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A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire: Chapter 14

I was already standing when Casteel turned to me. “We must go,” he clipped out.

I went to move around the desk but stopped. “Wait.” Spinning around, I snatched the book and shoved it back where I’d found it, behind the other records.

Casteel noted my actions in silence, and when I came around the desk, he took my hand.

How could they have known that I was missing? It had to be too soon, especially given the storm. It had only clipped the western sides, but they would’ve expected it to slow us down.

“They’ve already entered the yard,” Naill advised as we left the library, sending my stomach plummeting.

“Be smart,” Casteel advised. And with one curt nod, Naill took off. “Come,” he said to me.

Casteel led me in silence through the dimly lit, winding halls that felt like a maze designed to trap us. We reached an old wooden door that he pushed open with an arm, and entered the kitchens. The faces of those we passed were a blur as they stepped to the side, bowing at Casteel on sight.

“The Ascended are here,” he said, and several gasps echoed. “Hide the youngest below and warn the others. Do not antagonize the Ascended.”

An older man stepped forward, thumping his fist off his chest. “From blood and ash.”

Casteel placed his fist over his heart. “We will rise.”

The people scattered before we reached the doors that led outside. We were near the stables, the air cold but still as I glanced up at the sky that had given way to night. We headed for the heavily wooded area, neither of us speaking until we were among the snow-heavy limbs. Only then did it strike me how much my life had changed.

I was running away from the Ascended.

Not toward them.

Casteel kept hold of my hand as he navigated the darkened woods.

“Where are we going?” I asked, my breath forming misty clouds.

“Just outside until I know for sure what is happening.” He caught a bare, low-hanging branch, lifting it out of the way.

I kept close as we moved along the fringes of the forest. I realized we’d moved deeper into the woods as we circled the keep and then started to move closer. Perhaps a half-hour passed before the cold began to get to me. I shivered as I curled my free hand so that it was hidden under my sleeve.

“Sorry,” he said gruffly. “I wish there’d been time to grab a cloak or at least your gloves.”

“It’s okay.”

He glanced back at me, but I couldn’t make out his expression. We continued on, drawing even closer to the keep.

Casteel stopped me. “Wait.”

The tone of his voice sent a wave of warning through me. “What?”

 He jerked his chin forward. “Something is happening.”

“What?” I repeated and followed his gaze, struggling to see through the trees. “I don’t have super-special Atlantian eyes.”

“And I’m sure that fills you with wrathful envy.”

It did.

“We need to be quiet.”

I listened, which I was sure came as a shock to Casteel. We crept toward the edge of the woods, and as the trees thinned out, I could see that the yard was brightly lit, far more than I’d ever seen it.

And it wasn’t empty. Not in the slightest.

Casteel stopped once more, this time tugging me to my knees beside him. Cold snow seeped through the cloth of my breeches. Unease blossomed as my gaze roamed over the men on horseback. There were dozens, with at least half of them stationed around a windowless carriage that was nearly black in the glow of the lit torches. But I didn’t need special Atlantian eyes to know that the carriage wasn’t black, nor did I need better lighting to recognize the symbol embossed on its side. The mantles draped over the armored shoulders weren’t white, they were black.

And the carriage was crimson.

The emblem was a circle with an arrow piercing the center. The Royal Crest.

These men weren’t Royal Guards—they were the guard. Members of the Royal Knights.

“They brought knights,” I whispered the obvious, mainly because I needed to say it to believe what I was witnessing. I’d never seen a knight outside of the capital.

“Yes, they brought out the knights,” the Prince replied, his tone flat but carrying a razor-sharp edge as he let go of my hand. “So, what are you going to do, Princess?”

I could feel the intensity of his stare as I watched the keep’s doors swing open. Two knights appeared, their hands at the ready on the hilts of their broadswords as they led the inhabitants of the keep out into the cold. A mixture of disbelief and confusion thudded through me as the knights lined everyone up. I recognized Elijah and Magda immediately, as they were near one of the torches. For once, the man was quiet as he stood there, arms crossed over his broad chest. I didn’t see Kieran, nor did I see Naill and Delano, but there were at least two dozen outside the keep, and there were…oh, gods, there were children among them, shivering without their cloaks as a fine flurry of snow continued to drift through the air. What if Alastir and his men returned in the midst of this? They would have to see them before they were seen.

“Will you go to them? Shout and alert your presence?” Casteel demanded quietly.

“Why would I do that?” My head jerked in his direction. “I agreed to your proposal. I turned down Alastir’s help.”

“But that was before the Ascended were here. Right in front of you.”

“Yes, that was before,” I told him, my frustration forcing the truth out of me. “But that doesn’t change what I’ve decided. I have more of a chance of reaching my brother through you than I do them.”

