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I cant wait to read this! Blood and Ash was an awesome read and i waited eagerly for this book. I am overflowing with excitement!!!
07 November 2020 (21:52)
lmaaaaoooo ion know what this was huhuhuh help me
08 April 2021 (09:59)
These series are mind blowing!
29 April 2021 (16:16)
Damn this book is better and more amazing than the first one, the plot twists, the plot, the storytelling and the romance. When you enjoyed the first book, you will also enjoyed this one----even more.
06 May 2021 (20:40)
Please tell me there is more to come.The story is just so captivating ,so beautiful ...I'm lost for words.
04 June 2021 (21:23)
A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire A Blood and Ash Novel By Jennifer L. Armentrout Copyright 2020 Jennifer L. Armentrout ISBN: 978-1-952457-10-4 Published by Blue Box Press, an imprint of Evil Eye Concepts, Incorporated All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination and are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or establishments is solely coincidental. Book Description A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire A Blood and Ash Novel Jennifer L. Armentrout From #1 New York Times bestselling author Jennifer L. Armentrout comes a new novel in her Blood and Ash series… Is Love Stronger Than Vengeance? A Betrayal… Everything Poppy has ever believed in is a lie, including the man she was falling in love with. Thrust among those who see her as a symbol of a monstrous kingdom, she barely knows who she is without the veil of the Maiden. But what she does know is that nothing is as dangerous to her as him. The Dark One. The Prince of Atlantia. He wants her to fight him, and that’s one order she’s more than happy to obey. He may have taken her, but he will never have her. A Choice…. Casteel Da’Neer is known by many names and many faces. His lies are as seductive as his touch. His truths as sensual as his bite. Poppy knows better than to trust him. He needs her alive, healthy, and whole to achieve his goals. But he’s the only way for her to get what she wants—to find her brother Ian and see for herself if he has become a soulless Ascended. Working with Casteel instead of against him presents its own risks. He still tempts her with every breath, offering up all she’s ever wanted. Casteel has plans for her. Ones that could expose her to unimaginable pleasure ; and unfathomable pain. Plans that will force her to look beyond everything she thought she knew about herself—about him. Plans that could bind their lives together in unexpected ways that neither kingdom is prepared for. And she’s far too reckless, too hungry, to resist the temptation. A Secret… But unrest has grown in Atlantia as they await the return of their Prince. Whispers of war have become stronger, and Poppy is at the very heart of it all. The King wants to use her to send a message. The Descenters want her dead. The wolven are growing more unpredictable. And as her abilities to feel pain and emotion begin to grow and strengthen, the Atlantians start to fear her. Dark secrets are at play, ones steeped in the blood-drenched sins of two kingdoms that would do anything to keep the truth hidden. But when the earth begins to shake, and the skies start to bleed, it may already be too late. About Jennifer L. Armentrout # 1 New York Times and International Bestselling author Jennifer lives in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. All the rumors you’ve heard about her state aren’t true. When she’s not hard at work writing. she spends her time reading, watching really bad zombie movies, pretending to write, and hanging out with her husband, their retired K-9 police dog Diesel, a crazy Border Jack puppy named Apollo, six judgmental alpacas, four fluffy sheep, and two goats. Her dreams of becoming an author started in algebra class, where she spent most of her time writing short stories…which explains her dismal grades in math. Jennifer writes young adult paranormal, science fiction, fantasy, and contemporary romance. She is published with Tor Teen, Entangled Teen and Brazen, Disney/Hyperion and Harlequin Teen. Her book Wicked has been optioned by Passionflix and slated to begin filming in late 2018. Her young adult romantic suspense novel DON’T LOOK BACK was a 2014 nominated Best in Young Adult Fiction by YALSA and her novel THE PROBLEM WITH FOREVER is a 2017 RITA Award winning novel. She also writes Adult and New Adult contemporary and paranormal romance under the name J. Lynn. She is published by Entangled Brazen and HarperCollins. Also From Jennifer L. Armentrout Click to purchase Fall With Me Dream of You (a 1001 Dark Nights Novel) Forever With You Fire In You By J. Lynn Wait for You Be With Me Stay With Me A Blood and Ash Novel From Blood and Ash A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire The Covenant Series Half-Blood Pure Deity Elixer Apollyon Sentinel The Lux Series Shadows Obsidian Onyx Opal Origin Opposition Oblivion The Origin Series The Darkest Star The Burning Shadow The Dark Elements Bitter Sweet Love White Hot Kiss Stone Cold Touch Every Last Breath The Harbinger Series Storm and Fury Rage and Ruin A Titan Novel The Return The Power The Struggle The Prophecy A Wicked Novel Wicked Torn Brave The Prince (a 1001 Dark Nights Novella) The King (a 1001 Dark Nights Novella) The Queen (a 1001 Dark Nights Novella) Gamble Brothers Series Tempting The Best Man Tempting The Player Tempting The Bodyguard A de Vincent Novel Series Moonlight Sins Moonlight Seduction Moonlight Scandals Standalone Novels Obsession Frigid Scorched Cursed Don’t Look Back The Dead List Till Death The Problem With Forever If There’s No Tomorrow Anthologies Meet Cute Life Inside My Mind Fifty First Times Acknowledgments from the Author This book wouldn’t be in your eager (hopefully) little hands if it weren’t for the amazing team at Blue Box Press and everyone who played a role in getting this book ready. Thank you Liz Berry, Jillian Stein, MJ Rose, Kimberly Guidroz, Chelle Olson, Jenn Watson, Kevan Lyon, and Stephanie Brown. A huge thank you to JLA Reviewers and JLAnders for being the most awesome, supportive and kind readers. Last but not least, thank you to you, the reader. None of this would be possible if it weren’t for you. Table of Contents Book Description About Jennifer L. Armentrout Also from Jennifer L. Armentrout Acknowledgments from the Author Dedication Map Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty Chapter Twenty-One Chapter Twenty-Two Chapter Twenty-Three Chapter Twenty-Four Chapter Twenty-Five Chapter Twenty-Six Chapter Twenty-Seven Chapter Twenty-Eight Chapter Twenty-Nine Chapter Thirty Chapter Thirty-One Chapter Thirty-Two Chapter Thirty-Three Chapter Thirty-Four Chapter Thirty-Five Chapter Thirty-Six Chapter Thirty-Seven Chapter Thirty-Eight Chapter Thirty-Nine Chapter Forty Chapter Forty-One Chapter Forty-Two Chapter Forty-Three Chapter Forty-Four Chapter Forty-Five Discover More Jennifer L. Armentrout Discover 1001 Dark Nights Collection Seven Discover the World of Blue Box Press & 1001 Dark Nights Special Thanks Dedication To you, the reader Map To see a full color version of the world map, click here! Chapter 1 “We go home to marry, my Princess.” As in get married? To him? Suddenly, I thought of all those girlish fantasies I’d had before I learned who I was and what was expected of me—daydreams given life because of the love my parents had for one another. Never once did those little-girl dreams include a proposal that wasn’t remotely an actual proposal. Nor did they incorporate it being announced at a table full of strangers, half of which wanted me dead. And those dreams surely hadn’t involved what had to be the kingdom’s worst—and possibly most insane—non-proposal of marriage to a man currently holding me captive. Perhaps I had some sort of ailment of the brain. Maybe I was experiencing hallucinations brought on by stress. After all, there had been so much painful death to process. His betrayal to deal with. And I’d just learned I was descended from Atlantia, a kingdom I’d been raised to believe was the source of all the evil and tragedy in the land. Stress-induced hallucinations seemed a far more believable reason than what was actually happening. All I could do was stare at the larger hand holding my much smaller one. His skin was slightly darker than mine as if kissed by the sun. Years of wielding a sword with deadly, graceful precision had left his palms callused. He lifted my hand to an indecently well-formed and full mouth. To lips that were somehow soft yet unrelentingly firm. Lips that had spun beautiful words into the air and whispered heated, wicked promises against my bare skin. Lips that had paid homage to the many scars that riddled my body and face. Lips that had also spoken blood-soaked lies. Now, that mouth was pressed against the top of my hand in a gesture that I would’ve cherished for an eternity and thought exquisitely tender just days or weeks ago. Simple things like hand-holding or chaste kisses had been forbidden to me. As were being wanted or feeling desire. I had long since accepted that I would never experience those things. Until him. I lifted my gaze from our joined hands, from that mouth that was already curving up on one side, hinting at a dimple in the right cheek, and from the slowly parting lips that revealed just a hint of fatally sharp fangs. His hair brushed the nape of his neck and toppled over his forehead, and the thick strands were such a deep shade of black, it often shone blue in the sunlight. With high and angular cheekbones, a straight nose, and a proud, carved jaw, he often reminded me of the large, graceful cave cat I had seen once in Queen Ileana’s palace as a child. Beautiful, but in the way all wild, dangerous predators were. My heart stammered as my eyes locked onto his, orbs a shade of stunning, cool amber. I knew I was staring at Hawke— Coldness poured into my chest as I stopped myself. That wasn’t his name. I didn’t even know if Hawke Flynn was merely a fictitious persona, or if the name belonged to someone who had most likely been slaughtered for their identity. I feared it was the latter. Because Hawke had supposedly come from Carsodonia, the capital of the Kingdom of Solis, with glowing recommendations. But then again, the Commander of the guards in Masadonia had turned out to be a supporter of the Atlantians, a Descenter, so that too could’ve been a lie. Either way, the guard who’d pledged to protect me with his sword and with his life wasn’t real. Nor was the man who had seen me for who I was and not just what I was. The Maiden. The Chosen. Hawke Flynn was nothing more than a figment of fantasy, just like those little-girl dreams had been. Who held my hand now was the reality: Prince Casteel Da’Neer. His Highness. The Dark One. Above our joined hands, the curve of his lips grew. The dimple in his right cheek was apparent. It was rare that the left dimple made an appearance. Only genuine smiles brought that out. “Poppy,” he said, and every muscle in my body knotted. I wasn’t sure if it was the use of my nickname or the deep, musical lilt of his voice that made me tense. