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A Soul of Ash and Blood: Chapter 63

UNWORTHY AND UNDESERVING

Magda had proven once more how she always thought ahead, giving Poppy a chamber on the second floor of the keep, accessible only by the covered outdoor hall. Escape options were limited in these chambers, with only one door and a small window.

I had a feeling I’d be thanking Magda for that later because I didn’t believe Poppy would take the truth well. I wouldn’t expect her to.

Before I checked on her, I used a room near hers to grab a quick bite to eat, bathe, and change into fresh clothing. When I stepped back out into the outdoor hall, more snow had fallen, and it was still coming down, blanketing the courtyard and the nearby pines in about an inch or so. I went to Poppy’s door and stopped.

The meeting with the others had taken longer than expected, and considering how hard we’d been traveling, Poppy was likely asleep. She could use the rest, but I also needed to talk to her. I had to find out what I could about her abilities before I told her everything else. I doubted she would be exactly forthcoming with information from that point forward. Or maybe she would once she learned the truth. Poppy was smart and kind. Forgiving—I stopped those thoughts. None of that mattered. Poppy could be understanding or not. She could take my offer of eventual freedom or not. Either way, she would not forgive me. I didn’t deserve it. That much I knew.

Dragging my hand through my damp hair, I knocked on the door before opening it.

Poppy wasn’t sleeping.

In fact, she was standing by the bed with her dagger in hand.

“Hawke,” she breathed.

My brows rose. “I thought you’d be asleep.”

She lowered the dagger. “Is that why you barged in?”

“Since I knocked, I don’t consider that barging in.” Shutting the door, I took a closer look at her. She wore a velvet robe of some dark color somewhere between green and blue. All that damp hair was down and curling at her throat and flushed cheeks. She looked beautiful, even more so with the dagger in her hand. “But I’m glad to see that you were prepared just in case it wasn’t someone you wanted to see.”

“What if you’re someone I don’t want to see?” she asked.

“You and I both know that’s not the case. At all,” I said, speaking the truth for the time being. Later? I had a feeling I would have to take that dagger and all sharp, heavy, and blunt objects from her.

She placed the weapon on the nightstand and then sat on the edge of the bed. “Your ego never fails to amaze me.”

“I never fail to amaze you,” I corrected her.

Poppy smiled, and it was a rare one—big and bright. “Thank you for proving what I just said.”

I chuckled. “Did you eat?”

She nodded. “You?”

“While I bathed.”

“Multi-tasking at its finest.”

“I am skilled.” I came closer, stopping a few feet from her. “Why aren’t you asleep? You have to be exhausted.”

“I know the morning will come sooner rather than later, and we’ll be back out there,” she said, and it took effort for me not to react to that. “But I can’t sleep. Not yet. I was waiting for you.” She toyed with the sash. “This place is…different, isn’t it?”

“I imagine if one was used to only the capital and Masadonia, it would be,” I said. “Things are far simpler here, no pomp and circumstance.”

“I noticed that. I haven’t seen a single Royal Crest.”

I tilted my head. “Did you wait up for me to talk about Royal banners?”

“No.” Poppy dropped the sash. “I waited up to talk to you about what I did to Airrick.”

I watched her brush her hand through the sides of her hair, tucking the length back on her left side. Something struck me then. When speaking with Kieran or the others, she always turned her head so her right side faced them. She didn’t do that with me.

“Is this later enough for you?” she said. “A good time?”

I grinned. “This is a good time, Princess. It’s private enough, which is what I figured we would need.”

Poppy appeared as if she might speak but seemed to change her mind. A look of chagrin settled in her features.

“Are you going to explain why neither you nor Vikter ever mentioned that you had this…touch?” I asked.

“I don’t call it that,” she said after a moment. “Only a few who have heard…the rumors about it do. It’s why some think I’m the child of a god.” The delicate brows, a shade or so darker than her hair, knitted. “You, who seems to hear and know everything, haven’t heard that rumor?”

