Hawke stopped in front of the barred door, his striking face both familiar and that of a stranger.
“Leave,” Hawke commanded, and Delano hesitated for only a moment before he issued a curt nod and was gone. Then there was just us, separated by bars.
“Poppy,” Hawke sighed, and I shuddered. “What am I to do with you?”
As if he didn’t already know.
“Don’t call me that.” Pushing to my feet, the chains clanked against the stone floor as I ignored the tender pull of skin around my wound. Standing hurt, but I wouldn’t let him see that.
“But I thought you liked it when I did.”
“You were mistaken,” I replied, and he smirked. “What do you want?”
His head tilted, and a heartbeat passed. “More than you could ever guess.”
I had no idea what he meant by that, and I didn’t care. Not at all. “Are you here to kill me?”
“Now why would I do that?” he asked.
Lifting my hands, I rattled the chains. “You have me chained.”
Fury blasted me at his blasé response. “Everyone outside wants me dead.”
“That is true.”
“And you’re an Atlantian,” I spat. “That’s what you do. You kill. You destroy. You curse.”
He snorted. “Ironic coming from someone who has been surrounded by the Ascended her whole life.”
“They don’t murder innocents, and they don’t turn people into monsters—”
“No,” he cut me off. “They just force young women who make them feel inferior to bare their skin to a cane and do the gods only know what else to them. Yes, Princess, they are truly upstanding examples of everything that is good and right in this world.”
I sucked in a sharp breath as my lips parted. No. I shuddered. No way.
“Did you think I wouldn’t find out what the Duke’s lessons were? I told you I would.”
I took a step back, the humiliation of him learning the truth burning through me worse than any lashing the Duke had delivered.
“He used a cane cut from a tree in the Blood Forest, and he make you partially undress.” He grasped the bars as my heart thundered against my ribs. “And he told you that you deserved it. That it was for your own good. But in reality, all it did was fulfill his sick need to inflict pain.”
“How?” I whispered.
One side of his lips curled up. “I can be very compelling.”
I looked away and, suddenly, I saw the Duke in my mind’s eye, his arms stretched out, and the cane shoved through his heart. A tremor rocked me as my gaze swung back to Hawke. “You killed him.”
Hawke smiled then, and it was a smile I’d never seen from him before. It wasn’t closed-lipped this time. Even from where I stood, I could see the hint of fang. Another tremor rippled through me.
“I did,” he answered. “And I never enjoyed watching the life seep out of someone’s eyes more than I did while watching the Duke die.
“He had it coming, and trust me when I say his very slow and very painful death had nothing to do with him being an Ascended. I would’ve gotten to the Lord eventually,” he added. “But you took care of that sick bastard yourself.”
I didn’t… I didn’t know what to think of that. He’d killed the Duke, and he would’ve killed the Lord because—
Cutting off those thoughts, I shook my head. I couldn’t understand why he would’ve felt driven to do what he’d done, considering where we stood now. I didn’t need to understand. At least that’s what I told myself. It didn’t matter. Neither did the deep, hidden part of me that was thrilled to know that there was a possibility that what he’d done to me had played a part in the Duke’s ultimate demise.
“Just because the Duke and the Lord were horrible and evil, that doesn’t make you any better,” I told him. “That doesn’t make all Ascended guilty.”
“You know absolutely nothing, Poppy.”
My hands curled into fists as I resisted the urge to shriek, but then he unlocked the door. Every muscle in me tensed.
I glared at him as he entered the cell. I wished there was some sort of weapon, though I knew even if I was armed to the teeth, there would be very little I could do. He was faster, stronger, and he could take me with a flick of his wrist.
But I would go down fighting.
“You and I need to talk,” he said as he closed the doors behind him.
“No, we don’t.”
“Well, you really don’t have a choice, do you?” His gaze dropped to the cuffs around my wrists. He took a step toward me and then halted. His nostrils flared as the pupils of his eyes dilated. “You’re injured.”
My blood. He scented my blood. Mouth dry, I stepped back. “I’m fine.”
“No, you aren’t.” His gaze swept over me, stopping at my midsection. “You’re bleeding.”
“Barely,” I told him.
