Home > The ​Crown of Gilded Bones (Blood and Ash #3)(12)

The ​Crown of Gilded Bones (Blood and Ash #3)(12)
Author: Jennifer L. Armentrout

All because I was King Malec’s descendant.

A part of me still couldn’t believe any of it—the old part of me that hadn’t been able to understand what about me, beyond a gift I hadn’t been allowed to use or being born in a caul, had made me special enough to be the Chosen. Blessed. The Maiden. And that part reminded me of when I was a child and used to hide behind Queen Ileana’s throne instead of going to my room at night because the darkness had scared me. It was the same part that had enabled me to spend afternoons with my brother, pretending that my parents were out walking together in the garden instead of being gone forever. It felt incredibly young and naïve.

But I wasn’t that little girl anymore. I wasn’t the young Maiden. The blood in me explained the gifts I’d been born with and why I’d become the Maiden—how my gift had grown, and why my skin glowed. It also explained the disbelief and agony I’d felt from Queen Eloana. She’d known exactly who I descended from, and it must have made her sick to think that her son had married the descendant of a man who’d repeatedly betrayed her and nearly destroyed their kingdom in the process.

How could she ever welcome me, knowing the truth?

Could Casteel ever look upon me the same?

My chest twisted painfully as I stared at the food. Would I even get the chance to see Casteel again? Seconds turned into minutes as I tried to keep my thoughts from straying toward what Alastir planned. I couldn’t let myself dwell too long on it—to think about the worst-case scenario playing out in my mind. If I did, the panic I’d been fighting off would seize control of me.

I wouldn’t let Alastir’s plan succeed. I couldn’t. I needed to either escape or fight back the second I could. Which meant, I needed my strength. I had to eat.

Reaching out carefully, I broke off a piece of the cheese and gingerly tasted it. There was little flavor to it. The section of bread I tried next was most definitely stale, but I quickly ate both and then drank the water, trying not to think about the gritty taste or how dirty it likely was.

Once I finished, I turned my attention to the spear. I wouldn’t be able to hide it, even if I were able to free it from the poor soul beside me. But if I could break off the blade, I might have a better chance. Drawing in a breath that felt…oddly heavy, I inched my hand toward the spear and stopped suddenly. It wasn’t the bindings. They hadn’t tightened.

I swallowed, and my heart skipped a beat. A strange, sweetness coated the back of my throat and my…my lips tingled. I pressed the tips of my fingers to them and didn’t think I felt the pressure. I tried to swallow again, but it felt weird—as if the mechanics of my throat had slowed.

The food. The gritty taste of the water.

Oh, gods.

That sweet taste. The sleeping drafts the Healers made in Masadonia had a sugary-sweet aftertaste. There was a reason I’d refused the drafts, no matter how little sleep I got. They were powerful and rendered you completely unconscious for hours and hours—leaving you entirely helpless.

They’d drugged me.

This was how Alastir planned to move me. How he planned to deliver me to the Ascended. He’d be able to remove the bindings safely when I was unconscious. And when I came to…

There was a good chance I’d be in the Ascended’s hands once again.

And Alastir’s plan would likely come to fruition because I would never allow the Ascended to use me for anything.

Anger at them—and myself—exploded within me and then quickly gave way to panic as I staggered to the wall. I barely felt the pain of the bindings tightening. Desperate, I reached for the spear. If I could get that blade, I wouldn’t be weaponless, even with the damn bone and root bindings. I tried to seize it, but my arm wouldn’t lift. It didn’t feel as if it were a part of me any longer. My legs became heavy, numb.

“No, no,” I whispered, fighting the insidious warmth seeping into my muscles, my skin.

But it was no use.

Numbness swept through my body, deadening my eyelids. There was no pain when the nothingness came for me this time. I simply fell asleep, knowing I would wake to a nightmare.

Chapter 6

Twinkling lights blanketed the ceiling of the crypt when I opened my eyes. My lips parted as I dragged in deep gulps of…fresh, clean air. That wasn’t the ceiling or lights I saw. They were stars. I was outside, no longer in the crypt.

“Dammit,” a man to my right swore. “She’s awake.”

My body immediately reacted to the sound of the voice. I reared up—

Pressure pressed down all over my body, followed by a sharp, stinging wave. My jaw clamped shut against the cry of pain as my head lifted off a flat, hard surface. Ivory bones entwined with thick, dark roots lay across me from my chest to my knees.

“It’s okay. She’s not getting free.”