“I do know a lot, but no, I have never heard that,” I admitted. “And I’ve never seen anyone do whatever it was that you did.”

She was quiet for a moment. “It’s a gift from the gods. It’s why I’m Chosen.” Her brow creased once more, then smoothed out. “I have been instructed by the Queen herself to never speak of it or to use it. Not until I am deemed worthy. For the most part, I have obeyed that.”

I felt like Elijah in that moment because I had a lot of questions. “For the most part?”

“Yes, for the most part. Vikter knew about it, but Tawny doesn’t. Neither did Rylan or Hannes. The Duchess knows, and the Duke knew, but that was all.” She paused. “And I don’t use it often…ish.”

Often-ish? “What is this gift?”

Her lips pursed with a long exhale. “I can…sense other people’s pain, both physical and mental. Well, it started off that way. It appears that the closer I get to my Ascension, the more it evolves. I guess I should say I can sense people’s emotions now,” she explained, nervously plucking at the blanket she sat on. “I don’t need to touch them. I can just look at them, and it’s like…like I open myself up to them. I can usually control it and keep my senses to myself, but sometimes, it’s difficult.”

Immediately, I thought about when the Teermans had addressed the city after the attack. “Like in crowds?”

Poppy nodded. “Yes. Or when someone projects their pain without realizing it. Those times are rare. I don’t see anything more than you or anyone else would see, but I feel what they do.”

What she was telling me was…it sounded impossible for a mortal. “You…just feel what they feel?” Wait. My eyes widened. “So, you felt the pain that Airrick, who had received a very painful injury, felt?”

Poppy’s gaze lifted to mine, and she nodded once more.

Fucking gods. I briefly closed my eyes. “That had to be…”

“Agony?” she said. “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.”

My mind was racing again, pulling out the times I’d seen her uncomfortable—her hands twisting nonstop. “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…” She shrugged. “But to answer your question, yes.”

I had no fucking clue what to say because even though I’d seen her do it, my brain rebelled against the news.

“That’s not all I can do,” she added.

“Obviously,” I said dryly.

“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.”

Something tugged at the recesses of my memories. “How?”

“I think of…happy moments and feed that through the bond my gift establishes through the connection,” she shared.

“You think happy thoughts and that’s it?”

Her nose scrunched. “Well, I wouldn’t say it like that. But, yes.”

Hold on… My gaze shot to hers. “Have you sensed my emotions before?”

Her throat worked on a swallow. “I have.”

I sat back. Holy fuck, only the gods knew what she’d picked up from me.

“I didn’t do it on purpose at first—well, okay, I did, but only because you always looked like… I don’t know,” she said, and I looked at her again. “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,” she added as my brows rose. “For the most part. Sometimes, I just can’t help it. It’s like I’m denying nature to not…”

My stomach clenched. “What did you feel from me?”

Poppy gave me a small shake of her head as she faced me. “Sadness.”

I stiffened.

“Deep grief and sorrow.” Her stare fastened on my 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.”

My lips parted. The niggling in the back of my mind? I suddenly thought of what had happened after we’d left her studies. The inexplicable peace I’d felt.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have used my gift on you, and I probably should’ve just lied—”

“Have you eased my pain before?” I asked.

She pressed her hands into her thighs. “I have.”

“Twice. Right? After you were with the Priestess, and the night of the Rite.” When we’d been in the garden, and I’d been speaking about the caves. There had also been a strange easing of sorrow and bitterness then, I now realized. It hadn’t been as strong, nor had it lasted as long, but those heavy emotions had eased.

Poppy nodded.

“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.” I coughed out a short laugh, a little stunned. Okay, a lot stunned.

“Too bad that can’t be bottled and sold.”

“Why?” The demand burst from me. “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.” Now. Now it was manageable.

