Pearl. Phillips, and I believed the other was called Airrick. If they recognized me, it didn’t show as they greeted me with curt nods, neither meeting my eyes.
My scars tingled, but I resisted the urge to touch them or to turn so they weren’t visible.
I was surprised to see them, knowing that they weren’t Huntsmen, but I supposed there hadn’t been enough available to join us, and I was happy to see Phillips. He was someone who’d faced Craven time and time again and was still standing.
“The party has arrived,” Hawke murmured, and then louder, he began to make introductions. He rattled off names, most a blur beyond the two I knew, but then he said another name that tugged at my memory. “This is Kieran. He came from the capital with me and is familiar with the road we must travel.”
It was the guard who’d knocked on the door the night at the Red Pearl. It was like a reunion, I thought as I finally got to see him. He looked to be about the same age as Hawke, his dark hair trimmed close to the skull. His eyes were a striking shade of pale blue, reminding me of the sky during winter, a startling contrast to his warm, beige skin, reminding me of Tawny.
“A pleasure to meet you,” Kieran said as he mounted his horse.
“Same,” I murmured, noting that he had the same slight accent as Hawke, a lilt I still couldn’t place.
He looked toward Hawke, the angles of his face sharp and more than pleasing to the eye. “We need to be on our way if we have any hope of crossing the plains by nightfall.”