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so speechless.” The teasing glimmer in his eyes was what snapped me out of my dumbfounded silence. I pulled my hand free, hating the knowledge that if he had wanted to stop me from pulling away, he could’ve easily done so. “Marriage?” I found my voice, if only to say the one word. A glint of challenge filled his gaze. “Yes. Marriage. You do know what that means?” My hand curled into a fist against the wooden table as I held his stare. “Why would you think I wouldn’t know what marriage is?” “Well,” he replied idly, picking up a chalice. “You repeated the word as if it confused you. And as the Maiden, I know you’ve been…sheltered.” Under my braid, the nape of my neck started to burn, likely turning as red as my hair in the sunlight. “Being the Maiden or sheltered does not equal stupidity,” I snapped, aware of the hush that had settled over the table and the entire banquet hall—a room currently full of Descenters and Atlantians. All who would kill and die for the man I openly glared at. “No.” Casteel’s gaze flickered over me as he took a sip. “It does not.” “But I am confused.” Against my fist, I felt something sharp. With a quick glance down, I saw what I had been too shocked and disturbed to notice earlier. A knife. One with a wooden handle and a thick, serrated blade, designed to cut through meat. It wasn’t my wolven bone dagger. I hadn’t seen that since the stables, and it cut me deep to think I may never see it again. That dagger was more than a weapon. Vikter had gifted it to me on my sixteenth birthday, and it was my only connection to the man who was more than a guard. He had assumed the role my father should’ve occupied if he’d lived. Now, the dagger was missing, and Vikter was gone. Killed by those who supported Casteel. And based on the fact that I’d shoved the last dagger I’d gotten my hands on deep into Casteel’s heart, I doubted the wolven-bone blade would be returned anytime soon. The meat knife was a weapon, though. It would have to do. “What is there to be confused about?” He placed the chalice down, and I thought his eyes warmed like they did when he was amused or…or feeling a certain way I refused to acknowledge. My gift swelled against my skin, demanding I use it to sense his emotions as I flattened my hand over the meat knife. I managed to shut off my abilities before they formed a connection to him. I didn’t want to know if he was amused or…or whatever at the moment. I didn’t care what he was feeling. “As I said,” the Prince continued, dragging one long finger over the rim of his cup. “A marriage can only occur between two Atlantians if both halves are standing on the soil of their home, Princess.” Princess. That annoying and yet somewhat slightly endearing pet name of his had just taken on a whole different meaning. One that begged the question: How much had he known from the beginning? He’d admitted to recognizing who I was the night at the Red Pearl, but he claimed he didn’t know that I was part Atlantian until he bit me. Tasted my blood. The mark on my neck tingled, and I resisted the urge to touch it. How much of that nickname was a coincidence? I wasn’t sure why, but if that was yet another lie, it mattered. “Which part confuses you?” he asked, amber eyes unblinking. “It’s the part where you think I would actually marry you.” Across from me, I heard the choked sound of someone trying to conceal laughter. I flicked a look at the handsome face of a tawny-brown-skinned, pale-blue-eyed wolven—a creature able to take the form of a wolf as easily as they could assume the form of a mortal. Until a few days ago, I’d believed that the wolven were extinct, killed off during the War of Two Kings some four hundred years ago. But that was yet another lie. Kieran was just one of many, very alive wolven—several of which sat at this table. “I don’t think that you will,” Casteel replied, thick lashes lowering halfway. “I know.” Disbelief thundered through me. “Maybe I wasn’t clear, so I will try to be more explicit now. I don’t know why you’d think, in a million years, that I’d marry you.” I tipped toward him. “Is that clear enough?” “Crystal,” he responded, eyes heating to a warm honey hue, but there didn’t seem to be any anger in his stare or tone. There was something else entirely. A look that made me think of warm skin and how those rough, callused palms had felt against my cheek, gliding over my belly and thighs, grazing much more intimate places. The dimple in his cheek deepened. “But we shall see, won’t we?” A hot, prickly feeling spread over my skin. “We shall see absolutely nothing.” “I can be very convincing.” “Not that convincing,” I retorted, and he gave a noncommittal murmur that sent a bolt of pure rage streaking through me. “Have you lost your mind?” A deep belly laugh came from farther down the table. I knew it wasn’t the fair-haired Delano. That wolven appeared as if he’d just witnessed a massacre, and his neck was next on the line. Maybe I should be afraid, because wolven weren’t easily scared, especially not Delano. He’d defended me when Jericho and the others came for me, although he and the Atlantian, Naill—who currently sat on one side of him—had been sorely outnumbered. The Dark One wasn’t someone most would dare to anger. He was an Atlantian, deadly, fast, and impossibly strong. Hard to wound, let alone kill. And as I learned just recently, capable of using compulsion to enforce his will upon others. He’d killed one of the most powerful Dukes in all of Solis, thrusting the very cane Teerman often used on me through the Ascended’s heart. But I felt no fear. I was too furious to be scared. Sitting on Delano’s left was the source of the laugh I’d just heard. It had come from the mountain of a man, the one called Elijah. I didn’t think he was a wolven. It was the eyes. All the wolven had the same wintry blue eyes. Elijah’s were hazel, a color more gold than brown. I wasn’t the only one staring at him now. Several gazes had landed on him. I took the opportunity to slide the meat knife off the table, hiding it under the slit in my tunic. “What?” Elijah stroked his dark beard as he met the many stares. “She’s asking what most of us are thinking.” Delano blinked and then slowly looked at Elijah. Casteel said nothing. His tight-lipped smile spoke volumes as the piercing weight of his gaze moved from me to farther down the table. Fingers stilling on his beard, Elijah cleared his throat. “I thought the plan—” “What you think is irrelevant.” The Prince silenced the older man. “You mean the one where you thought to use me as bait to free your brother?” I demanded. “Or has that magically changed in the last couple of hours?” A muscle popped along Casteel’s jaw as the full focus of his attention returned to me. “You should eat.” I almost lost it right then and threw my scavenged knife at him. “I’m not hungry.” His gaze dipped to my plate. “You’ve barely eaten.” “Well, you see, I don’t have much of an appetite, Your Highness.” His jaw tightened as his eyes met mine and held. The golden hue of his irises had chilled. Goosebumps prickled my skin as the air around us seemed to thicken and become charged, filling the room. There hadn’t been an ounce of respect in my tone. Had I pushed Casteel too far? If so, I didn’t care. My fingers tightened around the handle of the blade. I was no longer the Maiden, bound to rules that prevented me from having a say in matters of my life. I would no longer be controlled. I could and would push harder than this. “She asks a very valid question,” someone said from the end of the table. It was a man with short, dark hair. He looked no older than Kieran, who, like Casteel, appeared to be in his early twenties. But Casteel was over two hundred years old. The man could be even older, for all I knew. “Has the plan to use her to free Prince Malik changed?” he asked. Casteel said nothing as he continued watching me, but the utter stillness that crept into his features was a far better warning than any words could be. “I am not trying to question your decisions,” the man stated. “I’m attempting to understand them.” “What do you need help understanding, Landell?” Casteel leaned back in the chair, his hands resting lightly on the arms. The way he sat as if completely at ease, raised the tiny hairs all over my body. A tense moment of silence descended, and then Landell said, “We have all followed you here from Atlantia. We stayed in this archaic, cesspool of a kingdom, pretending loyalty to a counterfeit King and Queen. Because, like you, we want nothing more than to free your brother. He is the rightful heir.” Casteel nodded for Landell to continue. “We have lost people—good people trying to infiltrate the Temples in Carsodonia,” he said. I tensed as images of the sprawling, midnight-hued structures formed in my mind. If all that Casteel had alleged was true, the purpose the Temples served was another lie. Third sons and daughters weren’t given over during the Rite to serve the gods. Instead, they were given to the Ascended—the vamprys—becoming nothing more than cattle. Much of the pile of lies I’d been fed my entire life was terrible, but that was possibly the worst of them all. And as revolting as what Casteel claimed was, I feared it was the truth. How could I deny it? The Ascended had told us that the Atlantians’ kiss was poisonous, cursing innocent mortals and turning them into these decaying shells of their former selves—vicious, blood-hungry monsters known as the Craven. But I knew that to be untrue. The Atlantians’ kiss wasn’t toxic. Neither was their bite. I was proof of both of those things. Casteel and I had shared many kisses. He’d given me his blood when I was mortally wounded. And, he’d bitten me. I did not turn. Just like I hadn’t turned when I was attacked by the Craven all those years ago. And it wasn’t like I hadn’t begun to develop suspicions about the Ascended before Casteel entered my life. He had only confirmed them. But was it all true? I had no way of knowing. My fingers ached from how tightly I held the knife. “We haven’t found any leads on where our Prince is being held, and too many will never return home to their families,” Landell continued, his voice steadying with each word, thickening with anger I didn’t need my gift to sense. “But now we have something. Finally, something that could be used to gain knowledge of your brother’s whereabouts—to possibly free him, keep him from being forced to make new vamprys, living through the kind of hell you’re all too familiar with. Instead, we’re going home?” I knew of some of that hell. I’d seen the numerous scars all over Casteel’s body, the brand in the shape of the Royal Crest on his upper thigh, just below his hip. But Casteel said nothing in return. No one spoke. There was no movement, not from those at the table or the ones near the hearth at the back of the banquet hall. Landell wasn’t finished. “The ones hanging on the walls of the hall outside this very room deserve to be there. Not just because they disobeyed your orders, but because if they had succeeded in killing the Maiden, we would’ve lost the one thing we could use. They put the heir in jeopardy for vengeance. That is why I believe they deserve their fate, even though some of them were friends of mine—friends of many at this table.” I will kill them. That was Casteel’s promise when he saw the wounds the others had left behind. And he had. Mostly. Casteel had staked those Landell spoke of to the wall. All were dead now, except for Jericho. The ringleader was barely alive, suffering a slow, agonizing death to serve as a reminder that I would not be harmed. “You can use her,” Landell fumed. “She is the Queen’s favorite—the Chosen. If they were ever to release your brother, it would be for her. Instead, we’re going home for you to marry?” He jerked his chin toward me. “Her?” The distaste in that word stung, but I’d been on the receiving end of far more cutting remarks from Duke Teerman to show even a flicker of reaction. Across from me, Kieran’s head snapped in Landell’s direction. “If you have any intelligence, you would stop speaking. Now.” “Let him continue,” Casteel interjected. “He has a right to speak his mind. Just as Elijah did. But it seems as if Landell has more to say than Elijah, and I would like to hear it.” Elijah’s lips pursed, and he emitted a low whistle, eyes widening as he leaned back in his chair, dropping an arm over the back of Delano’s seat. “Hey, sometimes I speak and laugh when I shouldn’t. But whatever you plan or want, I’m with you, Casteel.” “Are you serious?” Landell’s head whipped toward Elijah as he shot to his feet. “You’re okay with giving up on Prince Malik? You’re fine with Casteel bringing her back home, to our lands, and marrying her, making her the Princess? An honor meant to bring all of our people together, not to divide them.” Casteel moved slightly, his hands sliding off the arms of his chair. “As I just said, I’m with Casteel.” Elijah lifted his gaze to Landell. “Always, and no matter what he chooses. And if he chooses her, then we all do.” This was…that was entirely ridiculous, the whole argument. It didn’t matter. And I didn’t care why there was a need to bring the people of Atlantia together because Casteel and I weren’t getting married. I didn’t get a chance to point that out, though. “I do not choose her. I will never choose her,” Landell swore, the skin of his face thinning and darkening as he scanned those who sat around him. Wolven. He was a wolven, I realized. I adjusted my grip on the knife and tensed. “All of you know this. The wolven will not accept her. It doesn’t matter if she has Atlantian blood or not. Neither will the people of Atlantia welcome her. She’s an outsider raised and cared for by those who forced us back into a land that is quickly growing too small and useless.” He stared down the table, looking at Casteel. “She didn’t even accept you, and we’re supposed to believe that she will bond with you?” Bond? I glanced at Kieran and then Casteel. I knew that some wolven were bonded to Atlantians of a particular class, and it took no leap of logic