Some emotion flickered across his features. “I still can’t believe you were going to try to do that by yourself. You would’ve gotten nowhere near him alone, Poppy.” His head tilted as his eyes narrowed. “Unless you weren’t planning to do it by yourself. Good gods, were you going to allow the Ascended to find you? Was that what you planned on telling the first person you came across when you tried to escape? That you were the Maiden? Did you think they’d take you straight to the capital? To him? If so, then you’re far more reckless than I ever gave you credit for.”

Air left me in a ragged burst. “I figured it would be easier to escape them than you once I got where I needed to be.”

He stared at me like I’d sprouted another head. “Once you got where you wanted to be, Poppy, you would be where they wanted you to be, alone and unprotected.”

“As if that is any different with you.” My lips thinned as I turned to the keep. One of the knights dismounted.

“You are protected with me, and you’ll never be alone,” he shot back.

There was a tug in my chest that I desperately ignored.

“And by the way, in case you were wondering, your plan would’ve turned out just as poorly as your little traipse through the woods did,” he growled.

“Do you think this is the best time to rehash something that doesn’t even matter?” I demanded.

“I think it matters.”

“Well, then you’re wrong.”

“I am rarely ever wrong.”

“Oh, my gods, I think I’d rather risk it with them than stand here with you for another second.”

“Well, it’s your lucky day. They’re right there. Go to them. Tell them who you are.”

“As if you’d let me do that,” I spat, twisting toward him.

“As if you have any idea what I would or would not allow.” His eyes were nearly luminous with his fury. “But you’re right. I wouldn’t allow that, because I refuse to carve your name into the wall down below.”

I shuddered as my wide gaze connected with his. Casteel cursed, looking to the keep.

The knight who’d dismounted spoke, apparently not one of those who’d taken a vow of silence. “Is this everyone who resides in this keep?”

“Everyone and then some,” answered Elijah. “We just finished dinner and were spending a little bit of time catching up.”

“Interesting,” the knight replied, stopping in front of him. “And yet the Lord who oversees New Haven is nowhere to be found inside that keep?”

They…they weren’t here for me? But rather to check on Lord Halverston? My gaze darted to the carriage. But why would an Ascended come? With knights?

“As I already said, Lord Halverston is hunting with several of his men,” Elijah replied, and I knew that was a lie. Lord Halverston, an Ascended, was dead, as were all the Ascended who once lived here. “He left a few nights ago and will be returning shortly. He has a hunting cabin—”

“We’ve checked the hunting cabin up by the moors,” the knight cut him off. “He wasn’t there. Didn’t look like anyone had been there in quite some time.”

“If he isn’t there, then he must be on a hunt and decided to camp somewhere else.” Elijah didn’t miss a beat. “He was excited to get out there. It was all he could talk about for several nights. Said he missed the thrill of the hunt.”

Elijah was a very convincing liar.

But not persuasive enough.

“Is that so?” Doubt dripped from the knight’s tone.

“It is,” Elijah bit out. “And to be really honest with you, I don’t appreciate the insinuation that I’m not being truthful with you.”

Well, he wasn’t being even remotely truthful.

“And I also don’t appreciate you and your knights with your fancy black armor and fancier black mantles showing up at this time of night,” Elijah went on. “Dragging everyone out in the cold—including the children, as if they could somehow be of assistance to you.”

“Careful, Elijah,” Casteel murmured.

The carriage door opened without a sound, and a voice spilled out, one that was smooth and almost friendly. “Everyone inside New Haven can be of assistance if given the right motivation.”

Magda placed a hand on Elijah’s arm, most likely silencing whatever it was that was about to come out of the man’s mouth.

“After all, as subjects of the Kingdom of Solis, very minimal motivation should be required if one is faithful to his or her King and Queen.” The Ascended came into my line of sight. I knew that crescent-shaped face and long, raven-black hair.

“Lord Chaney,” I whispered, pressing my hands against the bark of a tree. The Ascended wore no cloak or gloves, only a heavy tunic over dark breeches. “He’s from Masadonia. Why would he be here looking for Halverston?”

That didn’t make sense unless I…I was wrong to think they were here for the Lord of New Haven.

Casteel didn’t answer, and the unease grew as I glanced at him. His chin was lowered, jaw set and hard as he stared forward. His hand curved around the hilt of his short sword.

“I do find Lord Halverston’s absence concerning, which we will need to address appropriately,” Chaney remarked, drawing my gaze back to him. “But I’ve come all this way on far more important business that must be handled first. I know we’ve never met, so I feel it’s important to let you know that unlike the knights, I am not nearly as patient when it comes to humoring unhelpful subjects.”

“I don’t think your knights are all that patient either,” Elijah replied.

Chaney chuckled, the sound as cold as the wind funneling the snow along the ground. I didn’t know much about Lord Chaney other than seeing him at the Council meetings. Sometimes, when I snuck about Castle Teerman, I overheard him with the Duke or Duchess. All the Ascended gave me the creeps, but Chaney appeared pleasant enough. He always nodded politely in my direction when we crossed paths, never stared too long, and he’d been kind to the staff as far as I knew.

