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A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire: Chapter 10


“What?” I repeated, this time barely above a whisper. Live a long life? Free? How was that possible if he got what he wanted—his brother’s freedom in exchange for my captivity?

“Will you let me try to make sense of it for you? I’m not asking you to trust me.”

“Trusting you is not something you have to worry about.”

He leaned back, the line of his jaw hardening. “Neither am I asking for your forgiveness, Penellaphe.”

The use of my formal name was jarring, sending my heart racing as it silenced all the bitter words rushing to the tip of my tongue.

“I know what I’ve done to you is not something that can be forgotten,” he continued. “All I’m asking is that you listen to what I have to say. And, hopefully, we will come to an agreement.”

I forced myself to nod. My need to understand what he was suggesting far outweighed my desire to argue with him. “I…I will listen.”

There was a slight widening of his eyes as if he expected me to refuse, and then his brow smoothed. “Remember when I left to speak with my father? Of course, you do,” he added after a moment. “That was when Jericho went after you.” The line of his jaw tightened. “My father hadn’t been able to show, sending Alastir in his place. There had been issues at home that he had to attend to.”

“Issues with the wolven and running out of land?” I surmised.

He nodded. “Not now, but soon, with the scarcity of the land, we will have a lack of food and other resources.”

A small part of me was surprised that he had answered the question. “When Alastir spoke to Kieran, it sounded like the people of New Haven would be leaving for Atlantia soon.”

“They will be.”

“Because you took me, and the Ascended will come here, looking for me.”

His gaze met mine. “There were plans to move them to Atlantia before I took you. My actions move up that timeframe, but the lack of land wouldn’t have been resolved before then.”

I thought that over. “So, the resources are about to be stretched even further.”

“They will be, but we’re not at the breaking point. Not yet,” he said. “Some want a more aggressive stance on alleviating our shortages. Many of the wolven are among that group, as many Atlantians are. Some of the conversations surrounding what should be done have grown heated, and that is why my father had to remain behind.”

Casteel rose then, walking to a small table under the window. He picked up a glass decanter full of some kind of amber-colored liquid that I suspected was liquor. “Would you like a drink? If I recall, you liked to sneak a whiskey or two with Tawny.”

Tawny.

I wanted to see her so badly, to know for sure that she was okay. But if she had been here…

I briefly closed my eyes, hoping Tawny was safe. More than ever, I was grateful that she wasn’t here. She could’ve become an issue dealt with in the same way Phillips and the other guards had been.

Drawing in a deep breath, I opened my eyes and asked, “Would you have killed her? Tawny? If she had traveled with me, would you have killed her?”

Casteel paused as he reached for a glass and then gripped it, pouring the whiskey until the glass was half full. “I don’t make a habit of killing innocent women.” He poured a second glass. “I would’ve done all that I could to ensure that it would not have been necessary, but her presence could’ve caused a complication that I wouldn’t wish to solve.”

Meaning that, if he had to, he would have. However, he had ensured that the situation hadn’t arisen by forbidding Tawny to travel with me. I didn’t know how to feel about that. What was right or wrong there? None of this meant that Tawny was entirely safe, though. She was destined to Ascend.

But would her or any of the Lords and Ladies in Wait Ascend now that I was missing? All the Ascensions in the kingdom were tied to mine. They still had Casteel’s brother, and they had to have another Atlantian to keep the Prince alive. Without me, they could proceed with the Ascension, unless…

Unless something had happened to Prince Malik? I swallowed hard as I shoved that question aside. It would do no good to ask such a thing, and I doubted Casteel hadn’t already considered that.

He walked the glass of whiskey over to me, and I took it even though I hadn’t asked for it. He moved to stand in front of the fireplace.

Sliding my thumb along the cool glass, I lifted it to my lips and took a small sip. The liquor burned the back of my throat, but the second drink was far smoother. I still had to clear my throat, though. Tawny and I would sneak drinks, and I had helped myself to a sip or five every once in a while, but not nearly enough for me to be used to it. “What do the issues your people are facing have to do with the whole marriage thing?”