to assume that Casteel being a Prince was just that. The two of them seemed the closest out of everyone I’d seen Casteel interact with, but I knew of no other bond. However, again, it was irrelevant since we were not marrying. “Are we supposed to believe that she is worthy of being our Princess when she flat-out denies you in front of your people while reeking of the Ascended?” Landell demanded. My nose wrinkled. I didn’t smell like…like the Ascended. Did I? “When she refuses to choose you?” “What matters is that I choose her,” Casteel spoke, and my stupid, stupid heart skipped a beat, even though I did not choose him. “And that is all that matters.” The wolven’s lips peeled back, and my eyes widened at the sight of his canines elongating. “You do this, and it will be the downfall of our kingdom,” he snarled. “I will not choose that scarred-face bitch.” I flinched. I’d actually flinched, cheeks burning as if I’d been slapped across the face. I lifted my fingers, touching the uneven skin of my cheek before I realized what I was doing. Landell’s hand dropped to his hip. “I’ll see her dead before I stand by and allow this.” Seconds, mere heartbeats passed from when those words left Landell’s mouth, and the frenzied stir of air as it lifted wisps of hair at my temples. Casteel’s chair was empty. A shout, and then something heavy clanged off a dish. A chair toppled, and Landell…he was no longer standing by the table. His plate was no longer empty. A narrow dagger lay there, one designed for throwing. My wide eyes followed the blur that was Casteel as he pinned Landell to the wall, his forearm pressed into the wolven’s throat. Good gods, to be able to move that fast, that silently… “I just want you to know that I’m not even particularly upset about you questioning what I intend to do. How you’ve spoken to me doesn’t bother me. I’m not insecure enough to care about the opinions of little men.” Casteel’s face was inches from the wide-eyed wolven. “If that had been all, I would’ve overlooked it. If you had stopped after the first time you referenced her, I would’ve let you walk out of here with just your overinflated sense of self-worth. But then you insulted her. You made her flinch, and then you threatened her. I will not forget that.” “I—” Whatever Landell was about to say ended in a gurgle as Casteel’s right arm thrust forward. “And I will not be able to forgive you.” Casteel jerked his arm back, throwing something to the floor. It landed with a fleshy smack. My lips slowly parted as I realized what the lumpy, red mass was. Oh, my gods. A heart. It was an actual heart. Letting go of the wolven, Casteel stepped back, watching Landell slide down the wall, the wolven’s head lolling to the side. He turned to face the table, his right hand stained with blood and gore. “Does anyone else have anything they’d like to share?” Chapter 2 A chorus of denials echoed through the banquet hall, but none of the men had so much as twitched in their seats. Some of them were even chuckling, and I…I stared at the red coursing down the length of Casteel’s fingers, dripping onto the floor. Casteel leaned forward, plucking up Landell’s napkin. Strolling back to his chair, he idly wiped his hand clean. I watched him sit, my heart thumping as he turned to me, his gaze sheltered by a fringe of heavy lashes. “You probably think that was excessive,” he said, dropping the crumpled, blood-stained napkin onto his plate. “It wasn’t. No one speaks of you or to you like that and lives.” I stared at him. He sat back. “At least, I gave him a quick death. There is some dignity in that.” I had no idea what to say. I had no clue what to feel. All I could think was, oh my gods, he just ripped a wolven’s heart from his chest with his bare hand. The men who stood by the doors were picking up Landell when one of the men at the table asked, “So, when is the wedding?” Laughter greeted the question, and there was a hint of a smile on Casteel’s lips as he leaned toward me. “There is no side of you that is not as beautiful as the other half. Not a single inch isn’t stunning.” His lashes lifted, and the intensity in his stare held me captive. “That was true the first time I said it to you, and it is still the truth today and tomorrow.” My lips parted on a sharp inhale. I almost reached for my face again but stopped myself. Somehow, in the process of getting used to being seen without the veil of the Maiden, I’d forgotten about my scars—something I’d never thought possible. I wasn’t ashamed of them, hadn’t been for years. They were proof of my strength, of the horrific attack I had survived. But when I was unveiled in front of Casteel for the first time, I’d feared he would agree with what Duke Teerman had always said. What I knew most thought if they saw me unveiled or looked upon me now. That half of my face was a masterpiece, while the other was a nightmare. But when Hawke—Casteel—had seen the pale pink, jagged streak of skin that started below my hairline and sliced across the temple, ending at my nose, and the other that was shorter and higher, cutting across my forehead through my eyebrow, he had said that both halves were as beautiful as the whole. I’d believed him then. And I’d felt beautiful for the first time in my life, something that had also been forbidden to me. And gods help me, but I still believed him. “What he said was more than an insult. It was a threat that I will not tolerate,” Casteel finished, sitting back as he picked up his chalice with the same hand that had torn a heart free from its cage moments before. My gaze fell to where the dagger still lay on Landell’s plate. What the wolven would’ve attempted to do with that dagger shouldn’t have come as a shock. It wasn’t like I didn’t know that many of those at this table would rather see me sliced into pieces. I knew I wasn’t safe here, but all of them had seen the hall outside this room. They had to know what would happen if they disobeyed Casteel. Some unconscious part of me still underestimated their hatred of anything that reminded them of the Ascended. And that was me, even if I hadn’t done anything to them other than defend myself. Conversation picked back up around the table. Quiet discussions. Louder ones. Laughter. It was like nothing had happened, and that rattled me. But what left me wholly unsettled was what I couldn’t admit, even to myself. Kieran cleared his throat. “Would you like to return to your room, Penellaphe?” Pulled from my thoughts, it took me a moment to respond. “You mean my cell?” “It’s far more comfortable and not nearly as drafty as the dungeon,” he replied. “A cell is a cell, no matter how comfortable it is,” I told him. “I’m fairly certain this is the same conversation we had earlier,” Casteel commented. My gaze swiveled back to Casteel. “I’m fairly certain I don’t care.” “I’m also sure that we came to the conclusion that you have never been free, Princess,” Casteel tacked on. The truth of those words was still as brutal as it was when they had first been spoken. “I don’t believe you would even recognize freedom if it were ever offered to you.” “I know enough to recognize that’s not what you’re offering,” I shot back, fury returning in a hot, welcoming wave, warming my too-cold skin. A faint smile appeared on Casteel’s mouth, though it wasn’t his tight, calculating one. My anger gave way to confusion. Was he purposely baiting me? More than a little agitated, I focused on the wolven. “I would like to return to my more comfortable, not-nearly-as-drafty cell. I assume I won’t be allowed to walk there myself?” Kieran’s lips twitched, but his expression smoothed out pretty quickly, proving that he had the common sense not to smile or laugh. “You would assume correctly.” Without waiting for His Highness to give permission, I pushed back my chair. The legs screeched across the stone floor. Internally, I sighed. My motions weren’t as dignified as I wished, but I kept my head high as I started to turn. One of the men who’d been at the door and had retrieved Landell’s corpse stalked across the banquet hall, headed straight for the Prince. He bent low, whispering in Casteel’s ear as Kieran rose. Without waiting for Kieran, nor looking at the smear of blood across the wall, I took a step. Suddenly, Casteel was at my side, his hand on my arm. Not having heard him rise, I swallowed a gasp of surprise and moved to pull my arm free as the man who’d spoken to Casteel stepped away. “Don’t,” Casteel whispered, holding onto my arm. Something about his tone in that one word stopped me. I looked up at him. “We’re about to have company. Fight me all you want later. I’ll probably enjoy it. But do not fight me in front of him.” My eyes met his as knots formed in my stomach. Again, his tone struck a chord of unease within me as I looked at the door. Who was coming? His father? The King? Casteel shifted so that he stood partially in front of me as a group of men filled the doorway. The sandy-haired man who walked in the center, tall and broad of shoulder, snagged my attention. I inherently knew that this was who Casteel had spoken of. The man, his wealth of blond hair brushing a square, hard jaw, appeared much older than Casteel. If he was mortal, which I doubted, I would’ve pegged him for someone on the verge of approaching mid-life. I didn’t think this man was Casteel’s father. He looked nothing like him, but I supposed that didn’t mean much. He strode toward us. The heavy cloak he wore, dusted with melting snow, parted, revealing a black tunic with two gold lines overlapping across his chest. As he drew closer, I somehow managed not to gasp. It wasn’t the pale blue eyes I associated with the wolven. It was the deep groove in the center of his forehead as if someone had attempted to slice open his head. I, of all people, knew better than to be surprised by scars. Shame crept up my throat as I averted my gaze. It wasn’t that the injury was ugly. The man was handsome in a rugged way that reminded me of a lion. It was just a shock to see someone, a possible wolven, scarred. Vaguely, I became aware of Kieran coming to stand at my back. “What in the gods’ teeth is happening here?” the man demanded. The breath I had taken got stuck as my gaze flew back to the man. His voice…it sounded so familiar to me. “Or do I even want to know?” he continued, his brows lifting as he saw the blood on the wall. The others who’d traveled with them moved among those at the table, all except one. He was shorter than Casteel and more compact. His hair was a reddish-brown mop of waves, and his eyes were a brilliant gold like Casteel’s. This one remained close to the man, and his gaze seemed to track every breath I took. “I’ve just been doing a little redecorating,” Casteel replied, and the wolven chuckled as the two males clasped hands. I felt a catch in my chest again, a tug at my heart. His laugh…it was raspy and rough as if his throat weren’t sure what to do with the emotion. Like Vikter’s. My heart squeezed. That was why his voice and laugh sounded familiar to me. “I didn’t expect you to be here so soon, Alastir,” Casteel said. “We rode hard to get ahead of the storm headed this way.” Alastir’s gaze slid past the Prince to me. Curiosity marked his features, though not the flush of anger or the coldness of distaste. “So, this is her.” “It is.” Every muscle in my body tensed as Alastir’s gaze lowered. His head tilted, and it took me a moment to realize that he was staring at my neck— The damn bite! My braid had slipped over my shoulder, revealing my throat. The skin around Alastir’s mouth tightened as his gaze shifted back to Casteel. “I feel like things have occurred since we last spoke.” Had Alastir been with Casteel’s father when he left New Haven to speak with him? If so, where was the King? “Many things have changed,” Casteel answered. “Including my relationship with Penellaphe.” “Penellaphe?” Alastir repeated in surprise, one eyebrow arching. “Named after the Goddess of Wisdom, Loyalty, and Duty?” Since I very well couldn’t stand there and ignore him, I nodded. A faint smile appeared. “A fitting name for the Maiden, I imagine.” “You wouldn’t think that if you knew her,” Casteel replied, and I clamped my lips shut against a retort. “Then I cannot wait to do so.” Alastir’s smile tightened. “You will have to wait a little longer.” Casteel glanced back. His eyes briefly met mine, but it was long enough for me to know that he wished for me not to challenge what he said next. “Penellaphe was just about to retire.” Kieran stepped closer, placing his hand on my lower back to urge me forward. I squelched the urge to refuse, having enough sense to realize that Casteel didn’t want me around this