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A Soul of Ash and Blood: Chapter 23

POPPY

There was no easing into the transition from Rise Guard to one guarding the Maiden. My new role kicked off immediately as Vikter and I accompanied Penellaphe and Tawny to…

Actually, I really didn’t know.

The four of us had walked out of the chamber and were currently making our way through the dining hall.

Stopping, I faced them. The Maiden and Lady halted. Vikter’s stare narrowed. Her companion’s eyes were wide, and she had both lips sucked between her teeth, appearing as if she’d been caught doing something she shouldn’t. The Maiden was once more veiled, hidden again.

“Where would you like to go?” I asked her.

The Maiden said nothing as Vikter’s eyes slitted even more. Her silence reminded me of when she’d first entered the Red Pearl, back when I thought her incapable of speaking above a whisper. But I now knew better. She could speak quite clearly and sharply.

When she wanted to.

Seconds ticked by in increasingly strained silence, and it hit me that everything that had gone down in that chamber had followed us out here. I wanted her to answer, to speak to me, but she was clearly still troubled.

I glanced at Tawny.

Her lips popped out from between her teeth. “Her chambers…” She paused. “Mr. Flynn.”

One side of my lips kicked up. “Hawke is fine.”

A smile appeared as she glanced at the Maiden. “We would like to return to her chambers, Hawke.”

“That all right with you?” I asked the Maiden.

She nodded quickly and then hurried past, leaving behind a faint trace of her fresh, sweet scent. Tawny walked much more sedately, her smile easing into a grin. Vikter was the only one who didn’t seem to be able to walk past me without making contact. His shoulder bumped mine. I bit back a laugh as I fell into step behind them.

We entered the foyer, and right off, I got a small taste of what it was like to be in the presence of the Maiden. Two women were dusting the statues, talking among themselves. Upon our arrival, both stopped, their eyes widening and chatter ceasing. One dropped her feather duster. Their gazes followed as we made our way to the main staircase that led to the floors above. The servants we passed on the steps did the same, all staring at the Maiden, not taking their eyes off her until she was no longer in view. It was like she had some special power that froze people upon sight of her.

My brows pulled together. While I was used to drawing some level of attention from women and men, young and old, this was different. I knew those who looked at me, those who had no idea who I was, still saw me as a person. Usually, someone they wanted to waste a few hours with. But when they looked at the Maiden, they clearly only saw what she was—the Maiden—and what she symbolized to them—the one Chosen by the gods.

Just like when the King and Queen had me caged and chained, the Ascended had only seen what I was—the Prince of a kingdom they wanted destroyed—and what I symbolized to them—the vessel that carried the blood they needed to survive and multiply.

I eyed her hands. They were clasped in front of her, but I bet she was twisting them as she had in the Great Hall. She was aware of what her presence invoked.

But was she aware that they didn’t see her? They only saw what she represented.

I didn’t know.

We finally reached her floor. Why she was housed in the vacant wing of the castle, one of the oldest parts of the structure, was beyond me. The halls up here were narrower, and I bet the chambers were drafty in the winter. The only sound was our footsteps. Even I couldn’t hear the near-constant flutter of activity that pervaded every other floor and wing.

I didn’t have a chance to say much when we reached the door to her chambers before she opened it and practically flew inside. I only caught a brief glimpse of bare stone floors and a chair before Tawny gave us a parting nod. Then, I was left staring at the closed door to the chamber I needed to get inside. The Maiden had been able to get out of that room and make her way to the Red Pearl. I doubted she’d walked out this door to do it.

My head cocked to the side at the sound of a soft thud against said door. “Should we be worried about that?” I asked as I turned to the man I knew wasn’t my fan.

“They’re fine.” He glowered at me from behind a lock of sandy hair. “I need to speak with the Commander, which means you will be guarding the Maiden.”

I nodded.

“From the hall,” he added as if that were necessary. “And don’t leave your station. Not for anyone or anything.”

“Understood.”

“Not even for the gods,” he insisted.

“I know what’s expected of me.” I met his glare. “Both of them are safe while I’m here.”

Vikter looked like he wanted to say something more, but he must’ve decided it wasn’t worth it. He turned stiffly, stalking down the length of the hall. I figured he wanted to see Jansen to bitch about my appointment.