“That’s what I’m getting to.” He turned toward me, propping one elbow against the mantel. “But first, my people will obey me to their deaths, both Atlantian and wolven.” He swirled the liquid around in his glass. “I hope between that and the actions I took to remind them that you are not to be harmed, it will go a long way in aiding them in making smart life choices. However, these are not normal circumstances. You are not a normal circumstance.”

“But I have done nothing to your people. I even tried to save one.”

“Many Descenters have done nothing to you, but you once viewed them all as evil and murderous,” he returned. “You once believed that all Atlantians were nothing more than monsters, and yet an Atlantian had never harmed you.”

I opened my mouth.

“It is the same, is it not? The Descenters and I represent death and destruction, although many of them have done nothing more than speak the truth.” His gaze drifted to the softly rolling flames. “You represent a dynasty that has subjugated and decimated their families, stolen from them the lives of the ones they love, their gods, and even their rightful heir. You did none of those things, yet that is what they see when they look upon you. They see the opportunity to take their pound of flesh.”

His words sat like stones in my liquor-warmed belly, and I couldn’t stop myself from saying, “I’m sorry.”

“For what?” His brows furrowed.

Wheezing from the huge gulp of the whiskey I swallowed, I blinked rapidly. “For what was done to your people,” I told him, my voice hoarse. “To your family. To you. I know I said that last night, and you didn’t want my apologies, but I need to say it again.”

Casteel stared at me. “I think you’ve drunk enough whiskey.” He paused. “Or maybe you should have more.”

I snorted. Like a little piglet. “What you’ve done doesn’t mean I can’t still feel compassion.” I started to take another drink but thought twice. Whatever kind of whiskey this was, it seemed to have a far quicker effect than anything I’d had before. “What you’ve done doesn’t mean I suddenly don’t know or care about what is right and wrong. What was done to your people is horrible.” My gaze dropped to the golden liquid in my glass, thinking of all those names on the walls. Who knew how many were never listed? “And…and what is being done to the people of Solis by the Ascended is horrible. It is all terrible.”

“That it is,” he said quietly.

“I guess I get why they hate me.” I thought of Mr. Tulis and took a larger drink. “I wish they didn’t.”

“As do I. Which is one of the reasons why we must marry.”

My gaze flew to his as I almost choked. “That’s the part I don’t understand. How you’ve come to that conclusion or why. How will that get your brother back? How will that help with limited resources? How will I be…free?”

There was a sharpness to his gaze then. “There’s a chance that some may still disobey my commands. Retribution can be a strong motivator. I, myself, love and enjoy the taste of revenge, as I know you do.”

I started to deny that, but he’d been there when I turned on Lord Mazeen. He would know that my denial would be a lie.

“I must return home to help ease the concerns of the others, where you will be surrounded by many who believe that anyone from the Kingdom of Solis is the lamaea in the flesh.”

Lamaea?”

“It’s a creature with fins for legs and tails for arms that hides under the beds of children, waiting until the lights are turned off. In the dark, it makes its way out from under the bed to then suck the life from them.”

“Oh.” My lip curled.

“It’s not real. Or at least I’ve never seen one, but as a small child, both my brother and I fought to keep the lights on at night,” he said, and I could see him as a precocious child, hiding under a blanket with wide, golden eyes.

My gaze snagged on how the muscles of his arm curled as he lifted the glass of whiskey to his lips.

Well, I could almost see him as such.

“Wait,” I said, confused. “How does it get out from under the bed if it has fins for legs and tails for arms?”

His lips twitched. “I believe my mother once said it wiggled and slid, like a snake.”

“That’s extremely disturbing.” My nose wrinkled as I glanced at the decanter of whiskey, wondering if I should have another glass. “I also don’t understand the tails for arms part.”

