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A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire: 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?”


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