Wouldn’t do him any good.

I started to move so I faced the door when I heard Tawny’s faint, muffled voice.

“Hawke Flynn is your guard, Poppy.”

My brows flew up. Poppy? That was what Tawny called her? Not Penellaphe. But…Poppy. The poppy fields of Spessa’s End flashed in my mind.

“I know,” came the softer, even fainter voice.

That was her. Poppy. The prickle at my nape came once more. I hadn’t heard her voice since the night of the Red Pearl.

“Poppy!” Tawny’s voice was loud enough that I blinked. “That is your guard!”

The corners of my lips curved up as I shifted so I stood even closer to the door.

“Keep your voice down,” the Maiden said as I drew my lower lip between my teeth. They’d have to whisper for me not to hear them, and as I heard their footsteps retreating, I really hoped her companion continued to practically shout. “He’s probably standing outside—”

“As your personal guard,” Tawny interrupted.

“I know,” came the exasperated response.

“And I know that this is going to sound terrible,” I heard Tawny say as I angled my head closer, never having been more thankful for my heightened hearing than now. “But I have to say it. I can’t contain it. It’s a vast improvement.”

A silent laugh left me.

Tawny.”

“I know. I recognize that it was terrible, but I had to say it,” she replied. “He’s quite…exciting to look at.”

I grinned.

“And he’s clearly interested in moving up in the ranks,” the Maiden countered.

The curve of my lips flattened. Did she not agree with her companion? She had to. I knew I was quite exciting to look at.

“Why would you say that?”

There was a beat of silence. “Have you ever heard of a Royal Guard that young?”

Well, I couldn’t fault her for saying that. It was a valid question.

“No. You haven’t. That’s what befriending the Commander of the Royal Guard will do for you,” the Maiden said. And, man, she didn’t know how right she was. “I cannot believe that there was no other Royal Guard just as qualified.”

Tawny didn’t respond for a few moments. “You’re having a very strange, unexpected reaction.”

Crossing my arms, I had a feeling her response had more to do with what had happened at the Red Pearl than it did with anything else.

“I don’t know what you mean,” the Maiden said.

Sure, I thought, smirking.

“You don’t?” Tawny, who was quickly becoming one of my favorite people in the kingdom, challenged. “You’ve watched him train in the yard—”

“I have not!” The Maiden’s voice rose.

Such a little liar. She totally had been.

Tawny had my back, even if she didn’t know it. “I’ve been with you on more than one occasion as you watched the guards train from the balcony, and you weren’t watching just any guard. You were watching him.”

I really liked this Tawny.

“You seem almost angry about him being named your guard,” Tawny continued. “And unless there’s something you haven’t told me, then I have no idea why.”

There was silence.

“What haven’t you told me?” Tawny demanded as it became clear the Maiden hadn’t shared details about her trip to the Red Pearl with her companion. “Has he said something to you before?”

My lips pursed. What a rather uncalled-for leap of logic.

“When would I have had a chance for him to speak to me?” the Maiden said.

“As much as you creep around this castle, I’m sure there is a lot you overhear that doesn’t actually require you speaking to someone,” Tawny said, sharing another interesting tidbit while proving one of my suspicions correct. One that said the Maiden had a habit of sneaking around. “Did you overhear him say something bad?”

My eyes narrowed. Tawny was quickly losing that coveted spot in my favorites.

“Poppy…”

There was a long stretch of silence where I briefly considered moving farther from the door so I wasn’t eavesdropping, but I quickly dismissed that idea.

Then the Maiden announced, “I kissed him.”

My jaw unlocked as my head cut to the door. I couldn’t believe she’d actually admitted it.

“What?” Tawny said.

“Or he kissed me,” the Maiden added as a bit of concern started to blossom in my chest. Was this wise of her? Could she trust this Lady in Wait with such information? I sure as fuck hoped so. Not only did it jeopardize what I’d been working toward, I doubted the Teermans would take kindly to learning such information. However, the way Tawny spoke to the Maiden said there was a level of closeness there. “Well, we kissed each other. There was mutual kiss—”

“I get it!” Tawny shrieked, causing me to blink as I glanced down the empty hall. “When did this happen? How did this happen? And why am I just now hearing about this?”

The sound of footsteps came again, and then the Maiden shared, “It was…it was the night I went to the Red Pearl.”