man, and there was probably a good reason for that. I walked forward, well aware of several gazes following me. I’d made it halfway to the door when I heard Alastir ask, “Is it wise to allow the Maiden to roam freely?” I stopped— “Keep walking,” Kieran said under his breath. The handle of the knife I’d stolen dug into my palm. “It wouldn’t be wise to refuse her to do so,” Casteel said with a laugh, and it took everything in me not to throw the blade at him. Kieran kept pace with me as we passed the men who’d returned to standing sentry at the large wooden doors. Striding forward, I told myself not to look up, but my eyes lifted anyway as I passed the impaled body of Mr. Tulis. Pressure clamped down on my chest. He and his wife had come before Duke and Duchess Teerman, pleading to keep their third-born son, their only remaining child, who had been destined to go into service to the gods during the Rite. I’d felt their soul-deep pain and desperation, and even without my gift, I would’ve been affected. I’d planned to plead their case to the Queen. To do something, even if I weren’t successful. But they’d escaped. His entire family, his wife and infant son, given a chance at a new life. And he’d taken that opportunity to deliver what would’ve been the wound that killed me if it hadn’t been for Casteel. I wanted to scream. I wanted to yell, “why?” as I stared at the pale face and the dried blood that stained his chest. Why had he made that choice? He’d thrown everything away for a short-lived sense of retribution. Against me, who had done nothing to him or his family. None of that had mattered in the end. Now, his son would grow up without a father. But at least he would live. If he’d been given over in the Rite, he’d likely face a future worse than death. I had no idea how long the third sons and daughters survived within those Temples. Were they…fed upon immediately, even as infants? Small children? Third sons and daughters were given over annually, while the second sons and daughters were given to the Court between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. They lived—well, most of them. Some died at Court due to a sickness of the blood that took them during the night. Casteel had said the vamprys struggled to control their bloodlust, and I now doubted that there’d been an ailment that took them. Instead, it was like what had happened to Malessa Axton, who’d been found with a bite on her throat and her neck broken. It was never confirmed, but I knew Lord Mazeen, an Ascended, had killed her and left her body there, half exposed for anyone to find. At least Lord Mazeen will harm no one else, I told myself as a savage wave of satisfaction flowed through me. I easily recalled the look of shock etched onto his face when I chopped off his hand. I’d never thought I would be glad to kill anything but a Craven, but Lord Mazeen had proven that false. The violent joy came to a swift end as thoughts of the children crept back in. How could anyone, mortal or not, hurt young ones like that? And they had been doing it for years—hundreds of years. Realizing I’d come to a standstill, I started walking again. Chest heavy, I didn’t even bother to look at Jericho. I could tell by the pitiful whimpers coming from him that he was still alive. I believed everyone deserved dignity in death, even him, but I didn’t feel even one iota of empathy for what he’d brought upon himself. And Landell? Did I feel sorry for him? Not particularly. What did that say about me? I didn’t want to think of that so I asked, “Who was that man?” “His name is Alastir Davenwell. He’s the advisor to the King and Queen. A close family friend. More like an uncle to both Casteel and Malik,” Kieran said, and I jerked a little at the mention of Casteel’s brother. “Is that why Casteel didn’t want me around him? Because Alastir is an advisor to his parents? Or because he too will wish to chop me into pieces?” “Alastir is not a man prone to violence, despite the scar he carries. And while he knows his place with the Prince, he is loyal to the Queen and King. There are things that Casteel would not want to get back to his father or mother.” “Like the ridiculous marriage thing?” “Something like that.” Kieran shifted the conversation as we rounded the corner and entered the common area where the air was free of the stench of death. “Do you feel pity for the mortal? The one Cas helped escape the Ascended with his family?” Cas. Gods, that sounded like such a harmless nickname for such a dangerous man. I glanced at Kieran as we entered the narrow stairwell, noting that he was without his short sword and bow as he moved in front of me. But he was far from defenseless, considering what he was. I didn’t even bother to make a run for it. I knew I wouldn’t make it more than a foot. Wolven were incredibly fast. Kieran stopped without warning, spinning around so suddenly that I backed up, hitting the wall. He took a step toward me and dipped his head to mine. Every muscle locked as he inhaled deeply. Was he…? His head lowered, the bridge of his nose brushing my temple. He inhaled again. “What are you doing?” I jerked to the side, putting space between us. “Are you smelling me?” He straightened, his eyes narrowed. “You…smell different.” My brows lifted. “Okay? I don’t know what to tell you about that.” He didn’t seem to hear me as his eyes brightened. “You smell like…” “If you say I smell like Casteel again, I will punch you in the face,” I promised. “Hard.” “You do smell like him, but that’s not it.” He shook his head. “You smell of death.” “Wow. Thanks. But if I do, that is not my fault.” “You don’t understand.” Kieran eyed me for a moment longer and then turned, starting up the stairwell once more. No. I didn’t understand, and I really didn’t want to. I sniffed the sleeve of my tunic. It smelled like…roasted meat. “Earlier, you said you didn’t feel sympathy for any of them,” he said as I followed him. “That hasn’t changed,” I said. “They wanted me dead.” We stepped out of the stairwell and onto the covered walkway. Damp, cold air greeted us. “But I can’t help but feel pity for Mr. Tulis.” “You shouldn’t.” “Well, I do.” Shivering, I ducked my chin against the sharp gust of wind. “He was given a second chance. He threw it away. I feel pity for that choice and for his wife and son. And I guess I feel sorry for the families of any of them that are now on that wall.” Kieran fell into step beside me, taking the brunt of the wind. “The pity for the families is rightfully placed.” I stopped in surprise but said nothing. “What?” “Nothing,” I murmured. He issued a soft chuckle. “You think I’m not capable of compassion?” I glanced out over the yard below. A fine layer of snow shone brightly in the moonlight. Beyond, I saw nothing but the thick darkness of the encroaching woods. It was strange to look out and not see a Rise, the often-mountainous walls constructed from limestone and iron mined from the Elysium Peaks. The sleepy town of New Haven had one, but it was much smaller than what I was accustomed to in both Masadonia and Carsodonia. “I don’t know what you’re capable of,” I admitted, touching the banister’s cool wood as the wind picked up, lifting the shorter strands of my hair that had escaped my braid. “I hardly know anything about the wolven.” “My animal side doesn’t cancel out my mortal one,” he replied. “I’m not incapable of emotions.” My gaze cut to his. “I didn’t mean it like that. I just…” I trailed off. What had I meant? “I guess I did mean it like that. I’m sorry.” “You don’t need to apologize. It’s not like you’ve met many wolven,” he reasoned. “Yes, but that’s no excuse.” I gripped the railing with one hand. “There are a lot of different people from various places that I haven’t met and know nothing about. That doesn’t mean it’s okay to make assumptions.” “True,” he replied, and I almost cringed. How many times had I made assumptions about the Atlantian people? The Descenters? Biases were taught and learned. Maybe that wasn’t my fault, but that didn’t make it acceptable. But nobody at that table had even twitched in their seats as Casteel killed Landell. What did that say about them? “Is what happened tonight common?” “Which part? The marriage proposal or the open-heart surgery?” I shot Kieran a dark look. “Landell.” He studied me for a moment, and then his stare turned to the yard and the trees. “Not particularly. Even if you don’t see this yet or don’t want to, Cas is not a murderous tyrant. Honestly, it’s rare that any question him. Not because what he does or doesn’t do is always reasonable, but because he has no problem getting blood on his hands to assert his authority to get what he wants or to keep those he cares for safe.” There was a measure of relief, knowing Casteel didn’t rip hearts out of chests often. That was a good thing…I guessed. Although, I didn’t dare believe that I fell into the category of those he cared for. I was someone he needed. “What Cas did wasn’t about Landell questioning him.” Kieran angled his body toward me. “It wasn’t as simple as Landell not being able to understand how or why the Prince would choose you. It wasn’t even about him challenging Cas. Atlantians and wolven do anything to protect their home, and it was clear that Landell saw you as a threat to it,” Kieran told me, and I wondered what I had to do with Landell’s concern over their land growing too small and useless. “Cas was right to do what he did. If he hadn’t, Landell would’ve thrown that dagger he pulled. There will be others who will want to do the same thing.” Dread settled in my bones. “Was Landell another warning, then? How many warnings will there need to be?” “As many as are needed.” “And that doesn’t bother you? Some of them are your friends, right?” “If someone is idiot enough to insult and threaten you in front of Cas, it’s likely someone I wouldn’t have been particularly close to in the first place.” I almost laughed at that, but none of this was funny. “Everyone seems so full of emotion one moment and then absolutely apathetic the next.” “You haven’t tried to feel my emotions to know what I am feeling?” Kieran asked, delivering another dose of the unexpected. My gaze cut to him. Then I remembered that Kieran had been there when I used my gift to ease the pain of a dying guard. Still, it was bizarre to discuss this with anyone after spending so long forced to hide my abilities and never speak of them. “Cas told me that it started with you only being able to sense and ease pain. But he also said that changed.” I nodded. “It did change, only a little while ago. I don’t know why. I asked the Duchess about it because I thought maybe the first Maiden had been able to do the same.” Tension crept up my neck. Duchess Teerman had told me that the first Maiden’s gift had grown from sensing pain to reading emotions, and that the growth was because she was near her Ascension—like I was. Honestly, little was known about the first Maiden. Not even her name or what era she lived in. But the Duchess had insinuated that the Dark One had killed the first Maiden. Casteel. I shivered, and I didn’t think it had anything to do with the cold. “I haven’t tried to read your emotions. I try not to do that since it feels like an invasion to do so.” “Maybe it is a breach of privacy,” he agreed. “But it would also give you an upper hand when dealing with people.” It could. “Do you think he’s told others?” I asked. “Cas? No. The less others know about you, the better,” he answered, and my brows rose. “I don’t know of any Atlantian alive today who can experience what others feel.” “What does that mean?” “I’m not sure yet.” He started walking. “You coming? Or are you planning to stay out here and turn into an ice cube?” Sighing, I pulled myself away from the railing and went to where he stood in front of the door. He slipped a key from his pocket. “Your ability would especially help you when it comes to dealing with Cas.” “I have no intention of dealing with him.” A small smile appeared as he held open the door. I walked into the room, warmed by the heat of the fireplace. “But he has every intention of dealing with you.” Keeping the meat knife hidden under my tunic, I faced Kieran. “You mean he has every intention of using me.” His head cocked to the side. “That’s not what I said, Penellaphe.” “Why not? Do you think he really has given up on his brother? I don’t. He even said that I’m the Queen’s favorite,” I spat, the last two words acidic on my tongue. “This marriage thing has to be a part of the plan to get his brother back. Though why he didn’t just fess up to that at the table, I have no idea.” “I don’t think either of you knows the truth.” My spine stiffened. “What