“No one does.” He looked away, dipping his chin as he dragged his fangs over his lower lip. My gaze—my entire being—seemed to be snagged on that act. A subtle shiver danced over my skin, and again.

“The point I’m trying to make is that even though I have ordered that no one is to harm you, you may still be in danger,” he explained. “For some, the idea of revenge is far greater than the fear of certain death.”

It took me a bit to pull my thoughts away from this lamaea creature and the glimpse of his fangs before I could focus on the point of this conversation. “And you believe that marrying me will remove me from danger?”

“Making sure that people know you are part Atlantian and will become my wife should make you off-limits. Especially to those who still have some fear of death and actual common sense.” He took a drink. “You will no longer be the Maiden in their eyes. You will be my fiancée. In their minds, you will become their Princess.”

I mulled over what he was saying, and I didn’t know if it was weariness tugging at me or the liquor dulling my emotions, but I was able to process what he was telling me without throwing my glass at him.

Which I was sure he appreciated.

And probably why he offered the drink in the first place.

“What are you thinking?” he asked.

“If I should have another glass of whiskey.”

“You can have whatever you want.”

Whatever I wanted? I looked at him, and the wealth of want rising inside of me told me that another glass of whiskey wouldn’t be wise.

Leaning over, I placed the empty tumbler on the table. “You’re marrying me to…protect me. Is that what you’re saying?”

“Yes, and no.”

While there was warmth in my stomach, my chest felt ice-cold. “What does that mean?”

“It means that marriage will provide you with safety, and it will also provide me with what I want and what my kingdom needs.”

“How will marrying me secure your brother’s release or give your kingdom what it needs?”

He took another drink. “What do you think those who rule over Solis value more? The ability to create more vamprys or to remain living?”

I jerked my head back at the question. “I would hope the latter.”

“I would hope so, too,” he agreed, and a moment passed. “My father believes that Malik is either dead or beyond saving.”

I sucked in a sharp breath. “He does?” When Casteel nodded, I didn’t know what to say. “That…that is terribly sad.”

The line of his jaw tightened. “It’s the reality of the situation, and I cannot blame him for it, but I don’t believe that Malik is lost. I refuse to believe it,” he stated adamantly, and I hoped for his sake that he was right. “Many Atlantians want retribution. Not just for what the Ascended have done to their Prince, but for the countless lives they have taken, and the land and future they stole from us. My father is quickly becoming one of those who wants retribution. And the thing is, Poppy, we can take our revenge. Atlantia rose from blood and ash. We are no longer a fallen kingdom. Not by any sense of the word. We haven’t been for a very long time. We are a kingdom of fire.”

The tiny hairs all over my body rose.

“We may have retreated after the war, but we did so for the sake of our people and the lives of the mortals caught between us, but that did not mean we suffered. That we have become less than the kingdom we once were. In the time since the war, we’ve rebuilt our numbers, and we’ve stretched far and wide from Atlantia, entrenching ourselves in every city within Solis, opening the eyes of those who are ready to see the truth.”

My heart rate picked up as I watched him lift the glass to his lips once more. “Many have spent the last four hundred years preparing to take back the kingdoms,” Casteel said, and I might’ve stopped breathing then. “They want to make war with Solis, and if they succeed in convincing my father, countless people will die. Atlantians. Wolven. Mortals. The land will once again be soaked with blood. But this time, there will be no retreat. If my father is convinced to make war, Atlantia will not fall. We will not stop until all the Ascended, and those who support them, are nothing but ash.”

“And…you don’t want this? To take back the kingdom and end the Ascended?” I could understand if he did, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Ian and Tawny, and all the innocent people who would be trampled in the process.

He eyed me over the rim of his glass. “Sometimes, bloodshed is the only option. If it comes to that, I will not hesitate to pick up my sword, but my brother will be one of the casualties. There is no way he will be kept alive if we go to war against them. I need to free him before that happens.”

“And you think your people will not want to go to war if he’s returned to you?” I asked.

