Home > The ​Crown of Gilded Bones (Blood and Ash #3)(7)

The ​Crown of Gilded Bones (Blood and Ash #3)(7)
Author: Jennifer L. Armentrout

“Two days. Maybe three.”

Good gods.

I didn’t even want to think about the damage done to my head that would have knocked me out for that long. But the others hadn’t been struck as many times as Casteel. Kieran would likely be awake now. So would Jasper. And maybe the other—

“I know what you’re thinking,” the male cut into my thoughts. “That the wolven will feel your call. That they will come for you. No, they won’t. The bones nullify the Primal notam. They also negate any and all abilities, reducing you to what you are at your very core. Mortal.”

Was that why I felt nothing from this man? That wasn’t exactly what I’d wanted to hear. Panic threatened to dig its claws into me once more, but the shadowy form moved closer, stepping into the glow of the torch.

My entire body went rigid at the sight of the man dressed in all black. Every part of me rebelled at what I saw. It didn’t make sense. It was impossible. But I recognized the dark, buzzed hair, the hard-set jaw, and thin lips. Now I knew why his laugh sounded so familiar.

It was the commander of the Royal Guard.

Commander Jansen.

“You’re dead,” I breathed, staring up at him as he drifted between the pillars.

A dark eyebrow rose. “Whatever gave you that impression, Penellaphe?”

“The Ascended discovered that Hawke wasn’t who he said he was shortly after we left.” What Lord Chaney had told me in that carriage resurfaced. “They said the Descenters infiltrated the highest ranks of the Royal Guard.”

“They did, but they didn’t catch me.” One side of Jansen’s lips curved up as he strolled forward, his fingers skating over the side of a coffin.

Confusion swirled through me as I stared up at him. “I…I don’t understand. You’re a Descenter? You support the Prince—?”

“I support Atlantia.” He moved fast, crossing the distance in less time than it took a heart to beat. He knelt so we were at eye-level. “I am no Descenter.”

“Really?” His superspeed sort of gave that away. “Then what are you?”

The tight-lipped smile grew. His features sharpened, narrowed, and then he changed. Shrinking in height and width, the new body drowned in the clothing Jansen had been wearing. His skin became tanner and smoother. In an instant, his hair darkened to black and became longer, his eyes lightening and turning blue.

Within seconds, Beckett knelt before me.

Chapter 4

“Good gods,” I croaked, pressing away from this—this thing before me.

“Did I startle you?” Jansen/Beckett asked in the young wolven’s voice—coming from a face identical to Alastir’s great-nephew.

“You’re…you’re a changeling.”

He nodded.

I couldn’t stop staring at him, my brain unable to reconcile the knowledge that it was Jansen before me and not Beckett. “I…I didn’t know they could make themselves look like other people.”

“Most of the changeling bloodlines that are left are only able to shift into animal form or have…other skills,” he said. “I’m one of the very few who can do it and hold another’s form for long periods of time. Want to know how?”

I really did, but I said nothing.

Lucky for me, he was in a talkative mood. “All I need is something of them on me. A strand of hair is typically enough. The wolven are incredibly easy to replicate.”

No part of me could comprehend how anyone could be easy to replicate. “And would they…know that you’d done this? Taken on their appearance?”

Still smiling with Beckett’s boyish features, Jansen shook his head. “Not usually.”

I couldn’t even begin to process what it would be like to take on another’s identity or how someone could do so without the other’s permission. It felt like a great violation to me, especially if done to trick someone…

Realization swept through me in a wave of fresh anger. “It was you,” I seethed. “Not the real Beckett who led me into the Temple. You.”

“I’ve always known a clever girl lived behind the veil,” he remarked and then shifted once again into the features that belonged to him. It was a feat no less shocking than the time before.

The knowledge that it hadn’t been the young, playful wolven who’d led me into a trap brought forth a decent amount of relief. “How? How did no one know? How had I—?” I cut myself off. When I read his emotions in the Temple, they had felt just like Beckett’s.

“How did you or our Prince not know? Or even Kieran or Jasper? When changelings assume the identity of another, we take on their characteristics to the point where it’s extremely difficult to decipher the truth. Sometimes, it can even become hard for us to remember who we truly are.” A troubled look crept across his features but vanished so quickly that I wasn’t sure I’d seen it. “Of course, our Prince knew I was a changeling. As do many others. But, obviously, no one expected such a manipulation. No one was even looking for one.”

