My gaze lifted to the door, and I closed my eyes, unsure if I was disappointed or relieved by the interruption. Truthfully, it was a mixture of both, because I’d lied to Hawke.
I wouldn’t be here when he returned.
“What did you do last night?”
The question snapped my attention from the biscuit I was currently devouring to the Lady in Wait who sat across from me.
Tawny Lyon was the second daughter of a successful merchant, given to the Royal Court at the age of thirteen during the Rite. Tall and lithe, with rich brown skin and beautiful brown eyes, she was absolutely enviable. Some of the Ladies and Lords in Wait were assigned tasks outside of preparation to join the Court after Ascension, and since we were the same age, she had been assigned as my companion shortly after her Rite. Her duty ranged from keeping me company to assisting me with my bath or to dress if I required it.
Tawny was one of the few people who could make me laugh over the silliest things. Actually, she was one of the few people who were even allowed to speak to me. She was the closest thing I had to a friend, and I cared for her deeply.
I believed she cared for me too, or at the very least, liked me, but she was required to be with me unless I dismissed her for the day. If she hadn’t been given the task of being my companion, we never would’ve spoken. That fact was not a reflection upon her as a person, but because she would be like all the rest, either forbidden to socialize with me or wary of my presence.
The knowledge often sat heavy in my chest, another chunk of ice, but even though I knew our friendship was rooted in duty, I trusted her.
At least, to a certain degree.
She knew I was trained, but she didn’t know the things I sometimes assisted Vikter with, and she had no knowledge of my gifts. I kept those things to myself because sharing that information would either put others or her in harm’s way.
“I was here.” Wiping buttery crumbs from my fingers, I gestured to the rather sparse chamber. We were in the small anteroom that opened up to the bedroom. There were only two chairs by the fireplace, a wardrobe and a chest, a bed, one nightstand, and a heavy fur rug under our feet. Others had more…creature comforts. Tawny had a beautiful chaise in her room and a pile of plush floor coverings, and I knew some of the other Ladies and Lords in Wait had vanities or desks, walls lined with bookshelves, and even electricity.
Over the years, those items had been stripped from my chamber for one infraction or another.
“You were not in your room,” Tawny said. A simple topknot was trying—and failing—to keep the mass of brown and gold curls swept back from her face. More than a few had snuck free to rest against her cheeks. “I checked on you shortly after midnight, and you weren’t here.”
My heart skipped a beat. Had something occurred where the Duke or Duchess had sent Tawny for me? If so, Tawny wouldn’t be able to lie, but I imagined if that had happened, I would already know.
I would have already been summoned to the Duke’s private office.
“Why were you checking on me?” I asked.
“I thought I heard your door opening and closing, so I decided to investigate, but no one was here.” She paused. “No one. Including you.”
There was no way she’d heard me return. I’d used the old servants’ access, and while that door was as creaky as a bag of bones, her room was on the other side of where my bed sat. That door was one of the reasons I’d never asked to be moved to the newer, renovated parts of the stronghold. Through there, I could access nearly any part of the castle and could come and go without being seen.
It more than compensated for the lack of electricity and the constant, chilly draft that seemed to always make its way in around the windows no matter how sunny the day was.
My palms dampened as I glanced at the closed hallway door. Had someone been looking for me? Again, I would know by now, so it was likely Tawny thought she’d heard something.
Knowing Tawny as I did, I knew she wouldn’t let this go if I didn’t give her something. “I couldn’t sleep last night.”
I nodded, feeling a little guilty for the sympathy that crept into her eyes.
“You’ve been having a lot of them lately.” She leaned back in the chair. “Are you sure you don’t want to try one of the sleeping drafts the Healer made for you?”
“Yes. I don’t like the idea of—”
“Being knocked out senseless?” she finished for me. “It’s really not that bad, Poppy. You rest very deeply, and honestly, with as little sleep as you manage, I think it would be good to at least try.”
The mere idea of taking something that would put me in such a deep sleep that it would take an army marching through my chamber to wake me made me sweat. I would be rendered completely helpless, and that was something I would never allow to happen.
“So, what did you do?” A pause. “Or should I ask, where did you go?” Her eyes narrowed as I became enraptured in the fine trim of the napkin. “You snuck out, didn’t you?”