is that supposed to mean?” Kieran eyed me. He was quiet for so long, the unease within me tripled. “He told you the truth about the Ascended, didn’t he?” I wasn’t sure what any of this had to do with what he’d said, but I answered. “The Ascended are…vamprys, and everything I’ve been taught—that everyone in Solis believes—is a lie. The gods never Blessed King Jalara and Queen Ileana. The gods aren’t even—” “No, the gods are real. They are our gods, and they now rest,” he corrected. “You know the Ascended aren’t Blessed. They are as cursed as those bitten by a Craven are. Except they don’t decay. You know this, but do you understand?” His words were like a punch to the chest. “My brother—” I cut myself off. I didn’t need to talk about Ian. “I understand.” “And do you believe what Cas told you about the Ascended?” I looked at the fire, not answering. On one hand, I’d seen the evidence of what Casteel claimed—saw it branded on his skin. The Ascended had held Casteel captive before they took his brother. He’d been tortured, forced to do and take part in things I knew were utterly horrific based on the few small details he’d shared with me. What I felt when I thought about that was too heavy and noxious to be called disgust. And the ache in my heart was only the beginning, knowing that Casteel’s brother had been captured while freeing him. I could be furious with Casteel. I could even hate him. But that didn’t mean I didn’t want to scream for all the agony Casteel had experienced and for what his brother was surely suffering at this very moment. Did that mean that all Ascended were evil? Every last one of them, including my brother? I believed in what I saw proof of. But Casteel… I couldn’t trust more than half of what left his mouth, and it wasn’t like all Atlantians were utterly innocent. “If you do believe him, then what are you fighting to go back to?” Kieran asked, and my gaze flew to his. “Isn’t that what you’re doing by refusing Cas?” “Refusing to marry him has nothing to do with the Ascended, and everything to do with him,” I argued. “He lied to me about everything.” “He didn’t lie about everything.” “How do you know?” I challenged. “You know what? Don’t even answer that. It doesn’t matter. What does is that he plans to ransom me to the very people who did these horrible things to him and countless others. He plans to hand me over to the people who will most likely use me as a blood bag until I die. And even if, by some small chance, those plans have changed, they only did so because he realized I was part Atlantian. How is that any better? Why would I marry him?” “Why would he marry someone he plans to ransom off?” he queried. “Exactly!” Exasperated, I mashed my lips together as my focus shifted to the dark night beyond Kieran. “I don’t even know why we’re having this conversation.” He fell quiet again. “You push him like you have no fear, even after all you’ve seen?” “Should I fear him?” I asked. An incredibly stupid part of me almost didn’t want to know the answer. I’d trusted Hawke with my secrets, my desires, my body, my heart, my…life. I’d trusted him with everything, and nothing about him had been real. Not even the name Hawke. I’d stumbled and tripped for him, and I was afraid that I would keep falling despite his betrayal. That was what I was afraid of. “He has done things some might find unforgivable. Things that would haunt your sleep and leave you with nightmares long after you wake. He may hate being called the Dark One, but he has earned that name.” Kieran’s pale eyes met mine as a shiver curled its way down my spine. “But he’s the one thing in all the kingdoms that you, and only you, never have to fear.” Chapter 3 If Kieran’s words were meant to reassure me, they’d done the exact opposite. Pacing in front of the narrow window that was too small to escape from, I stared at the door. It had been locked from the outside. Just like a cell. My hands curled into fists as I made another pass in front of the window, anger mingling with the ever-present unease. It wasn’t what Kieran had said about Casteel earning the title of the Dark One. After how coldly and efficiently Casteel had killed Phillips, the guard who’d traveled with us from Masadonia, I already knew how he ended up with the nickname. Seeing him take out Landell was only further proof that he could—and would—kill without hesitation, but… I stopped suddenly. I could also kill without too much reluctance. Hadn’t I proven that with Lord Mazeen? When Jericho and the others came after me, I’d been prepared to kill. My gaze dropped to my hands. They too, were covered in blood, and I couldn’t say it was just from self-defense and the necessity to survive. Lord Mazeen deserved the ending he got. The Ascended had taken the same perverse joy the Duke had when it came time for my lessons, but he hadn’t attacked me when I turned on him. He’d insulted Vikter within moments of my guard and friend taking his last breath, and I didn’t feel even a smidgen of guilt for how I handled it. Even if he hadn’t been a vampry, he was still a monster. Maybe that was why I wasn’t shocked by what Casteel had done in the hall. And that quite possibly meant there was something wrong with me. Either way, it was what Kieran had said before he closed the door that made me angry. That Casteel was the only person I never had to fear. Kieran couldn’t be more wrong. I looked to the bed then, and my stomach dipped as if I were standing on the edge of a Rise. I could almost see us, our limbs entwined, and our bodies joined. An aching pulse rolled through me as I touched the bite mark on my neck. I shivered, then searched for a hint of disgust or even fear. I found none. He’d bitten me. And his bite had hurt, but only at first, and only for a few seconds. Then, it had felt…it had felt like being drowned in liquid heat. I had never felt something so intense in my life—hadn’t even known something like that was possible. But it wasn’t the effects of the bite that had led to what we’d done in the woods while the snow fell around and upon us. Our bodies had come together because of my attraction to him. Because how I felt for him had been greater than the truth of what and who he was. That was what drove this need to understand how he’d gotten to this point in his life and why he was doing what he was now. It was what fueled this desire to forget everything except for the bliss I’d felt while I was in his arms—his lips against my skin, and the peace and companionship I experienced when we were simply speaking to one another. But I wasn’t safe with him. Even if Casteel never raised a hand to me, I couldn’t forget what he was. What he’d caused. Vikter’s death may not have come at the tip of Casteel’s sword, but it had been the jagged blades of the people who followed him. And what of Loren and Dafina, the Ladies in Wait who had died during the attack at the Rite? They had been excited to Ascend, but I doubted they had known the truth. They hadn’t deserved to die like they had, murdered by Descenters who most likely didn’t even know their names. Again, it hadn’t been by Casteel’s hand, but the act was carried out in his name. How could I ever forgive him for any of that? And what kept hurting every time I thought about him was that he knew how badly I desired freedom. To have the ability to simply choose something—anything—for myself. Whether it be something as simple as walking where I wanted, unveiled, or speaking to whoever I wanted. To something as important as choosing who I shared my body with. He knew how much that meant to me, and he was trying to take it away. My heart twisted so painfully, it felt like someone had thrust a dagger deep into my chest. What, if anything, could he feel for me? My heart hurt deeply, as if I were grieving someone who had died. In a way, it was like that. I mourned the loss of Hawke, and it didn’t matter that he still lived and breathed. The Hawke I’d grown to trust, the man I’d shared my secrets with was gone. In his place was Prince Casteel Da’Neer, but I was still drawn to him. I still had that desire, need, and the… That was why he was the most dangerous person in any kingdom. Because no part of me doubted that he planned to use me to free his brother, returning me to the same Ascended who had held him captive for five decades and who now held his sibling. Pressure clamped down on my chest as I started pacing again, my thoughts shifting to Queen Ileana. My mother and the Queen had been close. So much so that when my mother chose my father over the Ascension, the Queen had allowed it. That was unheard of. Even rarer was how the Queen had cared for me after the Craven attack as if I were her own child. She had changed my bandages, sat with me when the nightmares of the attack came, and held me when all I wanted was to be hugged by my mother and father. She was the first to teach me not to be ashamed of the scars when others gasped and whispered behind their gloved hands. During those years, and before I was sent to Masadonia, she’d become more than a caregiver. And according to Casteel, she had been the one who branded him with the Royal Crest. I could easily remember her holding my hand as we traveled the Royal Gardens under the star-swept skies. Her patience and kindness had seemed never-ending, and yet the same hand that had held mine had sliced into Casteel’s skin. If what Casteel said was true, the same softly spoken voice that’d told me stories of my mother when she was a little girl, running through the same paths we’d walked, had also fed an entire kingdom nothing but blood-soaked lies. If Casteel were telling the truth, she’d used the people’s fear of the creatures she and others like her had created to control every single mortal. And if it all was true, then had the Queen known the whole time that I was half-Atlantian? Gods, that was almost too hard to process. But what of Ian? How could he have Ascended? Casteel had said that Ian had only been seen at night, and he believed that Ian had Ascended. Was it then like someone had suggested at the dinner? Was Ian my half-brother? I found it hard to believe that either of my parents would’ve had a child by someone else. Their love for each other was…well, it was the kind people only hoped to find for themselves. Or I could be entirely naïve. Because if Ian wasn’t their child, where did they get him? On the side of the road or something? Casteel would likely think that I was being foolish. Not that I cared what he thought. What the Queen knew and whether or not Ian was my half-brother, didn’t matter. My gaze tracked its way back to the door. I had to escape. Even with the warning Casteel had left hanging in the hall, it was evident that his people still saw me as the figurehead for the Ascended. I didn’t think Landell had said any lies when he spoke how my ancestry wouldn’t matter to the Atlantian people. I doubted the new arrivals would want anything different than the others. It had sounded like Alastir believed I should be in a cell instead of roaming around. As if I were allowed to do that. And once he brought me to Atlantia, if that was truly what Casteel planned, I would be surrounded by them, and in an even more precarious position. A small seedling of excitement took root in my stomach when I thought of Atlantia. I couldn’t help but want to see the kingdom. Probably because I’d hardly seen anything in my life. But to be able to look upon a place that wasn’t supposed to exist? That was something very few people would ever be able to do. Sighing, I shoved those feelings and thoughts aside. There would be no escape if Casteel managed to take me to Atlantia. Kieran had been wrong to assume that I was fighting Casteel to return to the Ascended. I was fighting him to return to my brother. I had to get to Ian, but it had to be on my terms. If I somehow managed to live long enough for Casteel to exchange me, I would be going straight from one cage to another. That could only be an option of last resort. So, I needed to get to Ian my way. And then what? I knew I wouldn’t be safe among the Ascended, but there were distant villages and towns I could try to carve out some kind of life in. Slowly, I lifted my hand to my face, my fingers finding the longest scar. It would be hard to hide, wouldn’t it? I would have to try, though. Because I refused to hide my face ever again. I couldn’t live like that. But that was a bridge I couldn’t even begin to cross until I figured out how to escape, make my way to the capital, and find Ian without getting caught or killed. We’d escape the Ascended together. Because even if Ian wasn’t my full-blooded brother and had gone through the