“It’s not only about him, but if I am successful, I believe so. If not, at the very least, it may give mortals time to prepare. To either choose their side or escape as far as they can to wait it out. I’d rather not subject this land to another several-hundred-year war.”

He cared about the mortals? Even the ones who didn’t support Atlantia? That sounded like the Hawke I knew, but not the one who earned the name the Dark One. Unsettled, I smoothed my hands over the hem of my tunic. “How will marrying me accomplish any of this? I’m just the Maiden—and you and I both know that means nothing. The gods did not choose me—”

“But the people of Solis don’t know that,” he countered. “To them, you are the Maiden. You were Chosen by the gods. Just like you are the figurehead of the Ascended to Atlantia, you are a symbol of them to the people of Solis.” A half-grin formed. “And you are the Queen’s favorite.”

I shook my head. “All of that may be true, but I don’t see how that accomplishes anything.”

“You don’t give yourself enough credit, Princess. You’re incredibly important to the kingdom, to the people, but even more so, to the Ascended. You are the glue that holds all their lies together.”

I stiffened.

“Imagine what will happen when the people of Solis learn of you, the Chosen Maiden, marrying an Atlantian Prince and not turning into a Craven? Not even after a wicked kiss?” He grinned at me, one dimple appearing. My eyes narrowed. “That alone will open many eyes. And through our union, we would be able to gently introduce the mortals to a world where the Atlantian people are not defeated and scattered to the wind. But it would also show them that the gods must approve of such a union. After all, based on what the Ascended have told them for generations, if the gods don’t approve, they will seek vengeance. The people of Solis don’t know that the gods sleep. And the Ascended rely on them never discovering that truth.”

Nodding slowly, I thought about the people. “The people would think the gods approved.”

“And what do you think the people would do if the Ascended turned on the one Chosen by the gods? The very gods who, according to the Ascended, keep the people of Solis safe from the Craven? If the Ascended turn on you, the kingdom built on lies will begin to crack. It will take very little to shatter the whole damn thing. And if I remember anything about Queen Ileana, is that she’s a very clever woman. She knows this.”

Jarred by him saying her name when he did so very rarely, I saw the thinning of his lips. “But not clever enough to know that the Kingdom of Atlantia has grown to the point where it’s a considerable threat to their rule?”

“They know Atlantia still exists, and they’ve fortified their armies—their knights.”

An icy shiver wrapped its way down my spine at the mention of the Royal Knights. They were the army of Solis, heavily armored, exceptionally trained, and utterly imposing. I’d only ever seen them in the capital, and even then, it was rare to see a knight since they were camped in the foothills of the Elysium Peaks. Many had taken a vow of silence.

“But we have been very careful to keep how much we’ve grown and accomplished quiet, making sure that the Descenters are seen as a ragtag group of people supporting a lone Prince who is hell-bent on securing the throne. They’ve grown complacent over the many years.” He arched a brow as he took a drink. “And I do believe many scholars have said that the ego is the downfall of many, many powerful people. Even with the knights and the entirety of their guards standing behind them, it would not be enough for them to defeat us. This is where you come in. Or, more accurately, where we come in. Together. Married. Joined. You and me—”

“I get it,” I interrupted with a low growl.

The hue of his eyes deepened. “Even with all my considerable talent, I won’t get anywhere near them or the Temples. I tried, many times while I was in Carsodonia, but you…you are my way in.”

I exhaled heavily. “You think with me—by marrying me—you’ll be able to negotiate the release of your brother.”

“And bargain for the return of some of our land. I want everything east of New Haven.”

“Everything east of New Haven. That would be…the Wastelands and Pompay. And farther south, Spessa’s End….”

“And many more small towns and fields. Many of those places not even ruled over by a local Ascended,” he said. “Many of those places they don’t even use. It would be a fair request.”