My gaze swept in the direction of the voice. Commander Jansen stood to my left, a silver wolven mask hiding his face. He angled his body toward mine. Beyond him, I saw the crumbling remains of a stone wall bathed in moonlight, and then nothing but darkness beyond. “Where am I?” I rasped.

His head tilted to the side, his eyes nothing but shadows inside the thin slits of the mask. “You’re in what remains of the city of Irelone. This,” he answered as he swept his arms out widely, “is what is left of the once-great Castle Bauer.”

Irelone? That sounded vaguely familiar. It took a couple of moments for my mind to clear enough for the old maps with their faded ink, created before the War of Two Kings, to form. Irelone… Yes, I knew that name. It had been a port city to the north and east of where Carsodonia was now. The city had fallen before Pompay during the war. Good gods, that meant…

I was in the Wastelands.

My heart thundered in my chest. How long had I been asleep? Hours or days? I didn’t know where the Crypt of the Forgotten Ones had been in the Skotos Mountains. For all I knew, the crypts could’ve existed in the foothills of the mountains, a half a day’s ride north of the outer reaches of the Wastelands.

Throat dry, I lifted just my head to look around. Dozens of the so-called Protectors stood in the center of what could’ve been the castle’s Great Hall at one time and around the edges of the decaying structure, all hidden behind gleaming bronze masks. It was the kind of sight conjured from the depths of the darkest nightmares. Was Alastir among them?

In the darkness beyond the ruins, a single torch flared to life. “They’re here,” a masked man announced. “The Ascended.”

Air halted in my throat as several more torches caught fire, casting an orange glow over heaps of fallen stone and earth that had refused to house new life in the hundreds of years that had passed. Shadows formed, and I heard the sounds of hooves and wheels on packed earth.

“Believe it or not,”—Jansen drew closer, placing his hands on the stone as he leaned over me—“I wouldn’t wish your fate upon anyone.”

My gaze shot to his as anger coated my insides. “I’d be more worried about your fate than mine.”

Jansen stared down at me for a moment and then reached into the pocket of his pants. “You know,” he said, lifting his hand now filled with a bundle of cloth, “at least you knew when to keep your mouth shut when you were the Maiden.”

“I’m going—” He shoved the wad of fabric into my mouth, securing the ends behind my head and effectively silencing my threats. Nausea churned at the taste and the spike of helplessness I felt.

He arched a brow at me before pushing away from the stone slab, his hand falling to the hilt of a short sword. His shoulders tensed, and I wished I could see his expression. He turned from me as others drew swords. “Keep alert,” he barked. “But do not engage.”

The masked men moved out of my line of sight as the creak of carriage wheels ceased. I couldn’t allow myself to think beyond the next second, that very moment, as I watched the torches drift forward, thrust into the ground around the broken remains of Castle Bauer. My heart pounded. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I twisted my head to the side, hoping to dislodge the bindings, but they didn’t move.

Panic swelled as a dark shadow drifted closer to what remained of the steps, then climbed them slowly. A cloaked figure in black and red stood in the middle of the half-fallen walls. I stopped moving, but my heart continued throwing itself against my chest.

This couldn’t be happening.

Two pale hands lifted the hood of the robe, lowering the material to reveal a woman I didn’t recognize, one with hair the color of sunlight, swept back from a face that was all cold angles. She strode forward, the heels of her shoes clicking on the stone. She never once spared a single look at the others. She seemed utterly unafraid of their presence and the swords they held. Her entire focus was on me, and I wondered how either side could share the same space as the other. Could these pretend Protectors’ need to be rid of me, and the desire for the Ascended to reclaim me, be that great? And would the Ascended take me and not attempt to capture all the Atlantians standing among them, all so full of the blood they craved so desperately?

Gods, a sick part of me hoped this was a trap. That the Ascended would turn on them. It would be so very fitting.

I forced myself to show no reaction as the Ascended passed my legs, her lip curling as she flicked her gaze over the bone and root chains. “What is this?” she demanded coolly.

“It’s to keep her…calm,” Jansen answered from somewhere behind me. “You will need to remove them. The gag? Well, she was being quite rude. I suggest you keep that one on for as long as possible.”

Bastard, I seethed silently, watching the Ascended as she came closer.

“She appears quite calm now.” She stared down at me, at my scars, with eyes that swallowed the night. A breath shuddered out of her. “It is her,” she called out to whoever remained in the darkness as she reached for me. Cold fingers brushed my brow, causing me to flinch. Blood-red lips formed a smile. “It will all be okay now, Maiden. We will take you home. Where you belong. Your Queen will be so very—”

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