“Well, then, please note that I’m even less patient.” The Ascended stopped in front of one of the children, a boy I’d seen running from house to house when we first arrived in New Haven. He’d been outside the stables the night I learned the truth about Casteel. “I’ve been told that visitors arrived not too many days ago.”

My spine went rigid. They had to be here for me, but how did they discover so quickly that we were here?

“You heard wrong, my Lord,” Elijah answered. “There have been no visitors. Only those returning to the keep.”

The Lord strolled past Elijah, his hands clasped behind his back. He stopped once more, this time in front of an elderly man who had his arm around another who looked as if he could barely stand. “I’m here on behalf of the Crown.” He looked over his shoulder to Elijah. “So, I really hope you won’t lie to me. To do so is akin to lying to the King and Queen, and that would be an act of treason. While they are more often than not our benevolent benefactors, they are still our rulers. Is that clear?”

“Crystal,” Elijah replied stoically.

“Good.” Chaney pivoted to face where Elijah stood, unclasping his hands. “I’m well aware that a group arrived recently. I may call them visitors. You might refer to them as ‘those returning to the keep.’ Semantics. So, I will let that slide. A young woman traveled with them. Where is she?”

I exhaled roughly, feeling nothing but a sense of rising dread.

It was Magda who spoke. “There was no woman that returned recently, my Lord.”

My fingers dug into the bark as Chaney stared at her, too far away for me to read his expression. Even though I already knew what would happen, I opened my senses and stretched out, forming the intangible connection with the Lord.

I felt nothing. Vast. Endless. Empty. And it had been the same for the empath warriors, who were far stronger than I? Did the Ascended have no mortal emotions at all? Tiny bumps pimpled my skin as I shifted my senses toward Elijah. The moment I connected with him, I felt the hot, acidic burn of anger, and the iron taste of steely determination. He wasn’t afraid. Not at all. I pulled my gift back.

Chaney snapped his fingers, and one of the knights stepped forward, opening the carriage door. I frowned, leaning forward as a slight form came into view, shoulders curved in, head bowed.

“Oh, my gods,” I whispered, jerking back from the tree so fast that I lost my balance.

Casteel caught me before I toppled over. “Steady,” he murmured.

“It’s Mrs. Tulis,” I told him, stunned.

“You need to go underground.” He started to turn me.

I dug in my feet. “No.”

“You don’t need to see this,” he argued.

But I had to.

I had to see this.

Casteel cursed, but he didn’t force me to move.

Wearing nothing but a frayed, worn gown, the woman stopped a few feet from the carriage. She trembled so badly that I wondered how she remained standing. The wind tugged at the knot of her hair, lifting the strands that had already fallen. Her arms were curled around her chest—her empty arms.

“Where is her son?” I asked. Casteel shook his head when I looked at him.

“Tell me again, Mrs. Tulis,” Chaney said, stopping once more. “Who arrived here just a few days ago?”

“It w-was the Maiden,” she stammered, and my heart dropped. “The C-Chosen. She came with others from Masadonia.” She took a tentative step toward Elijah. “I’m sorry. He—”

“That’s enough, Mrs. Tulis.” That was all Chaney needed to say, and she quieted at once, sinking into herself. “I’m sure all of you know who the Maiden is. She was being escorted to the capital. And as I’m sure you already know, New Haven is not part of the route one normally takes to get there. Stopping here wasn’t part of the plan.”

“There’s no Maiden here. Not in any sense of the word,” Elijah said, and a few of those standing in line chuckled.

“His mouth,” murmured Casteel, “will be the death of him one day.”

I feared that one day might come sooner than later when Chaney seemed to inhale deeply. “So, you say she’s a liar?” he asked.

“All I’m saying is that there’s no Maiden in this keep,” Elijah answered, which technically wasn’t a lie.

“All right.” Chaney nodded and then moved fast like all Ascended could, almost as quickly as an Atlantian. One moment he was standing several feet from Mrs. Tulis. The next, he was behind her, his fingers sinking into her wind-swept hair. A vicious crack sounded as he jerked her head to the side.

Lurching forward, I clamped my hands over my mouth to silence the shout building in my throat. Elijah made a move toward the Lord, but he drew up short as several of the knights pulled their swords.

With wide, disbelieving eyes, I watched Lord Chaney lift his hands. Mrs. Tulis crumpled to the ground in a boneless heap at his feet. Even after seeing the underground chamber with all those names, I couldn’t…I couldn’t have prepared myself for what I saw. He’d snapped her neck. Just like that. He’d killed her as if she meant nothing, as if her life had no value. Slowly, I lowered my hands.