It was a fair request. Solis would still maintain the major trade cities and the farmlands outside of Carsodonia and Masadonia, among others. But…

“It won’t be as simple as us sending a letter to them, announcing our nuptials.” Casteel snagged my attention. “Once the Ascended realize that you’ve gone missing, they may believe you have come to an unfortunate end.”

“At the hands of the Dark One?”

He inclined his head in my direction. “Or any number of very bad people. Either way, Queen Ileana nor any of the Ascended will believe that we have come together without seeing that you’re still alive, healthy, and whole. We will meet with them on our terms and present them with their options.”

“Give in to your demands or face war?” I finished. “War may come either way, but if they agree, we may buy the people of Solis some time.”

Casteel nodded as he placed his arm back on the mantel.

“What you’re requesting is fair. They have your brother, and the loss of land wouldn’t hurt Solis that much,” I said. “I would hope that they would have the common sense to agree. They may not be able to make more vamprys—that is if they haven’t captured others to use for that.” An image of Ian formed, and my stomach rolled. “And if they don’t agree…then there will be war.” My gaze lifted to his. “And if you meet with the King and Queen, and they agree, will you let them live?”

His chin dipped as a slow, cold smile spread across his striking face. “Once I have what I want and what my kingdom needs, they will not remain on Solis’s throne. They will not remain breathing. Not them. Not her.”

I looked away, tensing against the desire to recoil. I could understand it, especially after what they’d done to him. But it was hard to forget those months, those years after the attack, when all I had was Ian and Queen Ileana.

But I had seen the walls of the chamber underground. I’d seen Casteel’s scars. I’d had my suspicions before I even met him. I knew that what he claimed was true. I didn’t need to see or know anything else to believe that.

“And you plan to allow the Ascended to live? Who would rule Solis then?” I cut myself off because I wanted to ask: what about Ian?

“To prevent war and repeat history, they would have to be allowed to live. Things would have to change, though. No more Rites. No more mysterious deaths. They would need to control themselves.”

“And you believe that can happen? You said it takes months, if not longer—”

“But they can control themselves. They already do in some cases, and a lot of Ascended are old enough to do so. They can make their bite pleasurable. They can feed without killing. I’m sure many would volunteer. Or the Ascended could even pay for the service. Either way, if they want to live, they will need to control their bloodlust. The fact that they are not the Cravens they create is proof that they can. They just never had a reason to do so.”

“Do you think it will work?” I asked.

“It’s the only way the Ascended have a chance of survival,” he said.

But if he was wrong—if he failed? If his brother was already gone? I looked up at him and could say with a hundred percent certainty that he would kill them all or die trying.

My throat constricted. “And afterward, with or without your brother, I’m free?”

He met my gaze. “You will be free to do as you choose.”

“So, this marriage will not be…real?”

There was a beat of silence before he said, “It’s as real as you believe anything about me is.”

He wasn’t looking at me then. His attention was once again fixed on the flames. The line of his jaw was like marble. “I truly have no idea what that’s supposed to mean,” I admitted, folding my legs under the blanket. “How will I be free if we marry?”

“I will grant a divorce if that is what you decide.”

I gasped before I could stop myself. Divorces were practically unheard of in Solis. They had to go before the Court to even petition to have one, and it was, more often than not, rejected. “Is divorce common in Atlantia?” I asked.

“No,” he answered. “What is uncommon is for two Atlantians to marry who don’t love one another. But when people do change along with their love, they may divorce.”

I got snagged on the whole part about marrying when there was no love being uncommon. If it was so rare, then how could he so easily go into a union with someone he obviously didn’t love? The answer was easy. He would do anything for his brother.

“So, this marriage isn’t real.” I drew in a shallow breath. “And what if I refuse? What if I say no?”

“I hope that won’t be the case, especially after everything you’ve seen. But this way, you won’t be used to send a message to the Ascended, and you won’t be used by them. It’s a way out.” He dragged a hand through his hair. “It’s not a perfect one, but it is one.”