“I knew it.” There was another thud, this time sounding like someone, who I guessed was Tawny, stomping their foot. “I knew something else had happened. You were acting too weird—too worried about being in trouble. Oh! I want to throw something at you. I can’t believe you haven’t said anything. I would be screaming this from the top of the castle.”

Okay. I was flattered, and Tawny was now working her way back into my favorite-person spot.

“You’d be screaming it because you could,” the Maiden replied wryly. “Nothing would happen to you. But me?”

What exactly would happen to her? She didn’t elaborate, and their voices disappointedly dropped too low for me to hear, but I did pick up the Maiden’s voice a few moments later.

“It’s just that…I’ve done a lot of things I shouldn’t do, but this…this is different,” she said, and I wondered what the other things were. “I thought if I didn’t say anything, it would, I don’t know…”

“Go away? That the gods wouldn’t know?” Tawny said, and my eyes rolled. “If the gods know now, they knew then, Poppy.”

She had a point. Except the gods didn’t know shit, and if they did, this whole Maiden and Chosen business was a load of bullshit anyway. Despite what the Ascended said. Despite even what Kieran wondered about the whole shroud crap.

If the Maiden responded, I didn’t hear her, but I heard Tawny as if she were standing next to me.

“I’ll forgive you for not telling me if you tell me what happened in very, very graphic detail.”

I waited with bated breath to hear exactly what she said.

“I wanted to, you know, experience something—anything—and I thought that would be the best place. I saw Vikter there,” the Maiden shared. While I wasn’t surprised to hear that, I’d seen him there myself, I was surprised to hear her call him by his first name. “So there was this lady there, and she recognized me.”

“What?” Tawny nearly yelled again.

“I don’t know,” the Maiden said. “But I think she was like a…a Seer or something.”

Huh. I frowned. There were no Seers that I knew of in Masadonia. Or changelings other than Jansen.

“I could be wrong, though. Maybe she just recognized me someway else,” the Maiden said. That had to be it because there was definitely no Seer at the Red Pearl. I would know. “I was probably just so awkward it became obvious. Anyway, I went into this chamber I thought was empty, and he…he was in there.”

“And?” Tawny pressed.

“He thought I was Britta.”

“You look nothing like her,” Tawny explained. A pause. “Her cloak. You were wearing it.”

“I guess the rumors about them are true, because he grabbed me—not in a bad way, in a…passionate, familiar way,” she said, her voice lowering to the point where I had to really strain to hear her. Which meant I was really eavesdropping now.

It was wrong. I knew that.

But I rarely behaved right, so here I was.

“It was…it was my first kiss,” she said.

Every muscle in my body tensed. I knew that already but hearing her say it now… It made my chest feel off. Light and heavy at the same time.

“And did he continue doing so while thinking you were someone else?” Tawny asked. “If so, I’m going to be thoroughly disappointed.”

“In me?” Her voice peaked then.

“No, at him. And I’ll also be concerned for your safety if he didn’t realize after getting all up in your personal space that you weren’t Britta. Nice to look at or not, he shouldn’t be your guard if that’s the case.”

I cracked a grin. She was right.

“He realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t her. I didn’t tell him who I was, but he… I think he must’ve sensed that I wasn’t, you know, that experienced. He didn’t like tuck tail and run. Instead, he…” The Maiden’s voice lowered again. “He offered to do anything I wanted.”

“Oh,” Tawny uttered. “Oh, my. Anything?”

“Anything,” the Maiden confirmed.

And I would have done nearly anything she wanted of me. Who wouldn’t when they had her soft, warm body beneath theirs, her lips plump from kissing, and her eyes bright with desire?

Dammit.

A pulse of want pounded through me, hitting my cock just enough for it to stir.

I should stop listening. It would be really awkward if Vikter arrived and I was rocking a hard-on.

“We just kissed. That’s all,” the Maiden said. But that wasn’t all. I’d kissed her elsewhere.

Not that I needed to think about that at the moment. I shifted my stance, widening my legs as I frowned. For fuck’s sake, her talking about kissing, and me thinking about what had honestly been very tame activities, shouldn’t be getting me hard.

“Oh, my gods, Poppy,” Tawny said after a few moments. “I so wish you’d stayed.”

