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From Blood and Ash by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Updated: Apr 12

From Blood and Ash

by Jennifer L Armentrout

Published by Blue Box Press

Book 1 in the Blood and Ash Series

A Maiden…

Chosen from birth to usher in a new era, Poppy’s life has never been her own. The life of the Maiden is solitary. Never to be touched. Never to be looked upon. Never to be spoken to. Never to experience pleasure. Waiting for the day of her Ascension, she would rather be with the guards, fighting back the evil that took her family, than preparing to be found worthy by the gods. But the choice has never been hers.

A Duty…

The entire kingdom’s future rests on Poppy’s shoulders, something she’s not even quite sure she wants for herself. Because a Maiden has a heart. And a soul. And longing. And when Hawke, a golden-eyed guard honor bound to ensure her Ascension, enters her life, destiny and duty become tangled with desire and need. He incites her anger, makes her question everything she believes in, and tempts her with the forbidden.

A Kingdom…

Forsaken by the gods and feared by mortals, a fallen kingdom is rising once more, determined to take back what they believe is theirs through violence and vengeance. And as the shadow of those cursed draws closer, the line between what is forbidden and what is right becomes blurred. Poppy is not only on the verge of losing her heart and being found unworthy by the gods, but also her life when every blood-soaked thread that holds her world together begins to unravel



Abuse, Sexual Assault, Violence, Death


From Blood and Ash by Jennifer L Armentrout is her first high fantasy novel, and the first book in what will be a series. It centers around Poppy, an eighteen year old woman who is the Maiden, someone who is chosen by the gods. She lives a lonely life, where very few people can see her unveiled, and can speak to her. She can not be touched, and cannot roam around freely, usually cooped up in her room, except for when she is preparing to meet the gods. Under the veil, Poppy is fierce. She sneaks out for adventures, and has one of her guards teach her to fight in secret. One such adventure leads to her meeting Hawke, a guard who is duty-bound to making sure she follows the rules set for the Maiden, and getting her to the Ascension (meeting the gods), whole and worthy. While Hawke constantly makes Poppy think and question the rules, and why she is forced to live her life this way, their feelings for one another grow, despite it being forbidden.


I read that Jennifer L. Armentrout has been sitting on this book for years, unsure if she should write it, because she had never written high-fantasy before, and wasn't sure if it would be good. I am so happy that she finally decided to write it. Jennifer ... never doubt yourself. Because wow. WOW!

I will admit, I don't have a lot of experience with high fantasy novels. For those of you who don't know, high-fantasy is stories based in an imaginary world. Think Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. The only books I have true experience with is Lord of the Rings, which, don't kill me, LoTR fans, is incredibly dry, and if it wasn't for the amazing films, I would have never finished the trilogy. So when I started From Blood and Ash, I found it a bit overwhelming. I forgot that for high-fantasy, there is quite a bit of set up. That being said, things quickly line up, and the story really picks up. From Blood and Ash is absolutely, freaking unique, and I could only imagine how difficult it was to write. The story is consistent, and constantly building, leading to a thrilling climax, and an ending that makes you just want there to be a next book out already (predicted to be out 2021).

Poppy is an intriguing character. Forced to be veiled, covering the top half of her face, and be chaste and godly, under the thick veil, she is a force to be reckoned with. Strong, courageous, and witty, but vulnerable. It's easy to sympathize with her, and question along with her, what is the point? Why is it such an honor to be the Maiden, and be treated like she is? Jennifer has always written fantastic female leads, but Poppy is one of her best. Hawke is equally fascinating. Incredibly skilled, handsome in a way that women flock to him, and intelligent, he has a lot of layers that I know we haven't gotten gotten a chance to see. The side characters who all wonderfully written, especially her personal guard Viktor.

From Blood and Ash is one of those stories that will leave you sitting on the edge of your seat. Different threats all come together, and in the end, leaves our hero, and ourselves, questioning everything. One thing is for certain. Jennifer L Armentrout may entered the world of high-fantasy as a newbie, but she mastered it. With an epic story, in a world that is based in fantasy, but with a touch of reality, and characters with incredibly depth, she has breathed new life in a genre that can be a bit repetitive. One thing is for sure. The next book can not come soon enough.



Hawke: "Have you been kissed before?"

Oh, gods, was it that obvious?

Poppy: "I have!"

One side of his lips kicked up

Hawke; "Do you always lie?"

Poppy: "No!"

Hawke: "Liar."

Hawke: "Then what should I call you? A name, perhaps?"

Poppy: "I'm ... I'm no one."

Hawke: "No One? What a strange name. Do girls with a name like that often make a habit of wearing other people's clothing?"

Poppy: "I'm not a girl."

Hawke: "I would sure hope not."

Hawke: "The least you you could do is tell me why you didn't stop me."

One side of his lips quirked up

Hawke: "I'm sure it's more than my disarming good looks."

I wrinkled my nose

Poppy: "Of course."

Another short, surprised-sounding laugh left him.

Hawke: "I think you just insulted me."

Chagrined, I winced

Poppy: "That's not what I meant -"

Hawke: "You've wounded me, Princess."

Poppy: "I highly doubt that. You have to be more than well aware of your appearance."

Hawke: "I am. It has led to quite a few people making questionable life choices."

Hawke: "Death is like an old friend who pays a visit, sometimes when it's least expected and other times when you're waiting for her. It's neither the first nor the last time she'll pay a visit, but that doesn't make any death less harsh or unforgiving."

Hawke: "What do you want from me? Tell me, and I'll make it so."

Poppy: "Why? Why would you ... do this? You don't know me, and you thought I was someone else."

A flicker of amusement crossed his striking features

Hawke: "I have nowhere to be at the moment, and I'm intrigued."

My brows lifted

Poppy: "Because you have nowhere to be at the moment?"

Hawke: "Would you rather I wax poetic about how I'm charmed by your beauty, even though I can only see half your face? Which, by the way, from what I can see is pleasing. Would you rather I tell you I'm captivated by your eyes? They are a pretty shade of green from what I can tell."

I started to frown

Poppy: "Well, no. I don't want you to lie."

Hawke: "None of those things were a lie."

He tugged on the bow as he dipped his head, brushing his lips over mine.

Hawke: "I told you the truth, Princess. I'm intrigued by you, and it's fairly rare anyone intrigues me."

Poppy: "So?"

Hawke: "So. You've changed my evening. I'd planned to return to my quarters. Maybe get a good, albeit boring, night of sleep, but I have a suspicion that tonight will be anything but boring if I spend it with you."

Hawke: "Tell me what you enjoy, so I can make you love it."

Poppy: "I ... I don't know."

Hawke's gaze flew to mine, and such a long moment passed that I began to wonder if I'd said the wrong thing.

Hawke: "I'll tell you what I want."

His thumb moved in slow, tight circles across a most sensitive part.

Hawke: "I want to remove your mask."

Poppy: "I ..."

A sharp, pulsing thrill rippled through my body, quickly followed by my heady wonder. What I felt ... I'd never felt anything like it before. Sharp and sweet, a different type of anguish.

Poppy: "Why?"

Hawke: "Because I want to see you."

Poppy: "You can see me now."

Hawke: "No, Princess."

he said, lowering his head until his lips brushed the neckline of my gown.

Hawke: "I want to really see you when I do this without your gown between you and my mouth."

Before I could ask what he meant, I felt the wet, warm glide of his tongue through the thin, silken gown. I gasped, shocked by the act and by the rush of liquid heat it brought forth, but his gaze lifted to mine as his mouth closed over the tip of my breast. He sucked deep and long, and the gasp turned to a cry that would surely embarrass me later.

A fist pounded on the door, silencing whatever he was about to ask.

Kieran: "Hawke? You in there?"

He stiffened above me, his warm breath against my lips as he closed his eyes.

Kieran: "It's Kieran."

Hawke: "As if I didn't know that already."

