Home > A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire (Blood and Ash #2)

A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire (Blood and Ash #2)
Author: Jennifer L. Armentrout

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.

   
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