“Tawny,” she said with a sigh.

“What? You can’t say you don’t wish you’d stayed. Not just a little bit.”

I tilted my head again, waiting…and waiting.

“I bet you wouldn’t be a maiden any longer if you had,” Tawny remarked.

No, she would still be one. I wouldn’t have crossed that line in a godsdamn brothel. I wouldn’t have crossed that line with her anywhere.

“Tawny!” I heard her shock and my lips twitched.

“What?” Tawny laughed. “I’m kidding, but I bet you’d barely be a maiden,” she added, and yeah, she would’ve barely been that. “Tell me, did you…enjoy it? The kissing?”

“Yes,” came the almost-too-quiet-to-hear reply. “I did.”

I knew that, but I still smiled.

“Then why are you so upset that he’s your guard?” Tawny asked.

“Why?” Disbelief dimmed the Maiden’s voice. “Your hormones must be clouding your rational thought.”

“My hormones are always clouding my rational thought, thank you very much.”

I chuckled under my breath.

“He’s going to recognize me,” the Maiden said. “He has to once he hears me speak, right?”

Too late for those concerns.

“I imagine,” her friend replied.

“What if he goes to the Duke and tells him that I was at the Red Pearl?” the Maiden wondered, clearly worried, but she didn’t need to be. “That I…allowed him to kiss me? He has to be one of the youngest Royal Guards, if not the youngest. It’s clear he’s interested in advancement, and what better way to secure that than to gain the Duke’s favor? You know how his favorite guards or staff are treated! They’re practically treated better than those on the Court.”

That was the utter last thing she had to worry about when it came to me.

“I don’t think he has an interest in gaining His Grace’s favor,” Tawny argued. “He said you were beautiful.”

“I’m sure he was just being kind.”

My eyes narrowed. I was not. It was one of the rare times I’d been telling the truth since I returned to this shithole kingdom. She was stunning.

“First off,” Tawny began, “you are beautiful. You know that—”

“I’m not saying that to fish for compliments.”

“I know, but I felt the overwhelming need to remind you of such,” Tawny countered, and I was glad she did. “He didn’t have to say anything in response to the Duke being a general ass.”

Tawny was definitely back in my favorite-person spot.

“He could’ve just ignored it,” she continued. “And proceeded on to the Royal Guard oath, which, by the way, he made sound like…sex.”

I smiled.

“Yes,” the Maiden agreed. “Yes, he did.”

The curve of my lips spread wider, revealing a hint of my fangs to the empty hall.

“I almost needed to fan myself, just so you know,” Tawny said. “But back to the more important part of this development. Do you think he’s already recognized you?”

“I don’t know. I wore a mask that night, and he didn’t remove it, but I think I would recognize someone in or out of a mask.”

“I would like to think that I would, and I would definitely hope that a Royal Guard would,” Tawny retorted.

“Then that means he chose not to say anything,” the Maiden mused. “Although, he might not have recognized me. It was dimly lit in that room.”

I would recognize her anywhere.

“If he didn’t, then I imagine he will when you speak, as you said. It’s not like you can be completely silent every time you’re around him,” Tawny stated. “That would be suspicious.”

“Obviously.”

“And odd.”

“Agreed,” the Maiden said. “I don’t know. Either he didn’t, or he did and chose not to say anything. Maybe he’s planning to lord it over my head or something.”

“You’re an incredibly suspicious person.”

Damn straight, she was.

“He probably just didn’t recognize me.” The Maiden was silent and then said, “You know what?”

“What?”

“I don’t know if I’m relieved or disappointed that he didn’t recognize me. Or if I’m excited that he might have.” There was a soft laugh. “I just don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. What…what happened between us was one time only. It was just this…thing. It can’t happen again. Not that I’m even thinking he’d want to do any of that again, especially now that he knows it was me. If he does.”

“Uh-huh,” Tawny said.

“But what I’m trying to say is that it’s not a thing to even consider,” the Maiden forged on. “What he does with the knowledge is the only thing that matters.”

“You know what I think?” Tawny said.

“I’m half-afraid to hear it.”

I wasn’t.

“Things are about to get so much more exciting around here.”

Tipping my head back, I smiled as I stared at the bare rafters of the ceiling. Yes, things were definitely about to become more exciting.


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