Hawke muttered under his breath, and a small giggle left me. His eyes opened, and that half-grin appeared.

Kieran: "Hawke?"

Kieran pounded some more

Poppy: "I think you should answer him."

Hawke: "Dammit."

Looking over his shoulder, he called out

Hawke: "I'm thoroughly, happily busy at the moment."

Kieran: "Sorry to hear that."

Hawke refocused on me.

Kieran knocked again.

Kieran: "But the interruption is unavoidable."

Hawke: "The only unavoidable thing I see if your soon-to-be broken hand if you pound on that door one more time."

My eyes widened

Hawke: "What, Princess? I told you I was really intrigued."

Hawke: "Tell me that you'll wait for me, Princess."

My heart skipped over itself

Poppy: "I will."

Vikter: "You're as brave as any guard on the Rise."

I smiled

Poppy: "Well, thank you."

Vikter: "And just as foolish as any new recruit."

My smile turned upside down.

Poppy: "I take my thank you back."

Attacker: "I'm going to enjoy tearing your skin off your weak, fragile bones. I don't care what he has planned for you. I will bathe in your blood and feast on your entrails."

Poppy: "That sounds delightful."

Tawny: "I can't imagine what's going on in your head. Actually, probably something that involves bloody vengeance."

I grinned

Poppy: "That's not entirely untrue."

Tawny: "This is my shocked face."

Hawke: "You do him a great honor by being here. You do us all a great honor by being here."

I opened my mouth to tell him that Rylan and all of them were owed far more than the honor of my presence, but I stopped myself. I couldn't risk it.

Hawke's gaze flicked over my lower jaw, lingering on the corner of my mouth, where I knew the skin was inflamed.

Hawke: "You were hurt. You can be assured that will never happen again."

I kicked out, and my bare foot connected with the side of Vikter's skin. Caught off guard, he staggered to the side as I shot up beside him. He started to strike back but froze. His gaze dropped to where I held the dagger to his throat.

The corners of his lips turned down.

I smiled.

Poppy: "I win."

Vikter: "It's not about winning, Poppy."

Poppy: "It's not?"

I lowered the dagger, stepping back.

Vikter: "It's about surviving."

Poppy: "Isn't that winning, though?"

He shot me a sidelong glance as he dragged his arm over his forehead.

Vikter: "I suppose you can look at it that way, but it's never a game."

Poppy: "I know that. But if it were a game, I still would've won."

Vikter: "You only got the upper hand twice, Poppy."

Poppy: "Yes, but both of those times, I would've sliced your neck. You got the upper hand three times, but they would've been nothing more than flesh wounds."

Vikter: "Flesh wounds?"

He barked out a short, rare laugh.

Vikter: "Only you would think disembowelment a paltry flesh wound. You're such a poor loser."

Poppy: "I thought this wasn't a game?"

He scoffed.

Duke: "She's truly unique, isn't she?"

I stiffened

Duke: "Half of her face is a masterpiece. The other a nightmare."

A tremor coursed down my arms, but I kept my chin high and resisted the urge to pick up something, anything, and throw it at the Duke's face.

Hawke's gaze remained fastened on mine as he stepped forward.

Hawke: "Both halves are as beautiful as the whole."

My lips parted on a sharp inhale.

Hawke placed a hand on the hilt of his broadsword and bowed slightly, his gaze never once leaving mine.

Hawke: "With my sword and with my life, I vow to keep you safe, Penellaphe. From this moment until the last moment, I am yours."

Poppy: "Your hormones must be clouding your rational thought."

Tawny: "My hormones are always clouding my rational though, thank you very much."

Tawny: "He said you were beautiful."

Poppy: "I'm sure he was just being kind."

She stared at me as if I'd admitted to snacking on dog hair.

Tawny: "First off, you are beautiful. You know that -"

Poppy: "I'm not saying that to fish for compliments."

Tawny: "I know, but I felt the overwhelming need to remind you of such. He didn't have to say anything in response to the Duke being a general ass."

My lips twitched

Tawny: "He could've ignored it and proceeded on to the Royal Guard oath, which, by the way, he made sound like ... sex."

Poppy: "Yes. Yes, he did."

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

Poppy: "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."

She nodded

Tawny: "I would like to think that I would, and I would definitely hope that a Royal Guard would."

Poppy: "Then that means he chose not to say anything. Although, he might not have recognized me. It was dimly lit in that room."

Tawny: "If he didn't, 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. That would be suspicious."

Poppy: "Obviously."

Tawny: "And odd."

Poppy: "Agreed. 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."

Her brows slammed down.

Tawny: "You're an incredibly suspicious person."

I started to deny that but I realized I couldn't.

Poppy: "He probably didn't recognize me. You know what?"

Tawny: "What?"

Poppy: "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."

Shaking my head, I laughed.

Poppy: "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."

Tawny: "Sure."

Poppy: "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."

Tawny: "Uh-huh."

Poppy: "But what I'm trying to say is that it's not a thing to even consider. What he does with the knowledge is the only thing that matters."

Tawny: "You know what I think?"

Poppy: "I'm half afraid to hear it."

Her brown eyes glimmered

Tawny: "Things are about to get so much more exciting around here."

Tawny: "You don't all that concerned by the prospect. To be blunt, you sound excited."

Loren: "Excited? No. Intrigued? Possibly. Some days are just so dreadfully dull."

The shock of her statement caused me to forget who I was and where I was.

Poppy: "So, a good old rebellion may liven things up for you? Dead men and women and children are a source of entertainment?"

Surprise flickered across both her and Dafina's faces.

Loren swallowed

Loren: "I suppose I ... I might've misspoken, Maiden. I apologize."

I said nothing.

Tawny: "What are you going to do?"

Poppy: "About the Dark One possibly being in the city?"

Tawny: "What? No. About him."

Poppy: "Him?"

I glanced at Hawke

Tawny: "Yes. Him. Unless there's another guy you've made out with while your identity was concealed."

Poppy: "Yes. There are many. They have an actual club."

Tawny: "That was ... intense."

I blinked, giving a shake of my head as I turned to her

Poppy: "What?"

Tawny: "That. You and Hawke staring one another down. And no, I can't see your eyes, but I knew you two were engaged in a rather heated one on one there."

I could feel warmth creep into my cheeks.

Poppy: "He's just doing his job, and I ... I just lost tract of what I was saying."

Tawny lifted her brow

Tawny: "Is that so?"

Poppy: "Of course."

Tawny: "So, he was just making sure you're still alive and -"

Hawke: "Breathing? Since I am responsible for keeping her alive, making sure she's breathing would be a priority."

My shoulders stiffened. How much has he overheard?

Tawny made a poor attempt to smother her giggle with a napkin

Tawny: "I'm relieved to hear that."

Hawke: "If not, I'd be remiss in my duty, would I not?"

Tawny: "Ah, yes, your duty. Between protecting Poppy with your life and limb and gathering spilled crystals, you're rather busy."

Hawke: "Don't forget assisting weak Ladies in Wait to the nearest chair before they faint. I am a man of many talents."

Tawny: "I'm sure you are."

Tawny: "Is there a threat of stray crystals we need to be aware of, or is there something you need, Hawke?"

Hawke: "There are many things I'm in need of."

His gaze slid back to me.

Duke: "I believe four lashes should suffice."

Poppy: "Are you sure that's enough? I wouldn't want you to feel as if you haven't done enough."

Hawke: "You are ..."

His stare was intense and unblinking as he sheathed his sword at his side.

Hawke: "You're absolutely magnificent. Beautiful."

Hawke: "I'm aware that my hair is in need of a trim, but your aim is off. You should really work on that since I'm quite partial to me face."

My aim had been spot-on.

I waited until he was close enough, and then I kicked out, catching him in the lower leg. He grunted as I jumped to my feet, ignoring the ache of what was surely a bruised hip and rear. I whirled to the right, and he jumped to block me, but I darted to the left. He came right back at me, and I kicked out once more -

Hawke caught me by the ankle. I gasped, arms pinwheeling until I steadied myself. Wide-eyed, I stared at him. HE raised his brows as his gaze traveled the length of my bare leg.