“I know,” she said quietly. “You don’t let it interfere with your life, but I…I didn’t like knowing that you were hurting, and I could help, at least temporarily. I just wanted—”

“What?” I asked.

“I wanted to help. I wanted to use my gift to help people.”

I drew back, exhaling roughly. “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.” Godsdamn. “You’re doing it to help the cursed.”

“And their families sometimes,” she told me in a voice that was too small, too quiet for someone so fucking caring. “They often feel such sorrow that I have to.”

“But you’re not allowed.”

“No, and it seems so stupid that I can’t.” Poppy threw up her 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?”

“One would think so.” And it was a damn good question. “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,” she said. “And my mother realized what I could do around the age of three or four.”

I frowned. The last Maiden? There was no other Maiden that I knew of.

“What?” She peeked at me.

I shook my head, then my gaze cut to hers. “Are you reading me now?”

“No,” she insisted, lowering her gaze to her hands. “I seriously try not to, even when I really want to. Doing so feels like cheating when it’s someone I…”

Poppy stiffened. She went so damn still, then her wide eyes swung back to mine. Her lips parted as she stared at me. Kept staring at me as pink crept into her cheeks.

“Now, I wish I had your gift,” I said. “Because I would love to know what you’re feeling at this moment.”

“I feel nothing from the Ascended,” Poppy blurted out, and I blinked. “Absolutely nothing, even though I know they feel physical pain.”

“That’s…”

“Weird, right?” she said.

“I was going to say disturbing, but sure, it’s weird.”

“You know?” She leaned in, lowering her voice as if someone was hidden in her bathing chamber. “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 wanted to tell her there was a reason for that. It was because they had no souls, but that would basically be shouting in her face that her brother didn’t have one.

“I can see that.” I mimicked her movements, inching closer. “I should thank you.”

“For what?”

“For easing my pain.”

“You don’t have to,” she whispered.

“I know, but I want to,” I said, still sort of blown away by the fact that she would do that for me. For anyone. Especially knowing how the Duke treated her. “Thank you.”

“It’s nothing.” That thick fringe of lashes swept down, shielding her eyes from me.

“I was right.”

“About what?”

“About you being brave and strong,” I told her. “You risk a lot when you use your gift.”

“I don’t think I’ve risked enough,” she said, her fingers tangling. “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,” I reminded her. “You helped him.” And countless others. I brought my brow to hers. “You are utterly nothing like I expected.”

“You keep saying that,” she said. “What did you expect?”

“I honestly don’t know anymore,” I admitted, only knowing that I never expected her. Ever.

Gods.

She was…

Fuck, I was simply blown away by her. Who wouldn’t be? Those who’d stared at her with distrust earlier would be on their knees before her if they knew her kindness and strength. Hell, I was half-tempted to get on mine.

“Poppy?”

Her soft breath danced across my lips. “Yes?”

I brought my fingers to her cheek. “I hope you realize that no matter what anyone has ever told you, you are more worthy than anyone I’ve ever met.”

“You haven’t met enough people, then,” she said.

“I have met too many.” Closing my eyes, I kissed her forehead. I had to force myself to lean back instead of tilting her head and bringing my lips to hers. I wasn’t worthy of kissing her. My thumb slid along her jaw. Or even touching her. “You deserve so much more than what awaits you.”

My gods, that was the truest thing I’d ever spoken. Even if I was able to give her freedom, she didn’t deserve the position I was putting her in. She didn’t deserve what the Ascended had already stolen from her. And she wouldn’t deserve the sense of security I would take from her.

Poppy shuddered, her eyes opening. The green was so bright, so clear.

Jaw clenching, I drew back, really hoping I wasn’t—what did she call it? Projecting. I really hoped I wasn’t projecting what I was feeling. “Thank you for trusting me with this.”

She didn’t answer as she looked at me, her lips parted as if she were mid-breath. And she wasn’t just looking at me. Those bright green eyes were slowly tracking over my face, then down my shoulders to the hand that rested between us. Her gaze slowly made its way back up to mine, and the breath she let out caused mine to snag for the third damn time.