In that moment, Tawny proved that she knew me just as well as I knew her. “I don’t know why you’d think that.”
“Because you don’t have a history of doing that?” She laughed when I glanced up at her. “Come on, tell me what you did. I’m sure it’s more exciting than what I was doing, which was listening to Mistress Cambria prattle on about how inappropriate this Lady or Lord in Wait is. I pled a viciously upset stomach just to be able to excuse myself.”
I giggled, knowing that Tawny would’ve done just that. “The Mistresses are a lot to handle.”
“That is being too kind,” she remarked.
Grinning, I picked up the cup of creamed coffee. The Mistresses were servants of the Duchess, who helped her run the household but also kept track of the Ladies in Wait. Mistress Cambria was a dragon of a woman that scared even me.
“I did sneak out,” I admitted.
“Where did you go without me?”
“I think you might be upset when you hear where.”
I peeked up at her. “The Red Pearl.”
Her eyes widened to the size of the saucers scattered across the trolley between us. “Are you serious?”
“I can’t…” She appeared to take a deep breath. “How?”
“I borrowed one of the maid’s cloaks, and I used that mask I found.”
“You…you devious little thief.”
“I returned the cloak this morning, so I don’t think you can call me a thief.”
“Who cares if you returned it.” She tipped forward. “What was it like?”
“Interesting,” I said, and when she begged for more details, I told her what I’d seen. She was enthralled, hanging on every word I said as if I were sharing with her the actual ritual that completed the Ascension.
“I can’t believe you didn’t take me with you.” She fell back in her chair with a pout, but then sprang forward once more. “Did you see anyone there you recognized? Loren claims she goes there nearly every other evening.”
Loren, another Lady in Wait, claimed many things. “I didn’t see her, but…” I trailed off, unsure if I should tell her about Hawke.
I’d left no more than ten minutes after Hawke had, relieved to find that Vikter was also nowhere to be seen. Neither was the strange woman who knew more than she should. I’d done everything in my power not to think about what had happened in that room with him.
Which meant, I failed the moment I returned to my bed. I’d lain there until exhaustion claimed me, replaying everything he’d said…everything he’d done. I’d woken with the strangest frustration, an ache in my chest and lower belly.
“But what?” she asked.
I wanted to tell her. Gods, did I ever want to share what’d happened with Hawke with someone. I had a hundred questions bursting to be let out, but last night was different. I’d crossed a big line, and while I didn’t feel like I had debased myself or done anything truly wrong, I knew that my guardians wouldn’t agree. Neither would the Priests and Priestesses. Going to the Red Pearl was one thing. Sharing myself in any form with another was a totally different matter. That knowledge could be a weapon.
I trusted Tawny, but as I acknowledged before, only to a certain degree.
And even though the mere thought of Hawke made my stomach tighten into dozens of little coils, it wasn’t something that would ever happen again. When I saw him during the City Council sessions, he wouldn’t know that it had been me he’d called Princess. He’d have no idea that he’d been my first kiss.
What we’d done…it belonged to just me.
It had to stay that way.
I exhaled slowly, ignoring the sudden scratchy lump in my throat. “But many were wearing masks. She could’ve been there, and I wouldn’t have known. Anyone could’ve been.”
“If you ever go to the Red Pearl without me again, I will cut holes in the bottoms of your shoes,” she warned, toying with the white beads dotting the neckline of her rose-colored gown.
A shocked laugh left me. “Wow.”
“Honestly, I’m glad you didn’t go with me.” When she frowned, I quickly added, “I really shouldn’t have gone there myself.”
“Yes, going to the Red Pearl is forbidden, and I’m sure it’s as forbidden as you being trained to use a dagger or a sword as a guard on the Rise.”
That was something I hadn’t been able to hide from Tawny, and she had never shared, which was one of the reasons I knew I could trust her with most things. “Yes, but—”
“Just like that one time you snuck out to view a fighting ring. Or when you convinced me to bathe in the lake—”
“That was your idea,” I corrected, and her willingness to aid me in doing forbidden things was the other reason she held almost all of my trust. “And it was also your idea to do it without clothing.”