Hawke: "Scandalous."

A growl of annoyance burst from me.

He laughed.

Hawke: "And such dainty little slippers. Satin and silk? They're as finely tailored as your leg. The kind of slipper no guard of the Rise would wear."

How astute of him.

Hawke: "Unless they are being outfitted differently than I am."

Hawke dropped my ankle, but before I could run, he caught my arm and yanked me forward. Suddenly, I was against him and on the tips of my toes.

Air seized in my lungs at the sudden contact. My breasts were flattened against the hard leather and iron of his stomach. The warmth of his body seemed to bleed through his armor, sinking through my cloak and the thin gown underneath. A flash of heat rolled through me as I dragged in a deep breath. Beyond the rot of Craven blood, he smelled of dark spice and lush smoke. A flush crept into my cheeks.

His nostrils flared, and as crazy as it sounded, the hue of his eyes seemed to deepen to a striking amber color. He lifted his other arm

Hawke: "You know what I think -"

The blade pressing into the skin of his throat silenced him. His lips thinned as he stared down at me. He didn't move or release me, so I pressed the tip of the dagger in just enough. A bead of blood swelled just below his throat.

Hawke: "Correction."

Then he laughed as a trickle of blood seeped down his neck. It wasn't a harsh laugh or a patronizing one. He sounded amused.

Hawke: "You're an absolutely stunning, murderous little creature. Nice weapon. Bloodstone and wolven bone. Very interesting ... Princess."

Hawke: "After all we shared? You throw a dagger at my face?"

Poppy: "All we shared? It was a handful of minutes and a few kisses."

Hawke: "It was more than a few kisses. If you've forgotten, I'm more than willing to remind you."

Poppy: "There was nothing worth remembering."

Hawke: "Now you insult me after throwing a dagger at my face? You've wounded my tender feelings."

Poppy: "Tender feelings?"

I snorted

Poppy: "Don't be over-dramatic."

Hawke: "Hard not to be when you threw a dagger at my head and then cut my neck."

Poppy: "I knew you'd move out of the way."

Hawke: "Did you?/ Is that why you tried to slice open my throat?"

Poppy: "I nicked your skin. Because you had a hold of me and wouldn't let go. Obviously, you haven't learned anything from it."

Hawke: "I've actually learned a lot, Princess. That's why your hands and your dagger aren't getting anywhere near my neck."

His thumb slid over the inside of my wrist as a reminder, and my fingers spasmed around the handle of my weapon.

Hawke: "But if you let go of the dagger, there's a whole lot of me I'll let your hands get close to."

Poppy: "You're ridiculous."

Hawke: "What I am in intrigued."

Hawke: "Am I unaware of a new recruitment policy where half-dressed ladies in cloaks are now needed on the Rise? Are we that desperately in need of protection?"

Poppy: "Desperate? Why would my presence on the Rise signal desperation when, as you've seen, I know how to use a bow? Oh, wait. Is it because I happen to have breasts?"

Hawke: "You're so incredibly violent. I think I like it."

Hawke: "I cam back for you that night. Just like I told you I would. I came back for you, and you weren't there. You promised me, Princess."

Poppy: "I ... I couldn't."

Hawke: "Couldn't? I have a feeling that if there's something you want badly enough, nothing will stop you."

A harsh, bitter-sounding laugh escaped me.

Poppy: "You know nothing."

Hawke: "Maybe."

He let go of my arm, and before I knew what he was up to, his hand had slipped inside my hood. His cold fingers touched the unmarred skin of my right cheek. I gasped at the contact and started to draw back, but there was nowhere to go.

Hawke: "Maybe I know more than you realize."

Hawke bent his head, pressing his cheek to the left side of my hood.

Hawke: "Do you really think I have no idea who you are?"

Hawke: "Whatever you need to tell yourself, Princess."

Poppy: "Don't call me that!:"

I stomped my foot.

Hawke lifted an eyebrow

Hawke: "Did that make you feel good?"

Poppy: "Yes! Because the only other option is to kick you."

Hawke: "So violent."

Oh, my gods.

My hands curled into fists

Poppy: "You shouldn't be in here."

Hawke: "I'm your personal guard. I can be wherever I feel I am needed to keep you safe."

Poppy: "And what do you think you need to protect me from in here? An unruly bedpost I might stub my toe on? Oh, wait, are you worried I might faint? I know how good you are at handling such emergencies."

Hawke: "You do look a bit pale. My ability to catch frail, delicate females may come in handy."

Poppy: "I have a feeling that if you don't leave, he's just going to stand there and drain precious air from my room -"

Hawke: "While looking exceptionally handsome. You forgot to add that."

A short, light giggle left Tawny.

I ignored the comment

Poppy: "And I would like to get some rest before the sun rises."

Tawny exhaled loudly

Tawny: "Fine. Princess."

Poppy: "Oh, my gods."

Hawke: "I like her."

Hawke: "You're ... you're nothing like I expected."

Poppy: "Was it my skill with an arrow or the blade? Or was it the fact that I took you to the ground?"

Hawke: "Barely took me to the ground. All of those things. But you forgot to add in the Red Pearl. I never expected to find the Maiden there."

I snorted

Poppy: "I imagine not."

Hawke: "It's weird, isn't it?"

Poppy: "What is?"

His gaze met mine again

Hawke: "How it feels like I've known you longer. You feel that, too."

Poppy: "I won't ... I refuse to be helpless."

Hawke: "No one should be."

Poppy: "You saw what happened tonight. They reached the top of the Rise. If one makes it over, more will follow. No Rose is impenetrable, and even if it were, mortals come back from outside the Rise cursed. It happens more than people realize. At any moment, that curse could spread in this city. If I'm going down -"

Hawke: "You'll go down fighting."

I nodded

Hawke: "Like I said, you're very brave."

Poppy: "I don't think it's bravery. I think it's ... fear."

Hawke: "Fear and bravery are often one and the same. It either makes you a warrior or a coward. The only difference is the person it resides inside."

Hawke: "I've kept you up long enough."

I arched a brow

Poppy: "That is all you have to say about me being on the Rise?"

Hawke: "I ask only one thing of you. The next time you go out, wear better shoes and thicker clothing. Those slippers are likely to be the death of you, and that dress ... the death of me."

Vikter: "And I understand. I do."

Poppy: "Understand what?"

Vikter: "Like I said before, he's an attractive young man -"

Poppy: "That has nothing to do with it."

Vikter: "And you've been surrounded by old men like me."

Poppy: "You're not that old."

He blinked.

Vikter: "Thanks. I think."

Vikter: "He hasn't given us any reason to doubt him. I know that. It's just that we don't know him, and you're important to me, Poppy. Not because you're the Maiden, but because you're ... you."

I didn't give him a chance to realize what I was doing. I launched myself at him, wrapping my arms around his waist and hugging him tightly.

Poppy: "Thank you."

Vikter was as stiff as a guard on the Rise for their very first time, but then he put his hands on my back. And patted me.

I grinned.

Vikter: "You know I'll never replace your father, nor would I ever try to, but you're like a daughter to me."

I hugged him tighter

He patted me again

Vikter: "I worry about you. Partly because it's my job, but mostly because it's you."

Poppy: "You're important to me, too. Even when you think my punches are weak."

His chuckle was rough as he dropped his chin to the top of my head.

Vikter: "Your punches are weak when you're not going them correctly."

He pulled back, clasping my cheeks

Vikter: "But, girl, your aim is deadly. Don't ever forget that."

Tawny: "If you need me, knock. Princess."

I groaned.

Hawke chuckled

Hawke: "I really do like her."

Poppy: "I'm sure she'd love to hear that."

Hawke: "Would you love to hear that I really like you?"