“You shouldn’t look at me like that,” I warned her.

“Like what?” Poppy’s voice had taken on a breathy quality that stroked every part of me.

“You know exactly how you’re looking at me.” I closed my eyes. “Actually, you might not, and that’s why I should leave.”

Because I knew the look in those beautiful eyes, even if I didn’t catch the scent of her rising desire. She looked at me like she wanted to be kissed.

Stared at me like she needed more than that. Wanted more.

And fuck, I was a little shocked that she would come to that choice because of what it meant for her—for the role she had been placed in. That was huge. My body, however, was not shocked, and was immediately on board—blood heating and cock hardening. I started to lean toward her, answering the need and want I saw in her stare. Every fiber of my being demanded it. Wanted it.

But she was real. The entirety of her.

And I wasn’t. Everything about me was a lie.

“How am I looking at you, Hawke?”

I stiffened, eyes opening. “Like I don’t deserve to be looked at. Not by you.”

“Not true,” she swore.

My chest clenched. “I wish that was the case. Gods, I do. I need to leave.” I stood quickly, backing up.

I needed to get out of this chamber before the fragile hold I had on my self-control snapped. And it was already nearly nonexistent. Because what I’d said to Kieran before? That I wasn’t that much of a piece of shit? It was a lie. I was. Because with Poppy, it was too easy to forget who I really was. It was too easy to lose myself in her, let go of all the nasty shit that had brought me to her. It was too damn easy to…to live right alongside Poppy.

And, gods, I wanted that. Badly. But I couldn’t even fool myself into believing that I could stay and show her pleasure. I was not altruistic. This wasn’t the Blood Forest. There were no barriers here.

I had to leave.

“Goodnight, Poppy.” I did one of the hardest damn things I’d ever done and turned for the door. I made it halfway.

“Hawke?”

I stopped, even though I knew I shouldn’t. It was like her voice was a compulsion.

“Will you…?” Her voice strengthened. “Will you stay with me tonight?”

I shuddered to my bones. “I want nothing more than that, but I don’t think you realize what will happen if I stay.”

“What would happen?”

I turned then, and I could see her pulse thrumming in her throat from where I stood. “There is no way I could be in that bed with you and not be all over you in ten seconds flat. We wouldn’t even make it to the bed before that happened. I know my limitations.”

The chest of her robe rose with a sweet, sharp breath.

“I know that I’m not a good enough man to remember my duty and yours or that I’m so incredibly unworthy of you it should be a sin,” I told her. “Even knowing that, there is no way I wouldn’t strip that robe from you and do exactly what I told you I’d do when we were in the forest.”

And that was the godsdamn truth. Despite what I knew. Despite my lies. Despite how she deserved so much fucking better than me. I would take her.

Poppy’s stare met mine. “I know.”

I sucked in a breath. “Do you?”

She nodded.

“I’m not just going to hold you. I won’t stop at kissing you. My fingers won’t be the only thing inside you,” I promised, blood thickening. “My need for you is far too great, Poppy. If I stay, you will not walk out this door the Maiden.”

Poppy shivered. “I know.”

I’d moved without realizing it, taking too many steps away from the door—away from what was right—and toward her—toward what was so damn wrong. “Do you truly, Poppy?”

She didn’t speak as she held my heated stare. Instead, steady hands lifted to the sash at her waist, and everything in me stopped and then sped up as she undid it. The robe parted, revealing a sliver of the inner swells of her breasts, a glimpse of her stomach, and the shadowy paradise between her thighs.

Then Poppy let the robe slip from her shoulders and fall to the floor.

I wanted to be a good man who would walk away from what he knew he wasn’t worthy or deserving of. The kind Kieran believed I was. The type I had been raised to be. But I wasn’t a good man.

I was just hers.


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