Home > A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire (Blood and Ash #2)(6)

A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire (Blood and Ash #2)(6)
Author: Jennifer L. Armentrout

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.

   
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