My heart skipped a beat, but I ignored the stupid organ.

Poppy: "Would you be sad if I said no?"

Hawke: "I'd be devastated."

I snorted.

Poppy: "I'm sure."

Hawke: "The Priestess seems like a ... A bitch. I don't say that often, but I say it now. Proudly."

Nearly choking on my laugh, I looked away.

Poppy: "She ... she is something, and she's always disappointed in my ... commitment to being the Maiden."

Hawke: "Exactly how are you supposed to prove you are? Better yet, what are you supposed to be committed to?"

I almost jumped on him in that moment and wrapped my arms around him. Instead, I gave him a sedate nod.

Poppy: "I'm not quite sure. It's not like I'm trying to run away or escape my Ascension."

Hawke: "Would you?"

Poppy: "Funny question."

Hawke: "It was a serious one."

Poppy: "I can't believe you'd ask that."

Hawke: "Why?"

Poppy: "Because I couldn't do that. I wouldn't."

Hawke: "It seems to me that this honor that has been bestowed upon you comes with very few benefits. You're not allowed to show your face or travel anywhere outside the castle ground. You didn't even seem all that surprised when the Priestess moved to strike you. That leads me to believe it's something fairly common. You are not allowed to speak to most, and you are not to be spoken to. You're caged in your room most of the day, your freedom restricted. All the rights others have are privileges for you, rewards that seem impossible for you to earn."

I opened my mouth, but I didn't know what to say. I looked away.

Hawke: "So, I wouldn't be surprised if you did try to escape this honor."

Poppy: "I've never been to a Rite."

Hawke: "And you've never snuck into one?"

Poppy: "I'm offended that you'd even suggest such a thing."

He chuckled

Hawke: "How bizarre that I could think that you, who has a history of misbehaving, would do such a thing."

I grinned at that.

Hawke: "Are you excited about attending the Rite?"

Poppy: "I'm curious."

Hawke: "I'm curious to see you. You'll be unveiled."

Poppy: "Yes. But I will be masked."

Hawke: "I prefer that version of you."

Poppy: "The masked version of myself?"

Hawke: "Honest? I prefer the version of you that wears no mask or veil."

Hawke: "You still out there, Princess?"

My lips parted as my eyes widened at the sound of his voice. Hawke. It was Hawke. In that room. I couldn't believe it.

Hawke: "Or have you fallen to your death?"

I briefly debated the merits of jumping

Hawke: "I really hope that's not the case since I'm pretty positive that would reflect poorly on me since I assumed you were in your room. Behaving. And not on a ledge, several dozen feet in the air, for reasons I can't even begin to fathom but am dying to learn."

Poppy: "Dammit."

I whispered, looking around as if I could find another escape route. Which was stupid. Unless I suddenly sprouted wings, the only exit point was through the window.

A heartbeat later, Hawke stuck his head out and looked up at me.

Poppy: "Hi?"

He stared at me a moment

Hawke: "Get inside."

I didn't move.

With a sigh so heavy it should've rattled the walls, he extended his hand toward me.

Hawke: "Now."

Poppy: "You could say please."

His eyes narrowed.

Hawke: "There are a whole lot of things I could say to you that you should be grateful I'm keeping to myself."

Poppy: "Whatever. Move back."

Hawke: "If you fall, you're going to be in so much trouble."

Poppy: "If I fall, I'll be dead, so I'm not quite sure I'd also be in trouble."

Poppy: "I didn't go gallivanting through anything. I went through Wisher's Grove and was on the street for less than a minute. I also had my cloak up and this mask on. No one could even see a single inch of my face. I wasn't worried about being snatched, but I also came prepared, just in case."

Hawke: "With your trusty little dagger?"

Poppy: "Yes, with my trusty little dagger."

Poppy: "Yes. I cut him. More than once. He was wounded when he was called off. I hope he died."

Hawke: "You are so violent."

Poppy: "You keep saying that, but I'm really not."

Hawke laughed again, the sound deep and real.

Hawke: "You really aren't all that self-aware."

Poppy: "Whatever."

Hawke stared back at me, almost curiously.

Hawke: "Interesting."

The corners of my lips turned down

Poppy: "What is?"

Hawke: "You."

He opened the book.

Maybe he couldn't read.

Please, let it be that he could not read.

The grin slowly slipped from his face.

Of course, he could read. Why was life so unfair?

His dark brows rose as he flipped through the pages. I knew what was on the first page. Miss Willa Colyns had been painfully detailed about the intimate kiss.

Hawke: "What interesting reading material."

My face was burning with the first of a thousand suns, and I wondered how mad Hawke would get if I threw my dagger at his face.


The grin returned, and so did the dimple.

Hawke: "Penellaphe."

He said my name with so much shock, my eyes would've rolled if I weren't so incredibly mortified.

Hawke: "This is ... just scandalous reading material for the Maiden."

Poppy: "Shut up."

Hawke: "Very naughty."

Annoyance hitting a record high, I lifted my chin.

Poppy: "There's nothing wrong with me reading about love."

Hawke: "I didn't say there was. But I don't think what she is writing about has anything to do with love."

Poppy: "Oh, so you're an expert on this now?"

Hawke: "More so than you, I imagine."

I snapped my mouth shut. The truth in that statement strung, and I lashed out.

Poppy: "That's right. Your visits to the Red Pearl have been the talk of many servants and Ladies in Wait, so I suppose you do have a ton of experience."

Hawke: "Someone sounds jealous."

Poppy: "Jealous?"

I laughed as I rolled my eyes.

Poppy: "As I said before, you have an overinflated sense of importance in my life."

He snorted as he returned to skimming through the book.

Hawke: "How much of this have you read?"

Poppy: "That's none of your business."

Hawke: "Probably not, but I need to know if you got to this part."

He cleared his throat.


Was he going to read from it.


Please, no.

Poppy: "I only read the first chapter. And you look like you're in the middle of the book, so -"

Hawke: "Good. Then this will be fresh and new to you. Let me see, where was I? Oh, yes. Here. 'Fulton had promised that when he was done with me that I wouldn't be able to walk straight for a day, and he was right.' Huh. Impressive."

My eyes widened

Hawke: " 'The things the man did with his tongue and his fingers had only been surpassed by his shockingly large, decadently pulsing, and wickedly throbbing - ' "

Hawke chuckled

Hawke: "This woman has a knack for adverbs, doesn't she?"

Poppy: "You can stop now."

Hawke: " 'Manhood.' "

Poppy: "What?"

Hawke: "That's the end of that sentence."

When he glanced up, I immediately knew that whatever was about to come out of his mouth was going to burn my alive.

Hawke: "Oh, you may not know what she means by manhood. I do believe she's talking about his cock. Prick. Dick. His -"

Poppy: "Oh, my gods."

Hawke: "His - apparently - extremely large, throbbing and pulsing -"

Poppy: "I get it! I completely understand."

Hawke: "Just wanted to make sure. Wouldn't want you to be too embarrassed to ask and think she as referencing his love for her or something."

Poppy: "I hate you."

Hawke: "No, you don't."

Poppy: "And I'm about to stab you. In a very violent manner."

Concern flickered across his face as he lowered the book.

Hawke: "No that, I believe."

Poppy: "Give me back the journal."

Hawke : "But of course. All you had to do was ask."

Poppy: "What?"

My mouth dropped open

Poppy: "I have been asking."

Hawke: "Sorry. I have selective hearing."

Poppy: "You ... you are the worst."

Hawke: "You got your words wrong."

Striding past me, he patted the top of my head. I lashed out, narrowly missing him.

Hawke: "You mean, I'm the best."

Poppy: "I got my words right."

Hawke: "Come. I need to get you back before something other than your on foolishness puts you at risk. And don't forget your book. I expect a summary of each chapter tomorrow."

He and I were never going to speak about this diary again.

Poppy: "Hi."

One side of his lips kicked up, and that dimple of his made an appearance.