Ascension, he couldn’t be like the rest. I refused to believe that. There was no way he would feed off the innocent and from children. There was no way that all Ascended were evil. Some had seemed rather normal. But if they didn’t feed off the third sons and daughters given to the gods during the Rite, then how did they survive? They needed blood. If not, they would eventually die from whatever mortal wounds had plagued them before the Ascension. Ian had been healthy as a horse, but he would’ve been drained of nearly all his blood before feeding from an Atlantian to Ascend. That would’ve killed him, and could still kill him if he didn’t feed. I wanted to see for myself what Ian had or had not turned into. I would do everything I could to help him. But if he had turned into a monster who preyed on others? On children? Then what? My heart squeezed, but I took a deep, slow breath. I knew what I would have to do. I would have to end it for him, and I would. Because Ian was a kind, gentle soul—always had been. He was a dreamer, destined to spin tales for the rest of his life. Not to become a monster. There was no way he would have wanted to become something so evil. Ending that nightmare for him would be the honorable thing to do. Even if it killed a part of me. My muscles tensed for action, and the room seemed three sizes smaller than before. I couldn’t spend one more moment in here with these thoughts, not being able to do a damn thing. I wasn’t sure if I could resist Casteel. If Casteel were right, I didn’t think I would survive my time in Atlantia. But I could find my brother. “And I will not spend one more fucking moment in this room,” I said out loud, stalking to the door. I leaned against it, listening for any sounds from outside. Hearing nothing, I rapped my knuckles on the wood. “Kieran?” Silence. Kieran wasn’t standing guard by the door. He likely thought I was safely tucked away in the room. It wasn’t like I could kick it down or climb out the stupid, pointless window. He probably thought there was no way out. And there wasn’t, if one didn’t have an older brother who had taught them how to pick locks. My lips curved into a smile as I spun around. I grabbed the meat knife off the table and took it back to the door. The blade was thick near the handle, but the edge was thin enough to fit into the lock. Kneeling, I slipped the point into the keyhole. Ian had taught me how to wiggle the knife around, applying pressure to the right and then the left, repeating until I heard the soft click. Before I requested to be moved to the older part of Castle Teerman that contained the old servants’ access, allowing me to move about unseen, I was often locked inside my bedchambers while Ian was allowed out for schooling, to play, and to do whatever. He’d never told me how he learned to pick a lock, but he spent many, many afternoons teaching me. “You have to be patient, Poppy,” he’d said, kneeling beside me as I jammed the knife into the keyhole. He’d laughed as he placed his hand over mine. “And gentle. You can’t come at it like a battering ram.” So, I was patient, and I was gentle. I wiggled the knife until I heard the soft snick of the point finding the tumbler. Grabbing the handle with my other hand, I exhaled deeply as the mechanism gave a little. I willed my hand to steady as I turned counterclockwise. The handle turned, and the door cracked open. Cold air seeped in as I peeked outside, peering at the empty walkway. A rush of euphoria hit me as I closed the door, scanning the room. The leather satchel was already packed with the meager items I’d brought with me. I went to grab it, but my gaze strayed to the bed, to the flannel nightgown left out by someone for me to wear. Snatching that off the bed, I started to shove it into the bag when I saw the thigh sheath lying on top. Quickly, I strapped that on and slipped the knife inside it, breathing through the pang I felt when I thought of my wolven bone and bloodstone dagger. Could it still be lying in the stables, lost under piles of straw and hay? I crammed the nightgown into the bag and then dropped the strap over my head and across my chest. Turning, I picked up the heavy, fur-lined cloak. It was a drab, dark brown, chosen when we left Masadonia since it wouldn’t catch the eye. Tossing it over my shoulders, my fingers were steady as I secured the buttons along the neck of the cloak, even though my heart pounded. I tugged on my gloves, wishing there were supplies in the room other than what I thought was liquor that sat on the table below the window. But I had gone without food before, usually when Duke Teerman was disappointed in something I did or didn’t do. I could go without again. I didn’t have much of a plan, and very limited knowledge of the surrounding areas, but I knew that traveling east would take me closer to the Skotos Mountains. Supposedly, Atlantia lay—and thrived—beyond the cloud-capped peaks and the fog-drenched valleys. If I headed through the town, I could follow the road back to Masadonia, but that would take me straight through the Blood Forest. If I went southwest, through the woods, I would eventually reach…what was the town? My nose wrinkled as I tried to recall one of the maps I’d seen in the city’s Atheneum. It had been old, the ink faded, but there had been a bridge drawn— Whitebridge. The town of Whitebridge was to the south, but I had no idea how far it would be on foot. Cursing my inexperience with horses, I sprang forward, opening the door. Walkway still clear, I slipped outside, closing the door behind me. I could lock it from the outside, but the time it would take to do that wasn’t worth the seconds it would take for someone to unlock the door. I hurried to the stairwell, sticking close to the wall. Stopping at the door, I listened for signs of life. When I heard nothing, I entered and raced down the steps, a surreal sense of deja vu hitting me as I reached the landing. I turned to the door that led outside, just like I had after stabbing Casteel. I really hoped this had a different outcome as I pulled up the hood of the cloak, then reached for the door, opening it slowly. A fine layer of snow crunched under my boot as I stepped out into the yard, the sound minuscule but sounding like a crack of thunder to my ears. Drawing in a deep breath, I reminded myself of all the times I’d snuck out onto the Rise without being seen, or moved throughout the castle and the city, never once being caught—until Casteel. I wasn’t going to think about that right now. I would think about how much I excelled at sneaking off, right under the noses of many. I could do this. My breath puffed out in small, misty clouds as I looked to the right, toward the stables. Could the wolven dagger really be in there? Could I really be stupid enough to check? Yes? The dagger meant…well, it meant everything to me. But Ian was more important—my freedom was more important. Going to the stables was too much of a risk. There’d be stable hands there, Descenters and possibly even Atlantians or wolven. I wasn’t that stupid. “Dammit,” I muttered and then pushed away from the wall. I ran for the shadows, the edges of my cloak streaming out behind me as I avoided the lit torches and their buttery glow. I didn’t even realize I’d made it to the forest until the silvery moonlight became fragmented, leaving just enough light for me to not be taken out by a tree. I didn’t slow. I ran faster than I ever had, keeping the pace to put as much distance between me and the keep as possible. When my boot snagged on an exposed root, bringing me down hard, my knees cracking off the frozen ground, I climbed back to my feet and ran some more, pushing past the pain and the cold, the damp air stinging my cheeks. I ran until the dull ache in my side turned into a stitch that forced me to slow. By then, I had no idea how far I’d traveled, but the trees were less crowded, and the snow-covered ground was untouched. Panting as I rubbed at my side, I forged forward. There couldn’t be more than a day’s ride between New Haven and Whitebridge. So, on foot? A day and a half, maybe two if I rested. Once I got there, I could find the next group who was traveling toward the capital. I could get lucky. Maybe there wouldn’t be a long wait. But if not? I would have to make do, though the real concern was if Whitebridge was as controlled by Descenters as New Haven was. If so, would they know who I was? I didn’t think so. Very few people knew I was scarred. But if Casteel got word out, just like the Ascended would once we didn’t show at our next outpost, I would be recognized. As far as I knew, we hadn’t planned to stop at Whitebridge, but whatever plans had been shared with the Duchess hadn’t been real. But could I use my identity? If I could prove to any of the mortals or possibly the Ascended that I was the Maiden, then I was sure I could secure travel to the capital, and then I could escape once we were inside. That would be a risk, but nothing about this was safe. Only the gods knew what lived in these woods. Knowing my luck, probably a cantankerous family of very large, very hungry bears. I’d never seen a bear before, though, so that would be kind of an amazing sight to behold right before it chewed off my face. But at least I doubted— The snapping of a branch stopped me as I climbed over a fallen tree. Looking down, I saw nothing but smooth snow and scattered pine needles. I held my breath, skin prickling as I strained to hear any other sounds. A cracking noise came again, this time closer, sending a rippling wave of wariness through me. Spinning around, I scanned the trees and their low-hanging branches, weighed down by the snow and ice. Was that the cause of that sound? Branches breaking? I turned in a full circle, slower this time, my eyes watering from the cold air. My head jerked to the right. I squinted at the thicker, deeper shadows where the moonlight didn’t quite penetrate. Reaching into the folds of my cloak, I pulled the meat knife out. I really hoped it wasn’t a bear. I didn’t want to have to kill the ursine. I almost laughed because I doubted the knife would do much against a bear. My muscles tensed as the shadow peeled away, slinking out from the gloom. I jerked back a step at the size of it, nearly as tall as a man, it’s tawny fur dusted with snow. My heart sank all the way to the tips of my freezing toes as the wolven prowled forward, its muscles bunching and rolling under the heavy fawn-colored fur. Kieran. “Dammit,” I growled, tasting fury in the back of my throat. His ears flattened as he climbed halfway onto the fallen tree, the claws of his front paws ripping into the wood. He dropped his chin, those pale blue eyes alert as we stared at each other. He was waiting, probably for me to run, but I knew that wouldn’t end well for me. The sense of hopelessness, of how unfair this was almost brought me to my knees. But I stood my ground. I would not give up. The handle of the knife dug into my gloved palm as my heart slammed against my ribs. “I’m not going back to the keep,” I told Kieran. “You will have to force me, and I will not make it easy for you. I will fight you.” “If you’re looking for a fight…” came a voice that sent a shiver down my spine and then over my skin. My head jerked in the direction of the sound. “You’ll fight me, Princess.” Chapter 4 Casteel, garbed in black, cut a striking figure silhouetted against the snow as he stalked forward. He came to stand beside Kieran, and I saw that he was armed with his two short swords, the handles a deep chrome, and the blades a ruby-hued bloodstone. The knife I held had never felt more pathetic than it did in that moment. “I suppose I will need to add lock picking to the ever-growing list of attributes,” Casteel drawled. “But what a very un-Maiden-like talent to have. Then again, I shouldn’t be that surprised. You have many un-Maiden-like talents, don’t you?” I said nothing as my heart threw itself around my chest. “Did you really think you’d escape me?” Casteel asked softly. Anger was sharper than any blade, far more welcomed than the hopelessness. “I almost did.” “Almost means nothing, Princess. You should know that.” I did. “I’m not walking back to that keep.” “Would you prefer that I carry you?” he offered. “I would prefer never to see your face again.” “Now, all three of us know that’s a lie.” Beside him, Kieran made a chuffing sound, and I considered chucking the knife at the wolven’s face. “I’ll make you a deal.” I stayed alert as he stepped over the fallen tree I had as if it were nothing more than a branch. “I’m not interested in any deals. I’m interested in my freedom.” “But you haven’t heard what I have to