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A Soul of Ash and Blood: Chapter 49

HER PAIN

“She’ll be okay,” Tawny said, placing Poppy’s limp hand on the bed. “She just needs time.”

“How much more time?” I demanded from where I stood by the windows.

Tawny glanced over as she tucked the blanket around Poppy. “She’s been through a lot, Hawke, and Vikter…” Pressing her lips together, she took a moment. “Vikter was important to her.”

“I know.” The question had come out harsher than intended. My gaze shifted to Poppy, and then I looked away, running a hand through my hair. “She’s slept for so long. That can’t be healthy. Has she even eaten?”

“She woke a few times.” Tawny’s brows pinched as she stood. “And I’ve managed to get her to drink water and take some soup.” A faint, tired smile crossed her features as she came around the foot of the bed, smoothing her hands over her pale mint-green gown. “But you already know that. You’ve asked that every time we’ve spoken.”

I had, but I had only seen Poppy awake once, which hadn’t counted because she hadn’t been able to use her voice at all. The screaming had damaged her throat. The Duchess had arrived with the Healer, and then Tawny had helped her bathe the blood from her skin. But after that? All I’d seen was grief that she couldn’t even escape in sleep. Sleep that seemed too deep. And sips of water and soup weren’t enough for anyone.

Turning my stare back to the window, I looked at the cold stone of the Rise looming against the gray sky of dusk. It was fucked-up. A lot of things were. One of them was that I actually missed that prickly bastard. I couldn’t say I liked Vikter. The gods knew he wasn’t fond of me, despite Poppy thinking he had been warming up to me. But I respected him. For his loyalty to Poppy—not to what she was. No other guard would’ve taught her what he had—taken those risks. Poppy lived because of him.

Vikter’s death hadn’t been inevitable. If I’d just done what I’d planned. I would’ve gotten her to Kieran before Vikter even found us, using compulsion if necessary. He would still be alive, and Poppy would never have seen what I’d sought to prevent. To witness that. To live it.

She didn’t need those memories.

But that wasn’t the only fucked-up thing. Obviously, I hadn’t met Kieran in the Grove. Jansen had gotten word to him, and I knew he was probably going stir-crazy, but I couldn’t do that to Poppy right now. I just fucking couldn’t.

The delay didn’t matter anyway.

I felt Tawny watching me. She’d been doing a lot of that these past days as we shared the same space, waiting for Poppy to return to us. What she hadn’t done at any point was ask why I was always inside Poppy’s chambers. Not that Tawny struck me as a rule follower, but she had to be curious, considering what she knew when it came to Poppy and me.

But she wasn’t the only one who hadn’t said anything about where I guarded Poppy. There was no doubt in my mind that the Duchess was well aware that I kept a very close and personal vigil.

Tawny cleared her throat. “You…” She trailed off.

“What?” I faced her.

She gave a small shake of her head, sending tight curls tumbling against the sides of her cheeks. She turned back to the bed. “You care about her.”

I stiffened, hearing Kieran saying the same damn thing. I didn’t need to hear any of their voices when I had mine annoying the ever-loving fuck out of me.

Because my inner voice answered her question without hesitation. Yes, I did care about Poppy. And it didn’t stop there. Oh, no, it had been doing a whole lot of chattering, reminding me that I shouldn’t care any more than I would for anyone who’d suffered a loss. That I shouldn’t care deeply because of who she was.

Who I was.

And what I would do to her.

“It’s okay,” Tawny said quietly. “I won’t tell anyone.”

My head whipped toward her.

“I have lessons to attend. You’d think they’d be suspended, but of course not.” Tawny bowed her head. “I will see you later.”

I watched Tawny leave the chamber, quietly closing the door behind her. “Fuck,” I muttered, pushing away from the windows.

Unsheathing the short swords, I placed them on the chest beside the broadsword. The chamber was too quiet as I walked to Poppy’s side, but it was always this way, wasn’t it? Likely long before I arrived in Masadonia.

I sat beside Poppy as I’d done well over a dozen times now. Her hair was splashed across the pillow like spilled red wine, lips parted, and breaths steady and even. The skin around her eyes was red and puffy, evidence that the peaceful sleep of the moment was rare.

Nightmares had plagued her. If they were from years ago or from the night of the Rite, I didn’t know, but she’d cried in her sleep. I’d never seen anything like it. Tears fell faster than I could wipe them away, but she would calm as I spoke to her. Telling her that it was okay. And it would be.

And…it wouldn’t.

I looked down at my arms, the sleeves of my tunic rolled up to my elbows. I stared at where Poppy had dug into my flesh with her nails in her panic and desperation—her fury and agony. The scratches she’d left on my forearms had faded, but I swore I could still see them.

Exhaling roughly, I dropped my head into my hands, pressing the tips of my fingers to my forehead and temples. Guilt churned as I sat there. What had gone down during the Rite hadn’t been what I’d planned—what I wanted. But I was still responsible. Hundreds had died, and the overwhelming majority of them were mortal. Some had been enablers, but too many had been innocent. There had been so many funerals that multiple ones had been held at once. Their blood was on my hands.

And as fucked-up as it sounded, I could live with that. I had to. But what was hard to swallow? That I’d caused her pain. A rough laugh left me as I smoothed my palms down my face. It wasn’t like I hadn’t known the kind of hell I would unleash when I set out to take the Maiden and use her to free my brother. I knew I would stir the Descenters, likely inciting them to a violent insurrection. I knew I would cause innocent people to lose their lives. And I’d known that I would come into the Maiden’s life like a storm, destroying everything she knew in the process—perhaps even her.

I’d accepted that.