Hawke: "You look ... lovely."

He turned to Tawny

Hawke: "As do you."

Tawny: "Thank you."

He glanced at Vikter

Hawke: "You, as well."

Vikter snorted

Hawke: "I was wrong earlier when I said you looked lovely."

Poppy: "What?"

Hawke: "You look absolutely exquisite, Poppy. Beautiful. I just ... I needed to tell you that."

Poppy: "If someone saw me ... saw you -"

Hawke: "Saw us? Holding hands? Dear gods, the scandal."

Poppy: "You're such a bad influence."

I placed my hand in his

Hawke curled his fingers around mine.

Hawke: "Only the bad can be influenced, Princess.'

Poppy: "The Queen could summon me to the capital before then."

Hawke: "Possibly. If so, then I guess we'll have to find different adventures, won't we? Or should I call them misadventures?"

Hawke: "Princess, I'm confident that if you didn't want me to do something, I'd be lying flat on my back with a dagger at my throat before I even took my next breath. Even if you can't see an inch in front of you."

Hawke: "So, you're suggesting I led you out here, insead of toward a private room with a bed, to engage in a particular type of inappropriate behavior?"

Poppy: "That's exactly what I'm saying, though my room would've been a better option."

Hawke: "What if I said that isn't true?"

Poppy: "I ..."

My stomach fluttered as his fingers found their way to my hip

Poppy: 'I wouldn't believe you."

Hawke: "Then what if I said it didn't start off that way?"

His thumb moved against my hip

Hawke: "But then there was the moonlight and you, with your hair down , in this dress, and then the idea occurred to me that this would be the perfect location for some wildly inappropriate behavior."

Poppy: 'Then I ... I would say that's more likely."

Hawke: "So, there you have it."

Hawke: "Tell you what. I'll make you a deal."

Poppy: "A deal?"

Hawke: "If I do anything you don't like ..."

Hawke's hand slid down my thigh, causing my breath to catch. Through the dress, his hand closed over the dagger.

Hawke: "I give you permission to stab me."

Poppy: "That would be excessive."

Hawke: "I was hoping you'd give me just a measly flesh wound. But it'd be worth finding out."

I grinned.

Poppy: "You are such a bad influence."

Poppy: "I;m the Maiden, Hawke."

Hawke: "And I don't care."

My eyes flew open in shock.

Poppy: "I can't believe you just said that."

Hawke: "I did. And I'll say it again. I don't care what you are. I care about who you are."

Poppy: "I shouldn't have done what I did at the Red Pearl. It doesn't matter if I want-"

Hawke: "And you do want."

His whisper danced over my cheek

Hawke: "What you want is me."

My breath caught

Poppy: "That doesn't matter."

Hawke: "What you want should always matter."

A short, harsh laugh left me

Poppy: "It doesn't, and that's another thing that isn't the point. You could -"

Hawke: "I heard you the first time, Princess. You're right. I could find someone who would be easier."

His fingers traced the line of my mask from my right ear and along my cheek.

Hawke: "Ladies or Lords in Wait, who aren't burdened by rules or limitations, who aren't Maidens I'm sworn to protect. There are a lot of ways I could occupy my time that don't include explaining in great detail why I'm choosing to be where I am, with whom I choose."

The corners of my lips started to turn down.

Hawke: "The thing is, none of them intrigue me. You do."

Hawke: "Nothing is ever simple. And when it is, it's rarely ever worth it."

Hawke: "I'm not afraid to speak the truth. He may be powerful, but he's just a weak man, who proves his strength by attempting to humiliate those more powerful than he is. Someone like you, with your strength? It makes him feel incompetent - which he is. And your scars? They are a testament to you fortitude. They are proof of what you survived. They are evidence of why you are here when so many twice your age wouldn't be. They're not ugly. Far from it. They're beautiful, Poppy."

Poppy: "Hawke? Kiss me. Please."

Hawke had gone so still against me that I wasn't sure if he even took a breath. My request had shocked him - shocked me.

I think I might've stopped breathing.

Hawke: "Gods."

One hand returned to my cheek

Hawke: "You don't have to ask me twice, Princess, and you never have to beg."

Hawke: "Do you want me to be blunt?"

Poppy: "I always want you to be honest."

My sense were still open. I knew that because I felt a foreign sensation coming through the connection, but it was too brief for me to figure out what it was.

And then he kissed my temple, and I thought about the odd, ashy feeling that had coated my throat.

Hawke: "I was seconds from taking you to the ground and becoming a very, very bad guard."

Poppy: "Really?"

Hawke: "Really."

I should've felt relief that he'd stopped, and I did. But I also didn't. What I felt was a confusing mess. But I knew one thing for sure.

Poppy: "I don't think I would've stopped you."

Hawke's body shook as he moaned

Hawke: "You're not helping."

Poppy: "I'm a bad Maiden."

Hawke: "No. You're a perfectly normal girl. What is expected of you is what's bad. And, yes, you're also a very bad Maiden."

I laughed

Vikter: "Do you understand what she is? Do you even understand what you could've caused if anyone other than I had come upon you two?"

I stepped forward

Poppy: "Vikter -"

Hawke: "I know exactly who she is. Not what she is."

Poppy: "I ... I asked him to kiss me."

Vikter looked away, jaw locking.

Poppy: "And we did kiss. Okay? It happened, but that was all. He stopped it before it went any further. I know I shouldn't have asked him -"

Vikter: "He shouldn't have been so willing to oblige you."

Poppy: "That's not the point."

Vikter: "That is the point, Poppy."

Poppy: "No, it's not."

I pulled my arm free, closing my hands into fists before I picked something up and threw it.

Poppy: "He's not the damn point!"

Shock flickered over his face.

Poppy: "This whole stupid thing is the point. The fact that I can't do anything is the point. That I can't have one night to do something normal and fun and enjoyable. That I can't experience anything without being warned to remember what I am. That every privilege you have, and Tawny has, and everyone else has, I don't have."

My voice cracked as the back of my throat started to burn.

Poppy: "I have nothing."

His expression softened

Vikter: "Poppy -"

Poppy: "No."

I took a step back, his features blurring

Poppy: "You don't understand. I can't celebrate my birthdays because that's ungodly. I'm not allowed to go to picnics at the Grove or to supper with others because I'm the Maiden. I'm not allowed to defend myself because that would be unseemly. I don't even know how to ride a horse. Nearly every book is forbidden to me. I can't socialize or make friends because my sole purpose is to serve the kingdom by going to the gods - something no one will even explain. What does that actually mean?"

Breathing heavily, I tried to rein my emotions back in, but I couldn't.

Poppy: "I don't even know if I'll have a future beyond my Ascension. In less than a year or even sooner, I may lose every chance I have to do everything everyone else takes for granted. I have no life, Vikter. Nothing."

Vikter: "Poppy."

Poppy: "Everything has been taken from me - my free will, my choice, my future - and I still have to suffer through the Duke's lessons. I still have to stand there and let him hit me. Let him look at me and touch me! Do whatever he or the Lord wants -"

Sucking in a fiery, painful breath, I lifted my hands, grabbing fistfuls of my hair, pulling them back as Vikter closed his eyes.

Poppy: "I have to stand there and take it. I can't even scream or cry. I can do nothing. So I'm sorry that choosing something that I want for myself is such a disappointment to you, the kingdom, everyone else, and the gods. Where is the honor in being the Maiden? What exactly should I be proud of? Who would want this? Point me in their direction, and I'll gladly switch places with them. It should be no shock what I want to be found unworthy."



I did just as Vikter had taught me. I made sure the blade was perfectly straight as I brought it back over my head and then heaved it forward, released it. It winged through the air, striking the Descenter in the back. He toppled forward, his sword falling to the floor.

Lord Mazeen: "Gods."

He stared at me with wide eyes.

Poppy: "Remember that."

I warned, sweeping down to pick up the fallen short sword.