offer.” Reaching across his chest, he unstrapped one of the swords. “Fight me. You win, you can have your freedom.” He tossed the sword so it landed in front of me. Giving the weapon a quick glance, I laughed, the sound gritty against my skin. “As if he’ll let me cause you any harm.” I jerked my head to Kieran. Casteel tilted his head as the wolven’s ears perked. “Go back to the keep, Kieran. I want to make sure Poppy feels this is fair.” “Fair?” I seethed as Kieran hesitated for a moment and then pushed off the fallen tree. Twisting with all the grace of an animal, he loped off. “You’re an Atlantian. How will fighting you be fair?” “So you’re afraid to lose, then? Or afraid to fight me?” “Never,” I swore. He smirked as his eyes flared a heated ocher. “Then fight me. Remember what I said earlier? I want you to battle me. I look forward to it. I enjoy it. None of that was a lie. Engage me.” Of course, I remembered what he’d said, but there was no way I could beat him. I knew that. He knew that. However, there was no way I would stroll back to my cage either. Not when I’d spent my whole life in one. Keeping my eyes on him, I slid the knife back into its sheath and unhooked the cloak, letting it fall to the ground. I immediately missed the warmth, but the garment would be too much of a hazard. I removed the satchel, as well, dropping it by the outer garment. One of Casteel’s eyebrows rose. “Is that all you were planning to escape with? Just some clothes? No other supplies? No food or water?” “I couldn’t risk being caught shopping from the pantry, now could I?” Watching him, I bent and picked up the short sword, holding it with two hands. It was nowhere near as heavy as a broadsword, but even as lightweight as it was, I didn’t have the upper body strength of those who trained for years with them. Vikter had quickly erased the notion that I’d be able to wield either with one hand for any extended period. “More like this was a poorly thought-out plan, one borne of panic.” “It was not borne of panic.” Not exactly. Maybe a little. “I don’t believe that. You’re smarter than this, Poppy.” He unsheathed the other sword, sliding it free. “Too damn clever to run in the middle of the night with no food, no water, and nothing more than a paltry meat knife for protection.” I clamped my lips together as the heat of anger warmed my skin. “Do you know how long it will take to get to Whitebridge on foot? That’s where you were heading, wasn’t it? Did you think about how cold it gets in the middle of the night?” he demanded, a hint of anger hardening his tone. “At any point, did you stop and think about the things that could be in these woods?” I hadn’t. Not really. And he was right. My plan wasn’t all that well-thought-out. “Are you done talking yet? Or are you too afraid that I might actually beat you, so you won’t shut up?” “I like hearing myself talk.” “I’m sure you do.” The snow picked up, spiraling across the ground. “Ready?” he asked. “Are you?” “Always.” My gaze dipped to his sword. He held it pointed down, not at the ready. There was an insult there, whether he meant it or not. Blistering, smoky rage burned through me, spurring me into action. Charging him, I jabbed for his midsection, but Casteel was fast, deflecting my attack with a simple swipe of his sword. “You should be aiming for my neck, Princess. Or is the sword too heavy for you?” Lips thinning at the taunt, I swiped the sword high. He blocked it and struck out, not nearly as fast as he could, considering I could easily dance out of his reach. “You’ve forgotten a lot of what I said to you.” He prowled forward, cutting off my next blow with a swipe of his blade. “Maybe I chose to ignore whatever it was you had to say.” Eyes narrowing, I moved to the side. “Either way, I’ll do you a favor and repeat myself.” “Not necessary.” I tracked his movements as he circled me. He was far more skilled with the sword, just like Vikter had been when he trained with me. What had he taught me? Never forget one of the most important weapons: the element of surprise. Casteel stalked me, sword raised. “It seems entirely too necessary for me to repeat myself, considering your foolish behavior.” I would show him foolish behavior. “Fight me. Argue with me. I won’t stop you. But I will not allow you to put your life in jeopardy. And this? Tonight? Is the epitome of reckless, life-endangering behavior.” “You didn’t want me to argue with you earlier,” I reminded him, watching him carefully. “Because, as I said, you can fight me, but not when it jeopardizes your life.” “So, my life was in jeopardy with Alastir?” “I was working on ensuring that’s not the case. Yet here I am instead, making sure you haven’t gotten yourself killed.” “Only because you need me alive. Right? What good will a dead Maiden be as a bartering tool when it comes to freeing your brother?” His jaw flexed. “So, you’d rather get yourself killed?” “I’d rather be free,” I gritted out as the wind blew a strand of hair across my face. His upper lip curled, revealing one fang. “If you think running back to the Ascended will give you freedom, then I’ve overestimated your critical-thinking skills.” “If you think that’s what I’m planning, then I’ve overestimated yours,” I returned. Casteel made his move then, swinging hard. I suspected he planned to knock the sword free from my hand. If he landed the blow, he would’ve, but I darted into the sword’s path. Surprise widened his eyes as he drew the blade back like I knew he would. I was no good to him dead. I dipped under his arm and spun, kicking out. My boot connected with his stomach, pushing a sharp curse out of him. Straightening, I swung the blade around. Casteel shifted to the side, narrowly avoiding a slice to the chest. “Nice job,” he remarked, his voice free of mockery. “I didn’t ask for your thoughts.” His blade met mine in a clang of bloodstone. For several heated moments, that was the only sound in the woods as we thrust and parried. A fine sheen of sweat dampened my forehead despite the cold, and even though all the running caused my muscles to now weep in protest, I refused to give in. This wasn’t a fight to the death. In the back of my mind, I knew this wasn’t even a fight for freedom because no matter what deal Casteel made, he wouldn’t let me go. This was about who disarmed whom first. Who drew first blood. This was about driving out the pent-up rage and the festering sense of helplessness that had resided inside me for far longer than I was comfortable admitting. And maybe, just maybe, that was why Casteel was allowing this. The edge of my sword came close to nicking his left cheek as he swept the blade aside, the deflection sending an aching tremor up my arms. I was breathing fast while he showed no signs of tiring. He moved around me in a slow circle, his sword once again lowered. “Did I frighten you tonight? With Landell?” he asked. The arrogance marking his features slipped away, revealing someone else entirely. “Is that why you ran? Are you scared of me?” Startled by the question—by the way he almost looked afraid to hear my answer—I lowered the sword an inch. It was a mistake. Casteel struck as fast as a falcon with its prey in sight. He gripped my arm, spinning me so my back was to him. I tried to twist, but his arm clamped down on my waist, pulling me back against his chest. He pressed his fingers into my wrist, forcing my hand to spasm open. The sword fell to the snow. “I had to do it,” he said, dipping his head so his cheek pressed against mine. “No one, and I mean no one, speaks of you like that. Threatens you and lives.” My stupid, ridiculous heart skipped a beat. “That’s so sweet,” I said, and I felt his arm loosen around my waist. “But you cheated.” Jerking to the side, I slammed my elbow into his stomach as hard as I could. Casteel grunted, letting go. I whirled, striking fast instead of going for the sword he still held. My fist caught him in the corner of the mouth. The shock of pain flared in his eyes, and I spun, dipping low as I swung my leg around. He jumped, but I caught one leg, sweeping it out from underneath him. He went down, and a shout of victory burst from me as I popped to my feet and turned to him, breathing heavily. Casteel dropped his sword as he rose onto one elbow, dragging his hand over his mouth as he stared up at me. Red smeared the back of his hand, and a sense of violent delight surged through me. He’d disarmed me first, but I’d made him bleed. “Just so you know, I’d do it again—kill a thousand versions of Landell,” he said, dampening some of the satisfaction I felt as I glanced at the sword he’d dropped. “And I wouldn’t lose a moment of sleep over it. But you never need to fear me. Never.” My gaze flew to his. There was no smugness in his words, no teasing in his stare. “I don’t fear you.” His brows furrowed in confusion, and I seized that moment, shooting toward the sword. I wasn’t even exactly sure what I would do with it once I held it. I didn’t get to find out. Casteel snagged me around the waist, moving so silently that I hadn’t even heard him stand or come at me. He took me to the ground, twisting so he took the brunt of the fall. I ended up on top of him. “This reminds me of the stables,” he spoke to the back of my head, and whatever vulnerability had been in his voice moments before was now gone. He rolled me under him. “You were just as violent then as you are now.” His weight and the heat of his body against my back and the iciness of the snow at my front was a shock to my senses, stunning me. “Most wouldn’t find that such an attractive quality.” His voice was a warm whisper against my ear, invoking thoughts of tangled sheets and lush spice. There wasn’t an inch of space separating us. I could feel him along the length of my back, over the curve of my rear, and where one of his legs was shoved between mine. The decadent scent of him and the crispness of the snow filled every too-short, too-shallow breath as every part of my body became aware of his. “But…” he said, his mouth brushing my jaw, followed by the graze of his sharp teeth, sending an illicit thrill through me. Would he bite me? An aching heaviness filled my chest and glided lower, igniting a burst of disbelief. Did I…? Did I want him to do that? No. Of course, not. I couldn’t. His lips curved against my skin, against the healing bite mark. “I’m not most people.” “Most people aren’t as insane as you,” I said in a throaty voice that wasn’t mine. “That’s not a very nice thing to say.” He scraped harder with his sharp teeth, just below where he’d bitten me before, and I gasped as my body jerked. “And the truth is, you like my brand of insanity.” My blood pounded through me in a dizzying push. “I don’t like anything about you.” He laughed as his lips skimmed the side of my throat. “I love how you lie.” “I’m not lying,” I denied, wondering if he nudged my head to the side or if I had done that. It couldn’t have been me. “Hmm?” His lips hovered over the spot where my pulse fluttered wildly. “Your penchant for violence isn’t anything to be ashamed of. Not with me. Haven’t I told you it turns me on?” “One too many times,” I said, pushing off the ground and against Casteel. I felt him against me for a brief moment, felt the proof of his words. The tight throbbing response to the knowledge made me question my sanity. Casteel hadn’t expected the move, and he slipped to the side—or maybe he was just humoring me. Probably the latter. Either way, I scrambled to my knees and turned on him, throwing a wild punch. Casteel caught my hand. “Then I guess it would be repetitive of me to tell you how much you’re turning me on now?” “That and how incredibly disturbing it is.” He smiled up at me, his eyes twin golden flames. “I do so prefer hand-to-hand combat with you,” he said, catching my other wrist when I swung my fist down. “I like how close it brings us, Princess.” I shrieked my frustration—my irritation—at him. At myself. “There is something so wrong with you!” “Probably, but you know what?” He lifted his head off the ground. “That’s the part you like the most.” “There is nothing—” My response died on the tip of my tongue. Under his head, the snow seemed to be rising off the ground, but that…that wasn’t right. I lifted my gaze, seeing white, misty clouds rolling softly along the snow. Mist. “Do you see that? “What?” Casteel twisted his head. “Shit. Craven.” My heart stammered. “I didn’t think there were any Craven here.” “Why would you think there’s no Craven here?” Disbelief rang in his tone. “You’re in Solis. The Craven are everywhere.” “But there’s no Ascended here,” I argued as the mist thickened and spread. “How can there be Craven?” “There used to