It…it was a way out. A windy, twisting one, but I knew that if he had never come for me, I would be in Masadonia, veiled and suspicious, but having no real idea of the horror that was happening—the future I was going to meet. Casteel wasn’t a blessing in disguise. I didn’t know what he was, but nothing would have been okay if he hadn’t entered my life.

I lifted my chin. “And what if I still say no?”

“I won’t force you to marry me, Poppy. What I already have to force from you is…distasteful enough, given everything that was taken from you before you even met me.” His chest rose with a heavy breath. “If you refuse, I don’t know. I’ll have to find another way to free my brother and somehow hide you away so that no one, including my people, can get their hands on you.”

Surprise flickered through me, and without thinking, I reached out to him, reading his emotions, searching for a hint of scheming or slyness. Anything to indicate that he wasn’t being truthful. What I felt was sadness, heavier and thicker than before, and I tasted something sour in my mouth, something that left me with the sensation of wanting to shed my skin.

Shame.

I felt shame coming from him, and it wasn’t buried deep. It was there, just below the surface. “You…you don’t like this, do you? The situation I’m in—that we’re in.”

A muscle flexed in his jaw once more, but he said nothing.

“That’s why you aren’t just hauling me straight to the capital right now, demanding the exchange,” I said. “That would be quicker. It would be easier—”

“There would be nothing easy about giving you to them.” His eyes flashed an intense amber before he looked away. “And stop reading my emotions. It’s a bit rude.”

My brows lifted. “And forcing me to drink your blood wasn’t?”

“I was saving your life,” he groused.

“Maybe I’m saving yours by reading your emotions,” I shot back, pulling my senses back in.

Casteel pinned me with a dry look. “Please explain how you came to that conclusion.”

“Because it’s a relief to know that you wouldn’t force my hand in marriage.” And it did loosen some of the tension knotting in my chest. “It doesn’t change the lies and everything else, but it does at least dampen my near murderous rage.” And the soul-shattering disappointment, but I wasn’t sharing that. “So, I might not actually try to sever your head while you sleep.”

His lips twitched. “But no promises?”

I didn’t dignify that with a response. “So, you will tell everyone we’re getting married, and I’m supposed to act as if that is the case when we’re around others? Then once we’re married, we will go to the capital?”

Casteel lifted his head, gaze focused on the wall across from him. “Yes, but we will have to be convincing. It’s not as simple as telling the world we’re to be married. We must marry as soon as we arrive in Atlantia. Before I take you to my parents.”

My stomach hollowed. “Do you think it’s wise to marry before you even tell the King and Queen you’re engaged?”

“Not particularly.” There was a flash of a boyish grin, one I imagined he wore quite a bit when he was younger and about to do something he knew he would get in trouble for. “My parents will be…displeased.”

“Displeased?” I choked on a laugh. “I have a feeling there will be a stronger emotion.”

“Quite possibly. But my parents will seek to delay the marriage until they are sure it’s true. We cannot afford the time it will take to gain their permission—permission I do not need,” he said. “As I said before, my people want retribution. If they think this is a ploy to get back a Prince they have already mourned, and if they value revenge over life, they will try something. Once you become my wife, you will be protected.”

“Your people seem…” I trailed off. His people seemed barbaric, but mine weren’t much better. Whether I claimed the Ascended as my people or not, I had been raised by them. And wouldn’t I be just as violent if I lived every day, knowing that the Ascended could arrive at any time to slaughter without question or punishment? I would be just as wrathful.

A shudder worked its way through me as I stared at his profile, at the taut lines of his face, and the shadows under his eyes. I realized that maybe Casteel and I weren’t all that different. “I understand.”

His gaze flew to mine, his eyes wide. “What?”

“I understand why you’re doing this. They have your brother, who was captured in the process of freeing you,” I told him, my thoughts shifting to Ian. “I can understand that you’d go to extremes to get him back.”

He turned to me. “Really?”

I nodded. “I would do the same. So, I can understand and still not like it. I can hate that I’m nothing more than a pawn to you and still understand why I am.”