Poppy: "And this."

Light and double-edged, I sliced open the throat of the next Descenter.

Duchess: "How? How is this possible? How?"

Vikter: "I trained her. I've never been more glad that I did than I am right now."

He smiled

Vikter: "You make me proud."

Hawke: "It's okay, you know?"

Poppy: "What is?"

Hawke: "Everything that you're feeling. And everything that you're not."

Poppy: "It's time for me to find out how I'll be punished for what I ... for what I did to the Lord, isn't it?"

Hawke frowned at me

Hawke: "If I thought I was delivering you for punishment, I wouldn't be taking you there."

Poppy: "Where would you take me?"

Hawke: "Somewhere far from here."

Hawke: "I'm assuming you can't ride a horse."

I shook my head no.

Poppy: "I haven't been on one since ..."

My smile widened

Poppy: "Gods, it was three years ago. Tawny and I snuck out to the stables and managed to climb on one before Vikter arrived. So, no, I can't ride."

Hawke: "That will be intriguing. And torturous since you'll be riding with me."

Poppy: "And why is that intriguing? And torturous?"

One side of his lips curved up. The dimple appeared.

Hawke: "Besides the fact that it will allow me to keep a very close eye on you? Use your imagine, Princess."

My imagination didn't fail me then.

Poppy: "That's inappropriate."

Hawke: "Is it? You're not the Maiden out here. You're Poppy, unveiled and unburdened."

Poppy: "What are you doing?"

Hawke: "Making sure you don't freeze to death."

He unrolled the heavy fur blanket, tossing it over his legs.

Hawke: "If you did, that would make me a very bad guard."

Poppy: "I'm not going to freeze to death."

Hawke: "What you're going to do is lure every Craven within a five-mile radius wwith your shuddering."

He rolled onto his side, facing my back.

Poppy: "You can't sleep beside me."

Hawke: "I'm not."

With the edge of this blanket in hand, he draped it, along with his arm, over me."

Poppy: "What do you call this, then?"

Hawke: "I'm sleeping with you."

Poppy: "How is that any different?"

Hawke: "There's a huge difference."

His warm breath coasted over my cheek, causing my pulse to dip and then rise.

Poppy: "This is wildly inappropriate."

His answering chuckle stroked my nerves in all the wrong - and right - ways.

Hawke: "More inappropriate than you masquerading as a wholly different kind of maid at the Red Pearl?"

My jaw snapped shut so quickly and tightly, I was surprised I didn't crack a molar.

Hawke: "Or more inappropriate than the night of the Rite, when you let me -"

Poppy: "Shut up."

Hawke: "I'm not done yet. What about sneaking off to fight the Craven on the Rise? Or that diary -?"

Poppy: "I get your point, Hawke. Can you stop talking now?"

Hawke: "You're the one who started this."

Poppy: "Actually, no, I did not."

Hawke: "What?"

A low laugh left him

Hawke: "You said, and I quote, 'this is wildly, grossly, irrefutably..."

Poppy: "Did you just learn what an adverb is today? Because that is not what I said."

Hawke sighed.

Hawke laughed

Poppy: "I hate you."

Hawke: "See, that's the problem. You don't hate me."

I had no response to that.

Hawke: "You know what I think?"

Poppy: "No. And I don't want to know."

He ignored that.

Hawke: "You like me."

My brows knitted together as I stared out over the small clearing.

Hawke: "Enough to be wildly inappropriate with me. On multiple occasions."

Poppy: "Good gods, I'd rather freeze to death at this point."

Hawke: "Is that why you were a t the Red Pearl? Looking for love?"

Poppy: "I don't think someone goes looking for love there."

Hawke: "You never know what you'll find there. What did you find, Poppy?"

Poppy: "Life."

Hawke: "A Craven will not get to you. Neither will a barrat."

Poppy: "I know. I have my dagger under my bag."

Hawke: "Of course, you do."

Hawke: "Lay back down, Poppy."

I did what he said only because of how close his mouth had been to mine.

Hawke: "When you listen to me, I think the stars will fall."

He followed me down so he spoke just above my ear

Hawke: "I wish I could capture this moment somehow."

Poppy: "Well, now I want to lift my head again."

Hawke: "Why am I not surprised?"

Hawke: "You feel what I'm doing, Poppy?"

I nodded

Hawke: "Imagine what my fingers would feel like with nothing between them and your skin."

I shuddered

Hawke: "I would do this."

His fingers pressed in, a little harder, a litter rougher, and my legs jerked.

Hawke: "I would get inside of you, Poppy. I would taste you. I bet you're as sweet as honeydew."

Oh, gods ...

I bit down on my lip as my grip eased off the blanket. I reached down, placing my hand over his forearm. He stopped. He waited. Wordlessly, I lifted my hips to his hand as my fingers dug into his skin. The ache was becoming unbearable.

Hawke: "Yes. You would like that, wouldn't you?"

Poppy: "Yes."

His fingers started moving again, and I almost cried out.

Hawke: "I would work in another finger. You'd be tight, but you're also ready for more."

My breath was coming out in quick, shallow pants as I felt the tendons in his arm flex under my hand, as my hips moved in the same circles he was making against me.

Hawke: "I would thrust my fingers in and out."

His lips brushed the skin just below my ear

Hawke: "You'd ride them just like you're riding my hand right now."

That's what I was doing, shamelessly so. Clutching his arm, I rocked again his hand, chasing that unbelievable tension that kept building and tightening.

Hawke: "But we won't do that tonight. We can't. Because if I get any part of me in you, every part of me would be in you, and I want to hear every sound you make when that happens."

Kieran: "Remember what your task is."

Hawke: "I haven't forgotten for one second. Not one."

Hawke: "Good morning, Princess."

Poppy: "Morning."

Hawke: "You slept well."

Poppy: "I did."

Hawke: "Told you."

I grinned even as my cheeks heated and despite the conversation I'd overheard.

Poppy: "You were right."

Hawke: "I'm always right."

Poppy: "Doubtful."

Hawke: "Thank you for last night."

Surprise flickered through me

Poppy: "I feel like I should be thanking you."

Hawke: "While it pleases my ego to know you feel that way, you don't need to do that."

His fingers threaded with mine

Hawke: "You trusted me last night, but more importantly, I know that what we shared is a risk. And it is an honor that you'd take that risk with me, Poppy. So, thank you."

Hawke: "Never thought I'd find anything having to do with the Craven sexy. But watching you fight them is incredibly arousing."

Poppy: "You're ego never fails to amaze me."

Hawke: "I never fail to amaze you."

Poppy: "Thank you got proving what I just said."

Hawke: "I was right."

Poppy: "About what?:"

Hawke: "About you being brave and strong? You risk a lot when you use your gift."

Poppy: "I don't think I've risked enough."

Hawke: "You are utterly nothing like I expected."

Poppy: "You keep saying that. What did you expect?"

Hawke: "I honestly don't know anymore."

My eyes closed, discovering that I liked this closeness. I like being ... touched when it was my choice."

Hawke: "Poppy?"

Poppy: "Yes?"

He touched my cheek with his fingers

Hawke: "I hope you realize that no matter what anyone has ever told you, you are more worthy than anyone I've ever met."

My heart squeezed in the best way.

Poppy: You haven't met enough people, then."

Hawke: "I have met too many."

He lifted his chin, kissing my forehead. He leaned back, sliding his thumb along my jaw.

Hawke: "You deserve so much more than what awaits you."

I looked at Hawke, really looked at him, and what I saw went beyond the physical. He'd always been different with me, and he never tried to stop me. From the night on the Rise to the Blood Forest when he'd thrown me the sword, he didn't only protect me. He believed in me and respected my need to defend myself. And like he's said before, it was as if we'd known each other for ages. He ... he understood me, and I thought I might understand him. Because he was brave and strong, and he felt and thought deeply. He'd suffered losses and survived and continued to do so even with the agony I knew he carried with him. He accepted me."

