Hawke blinked. “That had to be…”
“Agony?” I supplied. “It was, but it’s not the worst I’ve felt. Physical pain is always warm, and it’s acute, but the mental, emotional pain is like…like bathing in ice on the coldest day. That kind of pain is far worse.”
Hawke walked over and sat on the bed beside me. “And you can feel other emotions? Like happiness or hatred? Relief…or guilt?”
“I can, but it’s new. And I’m not often sure what I’m feeling. I have to rely on what I know, and well…” I shrugged. “But to answer your question, yes.”
For the first time since I met Hawke, he looked speechless.
“That’s not all I can do,” I added.
I ignored the dryness in his tone. “I can also ease other people’s pain by touch. Usually, it’s not something the person notices, not unless they’re experiencing a great deal of obvious pain.”
“I think of…happy moments and feed that through the bond my gift establishes through the connection,” I explained.
Hawke stared at me some more. “You think happy thoughts and that’s it?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say it like that. But, yes.”
Something flickered over his face, and then his gaze shot to mine. “Have you sensed my emotions before?”
I wanted to lie. I didn’t. “I have.”
He sat back.
“I didn’t do it on purpose at first—well, okay, I did, but only because you always looked like… I don’t know. A caged animal whenever I saw you around the castle, and I was curious to find out why. I realize I shouldn’t have. I didn’t do it…a lot. I made myself stop. Sort of,” I added, and his brows climbed up on his forehead. “For the most part. Sometimes, I just can’t help it. It’s like I’m denying nature to not…”
To not use what I had been born with.
That was why it was hard to control sometimes. Sure, curiosity often drove me to use it, but it felt like going against nature to deny it and keep it locked down. It was stifling.
Just like the veil and all the rules and the expectations and…the future I never chose for myself.
Why did my entire life seem so wrong?
“What did you feel from me?”
Pulling myself from my thoughts, I looked over at him. “Sadness.”
Shock rolled across his expression.
“Deep grief and sorrow.” I lowered my gaze to his chest. “It’s always there, even when you’re teasing or smiling. I don’t know how you deal with it. I figure a lot of it has to do with your brother and friend.” When Hawke said nothing, I thought I’d said too much. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have used my gift on you, and I probably should’ve just lied—”
“Have you eased my pain before?”
I flattened my hands on my legs. “I have.”
“Twice. Right? After you were with the Priestess, and the night of the Rite.”
“Well, now I understand why I felt…lighter. The first time it lasted—damn, it lasted for a while. Got the best sleep in years.” He coughed out a short laugh, and I peeked over at him. “Too bad that can’t be bottled and sold.”
I wasn’t sure what to say.
“Why?” he demanded. “Why did you take my pain? Yes, I do…feel sadness. I miss my brother with every breath I take. His absence haunts me, but it’s manageable.”
“I know. You don’t let it interfere with your life, but I…I didn’t like knowing that you were hurting,” I admitted. “And I could help, at least temporarily. I just wanted—”
“I wanted to help. I wanted to use my gift to help people.”
“And you have? More than just me and Airrick?”
“I have. Those who are cursed? I often ease their pain. And Vikter would get terrible headaches. I would sometimes help him with those. And Tawny, but she never knew.”
“That’s how the rumors got started. You’re doing it to help the cursed.”
“And their families sometimes. They often feel such sorrow that I have to.”
“But you’re not allowed.”
“No, and it seems so stupid that I can’t.” I threw up my hands. “That I’m not supposed to. The reason doesn’t even make sense. Wouldn’t the gods have already found me worthy to have given me this gift?” I reasoned.
“One would think so.” He paused. “Can your brother do this? Anyone else in your family?”
“No. It’s only me, and the last Maiden. We were both born in a shroud,” I told him. “And my mother realized what I could do around the age of three or four.”
He frowned and went back to staring at me like I was a puzzle missing pieces.
Shaking his head, his expression smoothed out. “Are you reading me now?”
“No. I seriously try not to, even when I really want to. Doing so feels like cheating when it’s someone I…” I trailed off. I was going to say: “when it’s someone I care about.”
My stomach twisted as my wide-eyed gaze swung back to him. I cared about Hawke. A lot. Not in the same way I cared about Tawny or Vikter, though. It was different.
That probably wasn’t a good thing, but it didn’t feel bad. It felt like anticipation and hope, excitement and a hundred other things that weren’t bad.
“Now, I wish I had your gift because I would love to know what you’re feeling at this moment.”
I couldn’t be grateful that he didn’t know. “I feel nothing from the Ascended,” I blurted out. “Absolutely nothing, even though I know they feel physical pain.”
“I was going to say disturbing, but sure, it’s weird.”
“You know?” I leaned in, lowering my voice. “It always bothered me that I couldn’t feel anything. It should be a relief, but it never was. It just made me feel…cold.”
“I can see that.” He inched forward, lowering his voice, too. “I should thank you.”
“For easing my pain.”
“You don’t have to.”
“I know, but I want to,” he said, his mouth so incredibly close to mine. “Thank you.”
“It’s nothing.” My eyes drifted halfway shut. He smelled like pine and soap, and his breath was so warm on my lips.
“I was right.”
“About you being brave and strong,” he explained. “You risk a lot when you use your gift.”
“I don’t think I’ve risked enough,” I admitted. “I couldn’t help Vikter. I was too…overwhelmed. Maybe if I wasn’t fighting it so much, I would’ve at least taken his pain.”
“But you took Airrick’s. You helped him.” He dipped his head, and his brow kissed mine. “You are utterly nothing like I expected.”
“You keep saying that. What did you expect?”
“I honestly don’t know anymore.”
My eyes closed, discovering that I liked this closeness. I liked being…touched when it was my choice.
I also liked the way he said my name. “Yes?”
He touched my cheek with his fingers. “I hope you realize that no matter what anyone has ever told you, you are more worthy than anyone I’ve ever met.”
My heart squeezed in the best way. “You haven’t met enough people, then.”
“I have met too many.” He lifted his chin, kissing my forehead. He leaned back, sliding his thumb along my jaw. “You deserve so much more than what awaits you.”
My eyes opened.
I really should.
I wasn’t a bad person. Under the veil and behind my title and my gift, I was like anyone else. But I was never treated as such. As Hawke had pointed out before, every privilege everyone else had was something I couldn’t even earn. And I was…
I was so damn tired of it.
Hawke drew back, his voice heavy as he said, “Thank you for trusting me with this.”
Unable to answer, I was too caught up in what was happening within me because something was shifting, changing. Something enormous and yet also small. My heart started pumping as if I’d just been fighting for my life, and…dear gods, that’s what I was doing. Right now. Fighting not for my life but to be able to live it. That was what was clicking into place inside me.
Maiden or not, good or bad, Chosen or forsaken, I deserved to live and to exist without being cloistered by rules I never agreed to.
I looked at Hawke, really looked at him, and what I saw went beyond the physical. He’d always been different with me, and he never tried to stop me. From the night on the Rise to the Blood Forest when he’d thrown me the sword, he didn’t only protect me. He believed in me and respected my need to defend myself. And like he’d said before, it was as if we’d known each other for ages. He…he understood me, and I thought I might understand him. Because he was brave and strong, and he felt and thought deeply. He’d suffered losses and survived and continued to do so even with the agony I knew he carried with him. He accepted me.
And I trusted him with my life.
“You shouldn’t look at me like that.” His voice had thickened.
“You know exactly how you’re looking at me.” He closed his eyes. “Actually, you might not, and that’s why I should leave.”
“How am I looking at you, Hawke?”
His eyes opened. “Like I don’t deserve to be looked at. Not by you.”