“Is Beckett okay?”

Jansen looked away. “He should have been. He was given a sleeping draft. That was the plan. For him to sleep long enough for me to take his place.”

My heart twisted. “But that didn’t happen?”

“No.” Jansen briefly closed his eyes. “I underestimated how much potion a young wolven needed to remain asleep. He woke when I entered his room.” He leaned back, scrubbing a hand down his face. “What happened was unfortunate.”

Bile crept up my throat. “You killed him?”

“It had to be done.”

Disbelief stole my breath as I stared at the changeling. “He was just a kid!”

“I know.” He lowered his hand. “It wasn’t something any of us enjoyed, but it had to be done.”

“It didn’t have to be done.” Tears crowded my eyes. “He was a kid, and he was innocent.”

“Innocents die all the time. You spent the entirety of your life in Solis. You know that to be true.”

“And that makes it okay to harm another?”

“No. But the end justified the means. The people of Atlantia will understand that,” Jansen countered. I couldn’t fathom how anyone could understand the murder of a child. “And why do you even care? You stood by and witnessed people being starved, abused, and given over to the Rite. You did nothing.”

“I didn’t know the truth then,” I spat, blinking back tears.

“And does that make it okay?”

“No. It doesn’t,” I said, and his eyes widened slightly. “But I didn’t always stand by and do nothing. I did what I could.”

“It wasn’t enough.”

“I didn’t say it was.” I drew in a ragged breath. “Why are you doing this?”

“It is my duty to stop any and all threats to Atlantia.”

A hoarse laugh of disbelief left me. “You know me. You’ve known me for years. You know I’m not a threat. I wouldn’t have done anything in that Temple if I hadn’t been threatened.”

“That is what you say now. One day, that will change,” he said. “Strange how small the world is, though. The whole purpose of assuming the role I did was to ensure an open pathway between Casteel and you. I spent years living a lie, all so he could capture the Maiden and use her to free his brother and gain back some of our stolen land. I had no idea what you were or even why you were the Maiden.”

“And him marrying me felt like a betrayal to you?” I surmised.

“Actually, no,” he replied, surprising me. “He could still accomplish what he intended. Probably would’ve been even better positioned to do so with you as his wife and not his captive.”

“Then why? Because I’m…because I have a drop of god’s blood in me?”

“A drop?” Jansen laughed. “Girl, I know what you did in that Temple. You need to give yourself more credit.”

My temper spiked, and I welcomed it, holding onto the rage. It was far better company than the welling grief. “I haven’t been a girl in years, so do not call me one.”

“My apologies.” He bowed his head. “I would be willing to bet you have far more than a drop. Your bloodline must’ve remained very clean for you to exhibit those kinds of godly abilities.” He moved suddenly, grasping my chin. I tried to pull free, but he held me in place. His dark eyes swept over my face as if he were searching for something. “Strange that I never saw it before. I should have.”

I reached up, gripping his forearm. The manacle on my wrist tightened in warning. “Remove your hand from me.”

“Or what, Maiden?” His smile kicked up a notch as my anger flared hotly. “There is nothing you can do to me that will not result in you harming yourself. I just said you were always clever. Don’t make a liar out of me.”

Helpless anger prodded at the deeply rooted desperation I felt at not being able to defend myself. “Let go of me!”

Jansen released his grip and rose suddenly. He glanced over at the pile of bones beside me as I dragged in deep breaths. My heart pounded way too fast. “I knew it wouldn’t be wise for me to linger in Masadonia,” he said. “So, I left shortly after you did. I met up with Alastir on the road to Spessa’s End. It was then that I learned what you were.”

My fingernails pressed into my palms. “So, Alastir knew what I was?”

“Not when he first saw you.” He nudged something with his toe, kicking it across the dusty floor. It was the dismembered hand. My stomach roiled. “I remained hidden until it was time and then assumed Beckett’s identity.”

“You stood by when we were nearly overtaken by the Ascended armies. People died, and you just stood by?” Scorn dripped from my tone.

His gaze snapped back to mine. “I’m not a coward.”

“You said it.” My smile was thin. “Not me.”

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