And I trusted him with my life.

With everything.

Hawke: "You shouldn't look at me like that."

Poppy: "Like what?"

Hawke: "You know exactly how you're looking at me."

He closed his eyes

Hawke: "Actually, you might now, and that's why I should leave."

Poppy: "How am I looked at you, Hawke?"

His eyes opened

Hawke: "Like I don't deserve to be looked at. Not by you."

Hawke: "I want nothing more than that, but I don't think you realize what will happen if I stay."

I felt a little dizzy

Poppy: "What would happen?"

Hawke: "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. 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. 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."

Heat swept through me as I stared at him.

Poppy: "I know."

Hawke: "Do you?"

I nodded

Hawke: "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. My need for you is far too great, Poppy. If I say, you will not walk out this door the Maiden."

I shivered at the bluntness of his words. They weren't a shock, but his need was. I didn't see myself as someone who could be the object of something so fierce. I'd never been allowed to.

Poppy: "I know."

Hawke : "You're so damn beautiful. And so damn unexpected."

Hawke: "You keep looking at me like that, and this will be over before it starts."

Poppy: "I .. you're perfect."

His expression tightened

Hawke: "No, I'm not. You deserve someone who is, but I'm too much of a bastard to allow that."

I shook my head

Poppy: "I disagree with everything you just said."

Hawke: "Shocker."

Hawke: "Gods."

Poppy: "Is this okay?"

Hawke: "Anything you do is more than okay. But especially that. Totally that."

I laughed softly, and then I did it again, drawing my hand up and down his length. His hips moved then, much like mine had, rolling against my palm, against me. He made a sound, a deep, dark rumble that sent a flush of pleasure through me."

Hawke: "You see what your touch does to me?"

Poppy: "Yes."

Hawke: "It kills me. It kills me in a way I don't think you'll ever understand."

My gaze searched his face

Poppy: "In a ... in a good way?"

Hawke's features softened as he lifted his hand to cup my cheek.

Hawke: "In a way I've never felt before."

Hawke: "Are you ready?"

Breath catching, I nodded.

Hawke: "I want to hear you say it."

The corners of my lips tugged up

Poppy: "Yes."

Hawke: "Good, because I might have actually died if you weren't."

I giggled.

Hawke: "You think I'm kidding. Little do you know."

He teased, kissing me again before he pushed in just a little bit. He stopped, making that sound again.

Hawke: "Oh, yeah, you're so ready."

My entire body flushed and trembled

Hawke: "You amaze me."

Poppy: "How?"

Hawke: "You stand before Craven with no fear."

He dragged his lips over mine

Hawke: "But you blush and shiver when I speak of how slick and wonderful you feel against me."

Poppy: "You're so inappropriate."

Hawke: "I'm about to get really inappropriate. But first, it may hurt."

Poppy: "I know."

Hawke: "Reading dirty books again?"

Poppy: "Possibly."

Hawke's lips grazed my cheek and then found mine. He kissed me softly, sweetly.

Hawke: "Don't forget this."

I touched his jaw

Poppy: "I don't think I ever could."

Hawke: "Promise me."

His gaze snagged with mine.

Hawke: "Promise me you won't forget this, Poppy. That no matter what happens tomorrow, the next day, next week, you won't forget this - forget that this was real."

I couldn't look away.

Poppy: "I promise. I won't forget."

Hawke: "That was very naughty. You are so incredibly violent. It still turns me on."

A scream of fury tore out of me as I jabbed out and up, snapping Hawke's head back.

Hawke: "Dammit."

he said, coughing - no, laughing. He was laughing.

Hawke: "Didn't change what I just said."

Shrieking, I slammed the heel of my booted foot into his shin. His gasp of pain brought a savage smile to my face as I rolled, twisting until my stomach screamed in protest, but I was able to turn in his loosened hold. I straddled him -

Hawke grinned up at me, the dimple in his right cheek appearing.

Hawke: "I'm liking where this is headed."

I punched him in the face, right in the godsdamn dimple. Pain lanced across my knuckles, but I drew my arm back.

Hawke caught my wrist and yanked me down until my body was almost flush with his.

Hawke: "You hit like you're angry with me."

I shifted, jamming my knee down between his legs and aiming for a very sensitive are. He anticipated the move, and my knee hit him in the thigh.

Hawke: "That would've done some damage."

Poppy: "Good."

Hawke: "Now, now. You'd be disappointed later if I couldn't use it."

Poppy: "I'd rather cut it from your body."

Hawke: "Liar."

The sound that came from inside me would've scared me if it had come from anyone else. I jumped up, breaking his hold. I went to bring my foot down on his throat, but Hawke caught it and pulled. I went down, landing on my side. Pain flared, but I ignored it as I slammed my fist into his side.

Kieran: "Damn."

Delano: "Should we intervene?"

Elijah: "No. This is the best thing I've seen in a while. Who would have though the Maiden could throw down?"

Kieran: "This is why you don't mix business with pleasure."

Elijah: 'Is that the case? My money is on her then."

Hawke: "Traitors."

What should have come as a relief had the opposite effect. The burn in my chest crept into my throat, forming a knot I could barely breathe around as I stared up at him. Of course, he wasn't trying to seduce me. Not since he'd already succeeded in doing so, getting me to not only let my guard down but to also trust him. I'd opened up to him, shared with him my dreams of becoming something else, my dread of returning to the capital and -oh, gods - my gift. I'd shared so much more than just words. I'd let him into my room, into my bed, and then into me. He's whispered that my touch had consumed him, and he'd worshiped my body, my scars. He'd told me that they made me even more beautiful, and I ...

I'd liked him.

I'd done more than just like him.

Gods, I'd fallen for him enough that I knew deep down it had played a role in my decision to tell the Queen that I would refuse the Ascension.

Hawke: "You are exceptionally skilled at being disobedient. Only second to your talent of driving me crazy."

Poppy: "You forgot one last skill."

Hawke: "I did?"

Poppy: "Yes. I'm skilled at killing Craven. I imagine killing Atlantians is no different."

Hawke: "Not everything was a lie, Poppy. Not everything."

Delano: "You need to understand something, Maiden. I'm a wolven."

Poppy: "I figured that out already."

Delano: "Then you have to know that the only reason you outran Kieran the day before is because he didn't want to catch you. I have impeccable tracking skills. There is nowhere you can run that I would not find you."

Niall: "Truth is, I'm even faster than he is, and neither of us wants to harm you. That will unfortunately happen if you run because I have a feeling you will somehow turn empty air into a weapon, and we'd have to defend ourselves. I doubt he will make a distinction between us wanted to hurt you and us being forced to by trying to defend ourselves."

My nostrils flared on the ragged breath I exhaled. I didn't care what he wanted, did, or thought.

Delano: "He'd have us pinned to the walls in the Hall, and both of us enjoy breathing and having all our body parts. So, please, be nice. Because even though losing my hand or certain death would be terrible, I abhor the idea of having to strike a female. Even someone as apparently dangerous as you."

Delano: "I know you think you're owed your pound of flesh. She cut you."

Poppy: "Twice."

Delano sent me a look that said I wasn't helping.

Razor-sharp lust pulsed straight through me, a dark desire that burned.

Hawke's nostrils flared as he inhaled, and then his chest seemed to stop moving. His features were still hazy, but the longer I stared at him, the hotter I felt.

Hawke: "Poppy."

Poppy: "What?"

Hawke: "Stop thinking what you're thinking."

Poppy: "How do you know what I'm thinking?"

His chin lowered, and his stare was a caress.

Hawke: "I know."

Hawke: "Poppy. What are you doing?"

Poppy: "I don't know."

I whispered, back arching as I stroked myself through the thin, worn shirt.

Poppy: "I'm on fire."

Hawke: "It's just the blood."

Instinct told me he was watching me, and that made me all the hotter.

Hawke: "It'll pass, but you should ... you need to stop doing that."