be Ascended here.” He sat up, bringing me closer. “They fed, and they fed a lot. Elijah and the others keep the Craven back, but with Whitebridge on the other side of these woods, and young, pretty girls blindly running through them in the middle of the night, it’s not like they don’t have a food source.” “I didn’t run into the woods blindly,” I snapped. “But you did, and you didn’t even realize there were Craven in these woods.” His voice hardened with hints of his earlier anger. “And all you had was a damn meat knife. Why did you run, Poppy?” A high-pitched shriek sent a bolt of dread through me. “Do you think now is a good time to have this conversation?” “Yes.” I shot him an incredulous stare. “No?” he said and then added a sigh. He rose as swiftly as the air, pulling me to my feet. Letting go of one of my arms, he bent and swiped up the sword he’d dropped. Another shrill cry sounded, followed by the sound of snapping tree limbs, freezing the blood in my veins. “I think—” Casteel hauled me against his chest without warning. Before I knew what he was even about, his mouth was on mine, stealing my breath and scattering my thoughts. The kiss was hot and raw, a clash of lips and teeth. I was reminded again of how, as Hawke, he’d held himself back when he kissed me, and how much he hid. It wasn’t just the fangs, it was also the power—his power. He lifted his mouth from mine, his eyes nearly luminous as he stared down into my wide ones. “But we will have that conversation later,” he promised, thrusting the sword into my hand. “Make me feel incompetent and kill more than me, Princess.” For a moment, I was rooted to the spot where I stood, the hilt of the sword cold against my palm. The Cravens’ screams jolted me from my stupor. I turned just as Casteel picked up the other sword. There was no time to think about anything, especially not the kiss. The mist grew, reaching our knees— They streamed out from a cluster of trees, a tide of sunken, gray bodies, bared fangs, and blazing, coal-red eyes. I’d never seen the Craven so…decayed. Their skulls were bare of hair, or only patchy, clumpy strings remained. Ribcages were all but exposed through the ragged clothing they wore. They were so emaciated, so withered away that I couldn’t help but feel pity for the mortals they used to be and the rotting corpses they’d become. I braced as they spilled over the fallen branches and boulders. Because even in their condition, they were fast, and they would be deadly in their bloodlust. The first to reach me may have been a woman once, given the faded yellow frock and the jeweled ring still on her finger. She screamed, reed-thin legs pumping as she reached for me with outstretched hands, her fingers ending in razor-sharp claws that could easily shred skin. I was proof of that. Her jaw hung open, exposing the two elongated canines along the top, and the two that jutted up from the bottom. Meeting her halfway, I thrust the sword into her chest. Rotten blood spurted, filling the air with putridness. If the blade weren’t bloodstone or a stake fashioned from the trees within the Blood Forest, she would’ve kept coming, tearing herself in two to get to me. I’d seen a Craven do that before. But the blade was bloodstone, and she was dead the moment the sword pierced her heart. Yanking the weapon free, I turned as she crumpled to the ground. Casteel had lopped off the head of a Craven, another surefire way of killing them. I wasn’t worried for him. I imagined it would take dozens of Craven, if not more, to overwhelm an Atlantian. Piercing the chest of another Craven, I couldn’t help but acknowledge that if there had been any semblance of truth behind the Ascended’s claims of the Dark One controlling the Craven, I doubted they’d be trying to rip his skin open right now. I already knew that though, having seen the Craven go after him in the Blood Forest before. This was just more evidence of the truth he spoke. And the lies I’d been told. Fury energized me as I sliced the bloodstone through the neck of a Craven, severing its head. I whirled from the gore, only to come face-to-face with ghastly, inhuman eyes, and snapping teeth. A moment of pure, unadulterated terror swamped me when my gaze locked with the Craven’s. It threatened to toss me back through the years to when I couldn’t keep my grip on my mother’s slippery, blood-soaked hand as the pain of the first claw and then the first bite turned into a never-ending nightmare. I wasn’t a small child now, incapable of defending myself. I wasn’t weak. I wasn’t prey. With a rage-filled shout I barely recognized as mine, I jabbed the blade through the Craven’s caved-in chest. The ungodly light went out in its eyes, the last vestiges of life. “Six,” Casteel called out. “You?” “Four,” I answered, calming myself as I almost wished I didn’t know what he’d meant. I darted under the arms of another Craven, driving the sword deep into its back. “Five.” “Shameful,” he teased, and I rolled my eyes. A wailing Craven jerked my head around. It raced toward me, and I stepped in, gripping the hilt with both hands as I shoved the blade through its chin. Tearing the sword free, I saw that the mist was all but gone now. Heart thumping as Casteel drove his blade through the last Craven, I lowered the sword. Taking a step back, I dragged in deep breaths. As he pulled his weapon free, his head swiveled in my direction. I didn’t know if he was looking to see if I was still standing or to make sure I wasn’t running away—or at him with the sword. He didn’t have to worry about the last two things. I was far too tired to run anywhere. “I was hoping to have the chance to rescue you.” Casteel bent, wiping his sword clean on the leg of the fallen’s pants. “But you didn’t need my help.” “Sorry to disappoint you.” My gaze shifted to the Craven before me. He wore no shirt, and that was how I could see the wound on his stomach, four deep indentations along his waist that were an ugly shade of purple, whereas the rest of his skin was the color of death. He hadn’t been fed upon by an Ascended. I wondered how old he’d been before a Craven’s bite had cursed him. What had he’d done for a living? Was he a guard or a Huntsman? A banker? A farmer? Did he have a family? Children who had been ripped apart in front of him? “Did I tell you that a Craven bit me?” “No,” he answered quietly. “Where?” “On my leg. Scarred as it is now, it looks like claws did it, but it was fangs,” I said, unsure why I was talking or thinking about this. “I never understood why I survived the bite while everyone else bitten was cursed. I’d planned to tell you about it after we were…together, but things happened. I didn’t say anything before because it was another thing I was told to keep silent about. The Queen told me it was because I was the Maiden, the one Chosen by the gods. That was why I didn’t turn. But I wasn’t chosen by anything or anyone.” I looked over at him. “It’s because I’m part Atlantian, isn’t it?” Slipping his sword into the scabbard as he walked toward me, he stopped beside me. “A Craven’s bite does not curse an Atlantian, but in enough numbers, and I suppose depending on if they managed to sever our heads, they could kill us.” “I think the reason I was never allowed to use my gift or tell anyone about the bites is because those things are Atlantian traits,” I said. “Maybe the Ascended were afraid that if people knew, someone would realize what that meant.” “Did anyone know?” he asked. “Vikter knew about the bites and my gift, but Tawny didn’t. My brother did—I mean, he does. He knows.” My brows knotted. “And the Teermans.” “There are Atlantians among the Descenters. If one of them had become aware of your gift or the bite, they would’ve known.” He lifted his hand to my cheek. I tensed as he smoothed his thumb down the side of my face to below the scar. “Craven blood,” he explained, wiping it away. His eyes met mine. “If I’d known those marks were bites, I would’ve realized what you were right away.” “Yeah, well….” I trailed off. “Would that have changed anything?” He didn’t answer for a long moment, and then he said, “No, Poppy. You being mortal or half-Atlantian wouldn’t have changed what was already happening.” “At least you’re honest.” An ache pierced my chest as I dragged my gaze from his and looked over the Craven. They’d come from the direction I’d been heading. I let out a heavy breath, knowing I wouldn’t have survived. There was no way I could have taken on a dozen Craven by myself. And only with a meat knife. I could admit that. I would’ve died tonight, and that wasn’t the kind of freedom I’d been looking for. For some reason, I thought about what he’d said to me before, during what felt like a different life. “Do you remember saying that you felt like you knew me when we met?” “I do.” “Was that a lie?” His features hardened and then smoothed out. “Was it a lie to you?” I shook my head no. “Why, then?” Thick lashes lowered. “I think it’s the Atlantian blood in us recognizing each other, showing the connection in a feeling that would probably easily be overlooked,” Casteel said as I felt his hand over mine, over the one holding the sword. He slipped it from my grasp, and I didn’t try to fight him. I watched as he cleaned the blade and then sheathed it next to the other. I met his gaze again. “I’m not handing over the meat knife.” “I wouldn’t expect you to.” A long, silent moment passed between us. “It’s time.” I knew what he meant. It was time to go back. And it was. The fight for this battle had left me. “I’ll try to escape again.” “I figured as much.” “I’m not going to stop fighting you.” “I wouldn’t want you to.” I thought that was weird. “And I’m not going to marry you.” “We’ll talk about that later.” “No, we won’t,” I said, starting toward my cloak with weary steps. I drew up short, cursing under my breath. “What?” Casteel followed. “There’s a dead Craven on my cloak.” I sighed heavily. “That was an especially inconvenient place for it to fall.” He nudged it off the cloak, but the damage was already done. I could see and smell the rotten blood staining the garment. “If I put that on, I will vomit,” I warned him. Picking up my satchel, he draped it over his shoulder as he rose. “You ran far. Farther than I thought you would get,” he said. Since he wasn’t looking, I allowed myself a small smile. “But I don’t think you’ll freeze to death on the way back. Then you’ll rest,” he said, facing me. “You’ll need all your strength for the battles ahead, Princess.” Chapter 5 The trip back to the keep was quiet and long. The wind had picked up, battering both of us. I’d begun to wonder if the gods had awakened, and this was their punishment. After all, if everything Casteel and the others had claimed was true, wasn’t I as counterfeit as the Queen and King of Solis? I’d done everything possible to handle how much the cold had begun to affect me, but it seemed impossible to hide anything from Casteel. Halfway through our journey, he ended up wrapping his arm around my shoulders, tucking me close to him as we forged forward, his body absorbing the brunt of the wind. Gods help me, but I didn’t resist. I chalked it up to being far too tired and cold. It had nothing to do with his lush scent masking the stench of the Craven. It didn’t have anything to do with how…good it felt to lean on someone, for them to take the worst of the wind, to carry their weight and mine. Nor did it have anything to do with the simple luxury of being allowed this close to someone without fear of reprimand or being found unworthy. Casteel was just…warm. When we finally made it back to the keep, there was no telling what time it was. But despite my failure, I welcomed the warmth of the room. I was a walking ice cube, unable to feel my nose, and unsure if it was even still attached. What I did not welcome was finding Kieran waiting inside the room, sitting in the corner chair by the fire. He looked up, one eyebrow raised. “What took you two so long? I was actually beginning to wonder if she beat you.” “You seem real concerned sitting there,” Casteel replied, ushering me toward the fireplace. I allowed it, as I was shivering so badly, I swore my bones were trembling. Kieran grinned. “I was beside myself with worry.” Casteel snorted. “We worked things out.” “No, we didn’t,” I gritted out between chattering teeth. Ignoring that, Casteel pried my clenched hands apart. “We ran into some Craven,” he told Kieran, tugging my damp gloves off. He dropped them onto the hearth. “A little over a dozen.” Kieran tilted his head at me as Casteel moved to the side, slipping off my satchel. “Wonder how that would’ve worked out for you with your meat knife.” “S-shut up,”