Within the blink of an eye, he was directly in front of me. Gasping, I stumbled against the wall. How had he hidden such speed before? He reached for the hem of my tunic, and panic exploded.
“Don’t touch me!” I side-stepped him, wincing as pain radiated up my side. He stiffened, staring down at me as my heart slammed against my ribs. “Don’t.”
He arched a brow. “You had no problem with me touching you last night.”
Heat swamped my skin as my lips pulled back in a snarl. “That was a mistake.”
“Yes,” I hissed. “I wish it never happened.”
Gods, that was the truth. I wanted nothing more than to forget how what we’d done had felt beautiful and life-altering, how it had felt so incredibly right.
I was a fool.
His jaw hardened, and a long moment passed. “Be that as it may, you are still wounded, Princess, and you will allow me to look at it.”
Breathing heavily, I lifted my chin. “And if I don’t?”
His laugh reminded me of before, but now it was tinged with cold amusement. “As if you could stop me,” he stated softly, and the truth of what he said was soul-shattering. “You can either allow me to help you or…”
My fingers tingled from how tightly I’d balled my hands into fists. “Or, you will force me?”
Hawke said nothing.
A burn started in my chest as I stared back at him, hating him, hating myself for feeling what I’d promised I would never feel again.
I could refuse and make this very difficult, but what good would that do in the end? He would overpower me, and all I would accomplish is further injuring myself. I was furious enough to do just that, but I wasn’t stupid.
Looking away, I forced a long breath out of my lungs. “Why do you even care if I bleed to death?”
“Why do you think I would want you dead? If I did, why wouldn’t I have agreed to what was demanded outside?” he asked, and my head jerked back to him. “You are no good to me dead.”
“So, I’m your hostage until the Dark One gets here? You all plan to use me against the King and Queen.”
“Clever girl,” he murmured. “You are the Queen’s favorite Maiden.”
I didn’t know why, and I didn’t want it to, but the knowledge that he wanted to tend to my wound only because he planned to use me stung profoundly.
“Will you let me check you now?”
I gave him no answer because what he’d said wasn’t truly a question. There was no choice. He seemed to be satisfied that I understood because he reached for me, and this time, my body went rigid, but I didn’t move.
Hawke’s hands curled around the hem of the dark tunic. He lifted the cloth, and I bit down on the inside of my cheek when the backs of his knuckles brushed over my lower stomach and hip. Had he done that on purpose? I stared at his glossy dark waves as he continued inching the shirt up. He stopped just below my breasts, exposing what was likely to leave yet another scar.
If I lived that long.
Because after I served whatever purpose they had in mind, I doubted I’d be released. It made no sense for that to occur.
Hawke stared at me, at the bloody, seeping cut, for too long. My pulse picked up, and I could too easily recall how his teeth—no, his fangs—had felt against my skin. I shivered. Was it revulsion? Fear? A leftover, unwanted sensation that the memory triggered? Maybe all of them. I had no idea.
“Gods,” he said, his voice guttural as thick lashes lifted, and his gaze met mine. His cheekbones seemed sharper as shadows blossomed under them. “You could’ve been disemboweled.”
“You’ve always been so observant.”
He ignored that comment as he stared down at me like I was nothing more than a silly girl. “Why didn’t you say anything? This could become infected.”
It took everything in me to keep my arms at my sides. “Well, there really wasn’t a lot of time, considering you were busy betraying me.”
His eyes narrowed. “That’s no excuse.”
I barked out a harsh laugh and wondered if I was already developing a fever. “Of course, not. Silly me for not realizing that the person who had a hand in murdering the people I care about, who betrayed me and made plans with the one who helped to slaughter my family to use me for some nefarious means would care that I was wounded.”
Those amber eyes turned luminous, filling with a golden fire. His features turned stark, and goosebumps pimpled my skin. Ice hit my veins at the slow reminder that he was not as I’d always assumed. Mortal. I refused to shrink back, even though I wanted to run.
“Always so brave,” he murmured. He let go of my shirt and turned away, calling out to Delano, who apparently hadn’t gone too far because he was in front of the cell within seconds.
I leaned against the wall, quiet as Hawke waited for Delano to return with the items he’d requested. The fact that he kept his back to me for so long said everything I needed to know about whether or not he viewed me as a threat.