“You’re not just a pawn to me, Poppy.”

“Don’t lie,” I told him, my heart squeezing. “That’s not doing either of us any favors.”

He opened his mouth and then closed it, seeming to rethink what he’d been about to say.

“There’s a reason I understand,” I told him. “You would do anything to free your brother, and I will do anything to get back to mine. I’ll agree to this if you promise to help me get to Ian.”

“Poppy—”

“I know what he is, and you know that I have to see what he’s become.”

He turned fully to me. “And what if he has become just like the others?”

“Just because he’s Ascended doesn’t automatically mean he’s evil—don’t.” I lifted a hand when he moved to speak again. “You said that they can control their bloodlust if they want. Many of the Ascended are evil, but just as many were good people before their Ascensions, and they had no idea what the truth was. My brother…” I drew in a shaky breath, squaring my shoulders. “I have to see for myself what he has become. So that is the deal. I will temporarily marry you and help you free your brother if you help me free mine.”

Casteel’s head tilted as he stared at me for several moments. I had no idea what he saw, but then he nodded. “I agree.”

“Okay,” I whispered.

“You’re not going to fight me on this?”

I considered that. “Not in front of others. Why would I? If them believing we’re getting married keeps me alive, then why wouldn’t I go along with that?” I reasoned, frowning slightly. I would never have guessed that whiskey had such an amazing ability to clear one’s thoughts. “I don’t have a death wish. Neither do I have a desire to be caged and used as a bag of blood.”

He flinched. It was small, but I saw it. “But in private, you’ll fight me tooth and nail?” he surmised.

“Kieran knows what you’ve planned, doesn’t he?”

He nodded.

I met his stare. “Then in front of him and in private, I will fight you tooth and nail. I will not pretend to be the docile fiancée without an audience.”

“Understandable.” He dragged his thumb over his glass. “But if you want to pretend to be just that in private—”

“Not going to happen.”

Something glimmered in his golden eyes. “I think you will find that I can be impossibly charming.”

I glared at him.

“Remember what you said about impossibilities?”

I did. “But this is truly impossible.”

“I guess we will see.”

“I guess we will,” I told him, relaxing. This banter felt normal. At least, for us.

Casteel eyed me. “I feel like this is a trick, and you’re two seconds from trying to plunge that knife into my heart again.”

I coughed out a dry laugh. “What good would that do? You’d only be annoyed, and the knife is not nearly sharp enough to sever your head or pierce your incredibly thick skull.”

He smirked, finishing off the whiskey left in his glass before moving away from the mantel. “But it would give you great satisfaction.”

I considered that.

It would.

“I knew it,” he murmured, placing the glass on the table.

A couple of moments passed as I felt Casteel’s gaze on me. “Do Atlantians recognize the tradition of rings when they propose?” I asked. The Ascended didn’t in Solis, but many of the mortals did. A ring was bestowed upon a couple’s engagement, and then bands were exchanged upon marriage.

“We do.”

“Then how believable is it that we are engaged if I don’t have a ring?”

“Good point,” he murmured.

“I want a ring,” I announced. “I want an obscenely big one like I’ve seen some of the wives of wealthy merchants have. Their diamonds are so large they look like they should weigh down their hands.”

He angled his body toward me. “I will find you a diamond so big it will enter the room before you do.”

“Good.” It took me a moment to realize that I was smiling. I wondered if I should be concerned by that as I thought everything over. I felt a little more at ease. What I had said to him about understanding why he was doing this was true. That didn’t mean I had to like it or that reality didn’t sting and hurt something fierce. But if Vikter had taught me anything, if I’d learned anything from Queen Ileana and my time as the Maiden, dealing with Duke Teerman and Lord Mazeen, it was that being pragmatic and rational was the only way to win a battle and survive a war. I would go along with this because this was how I stayed alive and got to Ian. I, like Casteel, would do anything for my brother. And that included going from one viper’s nest to another.


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