I didn't stop. I couldn't. My thumb rolled over the pebbled hardness, and I sucked in air. It reminded me of what Hawke had down, but he'd used more than just his hands. I wanted him to do that again. An intense, pulsing ache between my legs twisted my insides, Hips shifting, I pressed my thighs together, but that didn't help. The pressure only made it worse.

Poppy: "Hawke?"

Hawke: "Poppy, for the love of the gods."

Heart thrumming, I opened my eyes, and I'd been right. His gaze was fixed on me - on my other hand, the one that had a mind of its own and was slipping down my stomach

Poppy: "Kiss me?"

Hawke: "You don't want that."

Poppy: "I do."

My finger reached my waist, where the breeches gaped,

Poppy: "I need it."

Hawke: "You only think that right now. It's the blood."

Poppy: "I don't care. Touch me? Please?"

Hawke made a low sound in the back of his throat

Hawke: "You think you hate me now? If I do what you're asking, you'll want to murder me."

His lips curved upward

Hawke: "Well, you'll want to murder me more than you already do. You don't have control of yourself right now."

Poppy: "No."

Hawke: "No?"

His brows lifted, but he didn't look away from my hand.

Poppy: "I don't hate you."

He made that sound again, and when his hand closed over my wrist, I almost wept with joy. He was going to touch me.

Except he did nothing more than hold my hand in place.

Poppy: "Hawke?"

Hawke: "I plotted to take you from everything you knew, and I did, but that is nowhere neat the worst of my crimes. I've killed people, Poppy. There is so much blood on my hands that they will never be clean. I will overthrow the Queen who cared for you, and many more will die in the process. I am not a good man. But I am trying to be right now."

A nervous flutter filled my stomach. His words ... they should infuriate me, but I ... I wanted him, and thinking was ... well, it was all I ever did. I didn't want to do it anymore.

Poppy: "I don't want you to be good."

Without ever realizing it, I had listed my other hand, fisting the front of his shirt.

Poppy: "I want you."

Hawke shook his head, but when I tugged on the hand he held, he bent over me. My grip on his shirt tightened when he stopped with his mouth mere inches from mine.

Hawke: "In a few minutes, when this storm passes, you'll return to loathing my very existence, and for good reason. You're going to hate that you begged me to kiss you, to do more. But even without my blood in you, I know you've never stopped wanted me. But when I'm deep inside you again, and I will be, you won't be able to blame the influence of blood or anything else."

Casteel: "If you wanted to kill me, you should've aimed for the head, Princess. But worse yet, you forgot."

Poppy: "Forgot what?"

Casteel: "That is was real."

Breaking the kiss, he lifted up enough to look down at me.

Casteel: "Tell me you want this.Tell me you need more."

Poppy: "More."

Casteel: "Thank fuck."

Casteel: "I will kill them. I will fucking kill them all."

He half-laughed, half-growled as he lifted his head.

Casteel: "I know what you want, but ..."

Poppy: "But what?"

Casteel: "I want you to say my name."

Poppy: "What?"

Casteel: "I want you to say my real name. That's all I ask. It's acknowledgement. It's you admitting you are fully aware of who is inside you, who you want so badly, even though you know you shouldn't. Even though you want nothing more than to not feel what you do. I want to hear you say my real name."

Poppy: "You're a bastard."

One side of his lips curled

Casteel: "Some call me that, yes, but that's not the name I'm waiting to hear, Princess."

I wanted to deny him. Gods, did I ever.

Casteel: "How bad do you want it, Poppy?"

My grip tightened on his hair as I yanked his head down.

Poppy: "Bad. Your Highness."

His mouth opened, but I lifted my legs, curling them around his hips. Taking advantage of his surprise and tapping into my own anger, I rolled him onto his back, fully intending to leave him there, but I hadn't foreseen what the move would do when I rocked back -

I sank down on his length, my body shockingly flush with his. My shout ended in his groan as I planted my hands on his chest. Gods. The fullness was almost too much.

Poppy: 'Oh."

His chest was moving just as unevenly under my hands

Casteel: "You know what?"

Poppy: "What?"

My toes curled inside my boots

Casteel: "I don't need you to say my name. I just need you to do that again, but if you don't start moving, you might actually kill me."

A startled giggle burst from me.

I placed my hand in his and stated what I felt he needed to be reminded of.

Poppy: "I tried to kill you."

Casteel: "I know."

He pulled me up onto my feet

Casteel: "I can't really blame you."

Poppy: "You don't?"

Casteel: "No. I lied to you. I betrayed you and played a role in the deaths of people you love. I'm surprised that was the first time you tried. And I doubt it will be the last you try."

Poppy: "You're ... not mad?"

He lifted a brow as his gaze met mine

Casteel: "Are you not still mad at me?"

Poppy: "Yes. I'm still angry."

Casteel; "And I'm still angry that you stabbed me in the chest. Lift your arms."

I lifted my arms

Casteel: "You didn't miss my heart, by the way. You got it pretty good."

He pulled his shirt over my head, tugging it down over my stiff arms

Casteel: "That's why it took a minute to catch up to you."

Poppy: "It took more than a minute."

One side of his lip kicked up as he tugged the other sleeve down

Casteel: "It took a couple of minutes."

Kieran: "Penellaphe."

Jerking my head up, I blinked rapidly

Kieran: "Good."

He was kneeling on the other side of the tub - the tub that I was completely naked in!

Kieran: "I was worried you were dead."

Poppy: "What?"

I threw a hand over my chest and pressed my legs together as much as I possibly could.

Poppy: "What are you doing in here?"

Kieran: "I called out your name, and you didn't answer. You've been in here for a while. I thought I should make sure you were alive."

Poppy: "Of course I'm alive. Why wouldn't I be?"

One eyebrow rose

Kieran: "You are surrounded by people who tried to murder you, in case you've forgotten."

Poppy: "I haven't forgotten. I doubt any of them are hiding in the bathwater!"

Kieran: "One can never be too sure."

Kieran's gaze dropped, moving down my arms to the curve of my stomach and thigh.

Kieran: "Among my people, scars are revered. They are never hidden."

Poppy: "Among my people, it's not polite to stare at a naked woman in a bathtub."

Kieran: "Your people sound incredibly boring."

Poppy: "Get out!"

Kieran chuckled

Kieran: "The Prince wouldn't want you sitting in cold, dirty water. You should probably finish your bath."

Poppy: "I don't care what he wants."

Kieran: "You should. Because he wants you even though he knows better, even though he knows it will end in yet another tragedy."

Casteel: "I'm relieved to hear that you care. I'm perfectly fine."

Poppy: "I don't care."

Casteel: "Lies."

Poppy: "Why are you here? To take me back to the cell?"

Casteel: "I should. If anyone other than Kieran knew you had stabbed me, I would be expected to."

Poppy: "Then why don't you?"

Casteel: "I don't want to."

Casteel: "You don't have options when it comes to your own well-being and your own foolish stubbornness."

Poppy: "Excuse me?"

Casteel: "I wont let you weaken or starve yourself because you're mad. And I do get it. I get why you're upset. Why you want to fight me on everything, every step of the way. I want you to, Princess. I enjoy it."

Poppy: "You're twisted."

Casteel: "Never said I wasn't. So, fight me. Argue with me. See if you can actually injure me next time. I dare you."

Poppy: "You're ... there's something wrong with you."

Casteel: "That may be true, but what is also true, is the fact that I will not let you put yourself in unnecessary danger."

Poppy: "Maybe you've forgotten, but I can handle myself."

Casteel: "I haven't forgotten. I won't ever prevent you from lifting a sword to protect your life or those you care about. But I won't let you shove that sword through your own heart to prove a point."

Casteel: "Did you know that an Atlantian can only marry if both halves are standing in the soil of their land? It's the only way for them to become whole. We go home to marry, my Princess."


Check out the rest of the Blood and Ash series

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