It was a price I’d been willing to pay, and the cost I would force others to endure because I knew that no matter how many died at my hands or because of my actions, it would pale in comparison to the lives lost if my father rode our armies into Solis. Millions would die. This was the whole greater-good shit…

With a dose of retribution.

But what I hadn’t expected was her. Poppy. Any preconceived notions I’d had about her had been wrong. Poppy wasn’t quiet and submissive, nor was she a willing participant. She was like so many others who either didn’t know better or, out of self-preservation, didn’t want to look too closely at all the things that didn’t add up around them. I hadn’t wanted her to be kind, but I could’ve dealt with that. What I couldn’t deal with was how brave she was. How much of a fighter she was.

I hadn’t expected to like the Maiden, not enough that I would strive to make her happy, smile, and laugh.

I hadn’t expected to care for the Maiden, not enough that I would sit and think of another way for this to work. For me to get what I needed and for her to have what she wanted: a life. Freedom.

I hadn’t expected to desire the Maiden, not enough that even now, my blood quickened at the memory of the taste of her lips and the feel of her bare flesh beneath my hands.

And I sure as hell hadn’t expected how I changed around her, enough that I quickly found myself not thinking about the past or the future and forgetting why I was here. Feeling calm. At peace.

Simply, I hadn’t expected to want. Because I hadn’t. Not in the years and decades since I’d been free. I hadn’t truly wanted a damn thing.

But I wanted those things for Poppy, and I wanted her.

So, now what?

I dropped my hands to the space between my knees and lifted my gaze. The wind lashed at the windows, chilling the chamber. I’d been summoned to the Duchess the day before. Jansen had been there. It had been a quick meeting. No coy smiles. She’d told me the Crown had grown concerned about the Maiden’s safety due to that last abduction attempt, just as the Duke had said during our initial meeting, and since word had already been sent to the capital notifying them of what had occurred at the Rite, she was confident the Crown’s response would be a summons. So much so, she had ordered the Commander to put together a group that would travel with the Maiden to Carsodonia.

I was getting what I came for. What I needed. I would be escorting her out of Masadonia with the Crown’s permission.

But it wasn’t what I wanted.

Scenario after scenario played out as I sat there, trying to figure out how I could at least give Poppy freedom when this was over. Different options. Choices. But they were all half-baked impossibilities.

A soft whimper drew me from my thoughts. I twisted at the waist as Poppy shuddered, her hands clenching at the blanket Tawny had so carefully tucked around her.

Her cheeks were damp.

Pressure settled in my chest as I smoothed the tears from her face. “It’s okay,” I told her. “You’re not alone. I’m here. It’s okay.”

I chased away the dampness, the tips of my fingers grazing the rougher skin of the scar on her left cheek. “I’m sorry,” I said to her, like I’d said it damn near a hundred times now. “I’m sorry for everything—for Vikter. Despite our last conversation, he didn’t deserve that. He was…he was a good man, and I’m sorry this happened.”

I’d said that to her before, too. I kept whispering to her, and the grip on the blanket eased after a few moments. Her breathing steadied, and some of the pressure in my chest lifted.

Minutes ticked by. Gods only knew how many before I realized I’d kept touching her, lightly tracing the curve of her jaw. I hadn’t even been aware I was doing it. Just like I hadn’t the last two nights when I’d fallen asleep comforting her.

And woke up still lying beside her.

I didn’t think she’d appreciate any of this. Not so much my actions but that I was here and witnessed what she was going through. I drew my thumb over her chin.

“Now what?” I whispered to her, my stomach clenching.

There was no answer, but I caught sight of something red jutting out from the pillow next to the one she slept on. Reaching over her, I lifted it. A faint grin tugged at my lips when I recognized the red, leather-bound journal. Miss Willa’s diary. Letting the pillow go, I glanced back at Poppy. Was she reading it at night?

I cut those thoughts off before I could wonder about how she felt reading those pages and if she acted upon any of it. Now wasn’t the time to think about that.

Once night had fallen, I heard the sound of approaching footsteps. Knowing there was more than one, I rose from the bed and grabbed the short swords, sheathing them as I took my spot at the window.

The door opened without a knock, revealing the Duchess dressed in white. The color of mourning. Her flawless skin bore no signs of grief, but I’d also never seen an Ascended cry. It may not be possible. Her dark eyes immediately fixed on where I stood.

I gave her a curt bow.

The Duchess entered the chamber, but her two guards remained at the door. “I was coming to check on Penellaphe. Has there been any change?”

“No, Your Grace. She continues to sleep.”

“I imagine very deeply.” She stopped at the foot of the bed, her hands clasped loosely together. “But it will do her some good, I suppose, making use of the sleeping draft.”

“Sleeping draft?” I repeated.

The Duchess nodded. “The Healer brought some with him when he examined her to make sure she hadn’t been injured,” she explained.

The Healer’s visit must’ve happened when Tawny was with her when she first woke, and I was in my quarters to bathe.

That explained how she could sleep this long and not be disturbed by anything happening around her.

“It is a shame, is it not?” the Duchess started. “For one person to suffer such loss.”

It was.

She turned to me, and I waited for her to say something about my presence. It wouldn’t change where I was.

“Where is your mantle?” she asked.

“Forgot it.”

“Hmm. Understandable. I’m sure your mind is…occupied with guarding her,” she said.

What the fuck? That was all she had to question?

“Your loyalty to her is admirable.” She glanced back at Poppy. “Would you like anything sent here? Dinner, perhaps?”

“I’m good,” I said. Tawny had been bringing food.

“Then I will leave you to your duty.” The Duchess made her way to the door, then stopped. She smiled then, and a chill hit my spine. “The Queen will be most pleased with your devotion, Hawke. I’m sure she’ll reward you greatly for your service to the Crown.”


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