“Why?” Magda said, her fingers pressed to her rounded belly. “Why would you do that?”

Lord Chaney stepped over Mrs. Tulis’s body as if she were nothing, absolutely forgettable. “Why would she go unpunished for lying?”

Oh, gods. A shudder racked me. She hadn’t been lying. Magda knew that. All of them knew that.

“Unless it was you who is lying,” he said. “And the only reason I can come up with for that is that several of you—or all of you—are Descenters. Like the one you accused of lying. After all, she once lived in Masadonia but disappeared along with her husband and son shortly before the Rite and after their very public request to refuse the Rite was denied. Her death was quick and just.”

Her death was just? I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. And how had he gotten ahold of her when she had been in New Haven? And where was Tobias?

“But back to the issue at hand. The Maiden is very important to the kingdom. Worth more than every single one of you,” Chaney addressed the line of people. “Where is she?”

No one spoke.

Chaney looked at the only knight who spoke. Without saying a word, he lunged forward, thrusting his sword deep into the belly of a man standing in line.

Horror seized me as Casteel jumped up but stopped, growling under his breath. The air around him vibrated with rage, and my senses swelled as the man’s agony rippled out across the yard. My throat tightened as I fought back the nearly overwhelming urge to connect with him. I couldn’t allow that. It would be too much.

The man staggered, but he didn’t scream. He didn’t even shout from the pain. I imagined a giant pair of shears snipping away at all of the lines my gift was trying to connect to him…to Casteel…to all the others. Rage coated the air, falling heavier than the snow had, and I trembled with the effort to shut it down. To lock it all away before the need to ease the man’s suffering and the fear and anger of the others overwhelmed me.

Before I made things worse.

Not a single member of the keep standing by twitched a muscle as the man lifted his head and spat in the knight’s face.

The knight twisted the sword before tearing the blade free. Red spilled out of the man’s stomach, thick and ropey as he went down on one knee.

“Fuck you,” the man gritted out.

The second thrust of the sword was more of a swipe, cleaving the man’s head from his shoulders. There were gasps. At least I thought there were, but the blood was pounding too heavily in my ears. It could’ve been me who reacted.

Casteel rose once more, his hands opening and closing at his sides. A muscle flexed along his jaw, and then he stretched his neck to the left and to the right before returning to kneel beside me.

Bile crept up my throat as the knight wiped the spit from his cheek with the back of his free hand.

“I will kill that one,” Casteel vowed quietly, his voice colder than the air we breathed. “I will kill that one slowly and painfully.”

One of the other knights stepped forward, grabbing a boy—the one who’d run from house to house when we first arrived in New Haven. He pressed the point of his sword under the child’s chin.

My heart stopped.

“This is what they are truly like.” Casteel curled his fingers around my chin, drawing my gaze to his. “That is what you once believed would be easier to manipulate, to escape.”

I shuddered.

Casteel’s gaze searched mine. “I know. I understand. Even after everything I’ve told you about the Ascended and what I’ve shown you, seeing it is still a shock.” His voice softened, loosening some of the ice. “It’s always different when you see it.”

It was.

Chaney had turned back to the line. “If you’ve hidden the Maiden somewhere, you only need to tell me where. If others left with the Maiden, then you simply need to tell me where. Tell me where she is. It’s that simple. Prove to me that you value your lives.”

“And then what? You will leave this place? As if you’d let us live if we told you,” Elijah snarled. “I may have moments of profound stupidity, but I’m not that dumb.”

Chaney chuckled. “I believe that is debatable.”

“Perhaps,” Elijah replied, and I could practically hear the smirk in his tone. “But I’m not the one hiding behind a child.”

The Ascended grew very still as the hairs on the back of my neck rose. “Are you suggesting that I’m a coward?”

“You said it.” Elijah unfolded his arms. “Not me.”

Casteel tugged my eyes back to his as he reached for his boot with his other hand. “I wish you’d never had to see any of this.”

He didn’t give me a chance to respond. Rising so quickly, he was already near the edge of the trees in the blink of an eye.

It took me a moment to realize that the space where he’d knelt beside me wasn’t entirely empty.

Lying on a cushion of dead leaves and snow was a blade the color of blood, and a handle made of smooth, ivory bone. A wolven dagger—my wolven dagger.

Slowly, I picked it up with a trembling hand, the weight familiar and welcomed. I looked to where Casteel moved like a shadow between the trees. How long had he had it with him, and why had he given it back to me now?

Because bloodstone could kill an Ascended.

He’d left me with a weapon that I could use in case the Ascended made it to me.

“You’re looking for the Maiden?” Casteel called out, and the Lord spun around. Several of the knights flanked him.

Chaney tilted his head as Casteel walked into the clearing. “Who in the hell are you?”

“Who am I?” Casteel chuckled as if this were all a joke to him. “Who do you think I am?”

Rising slowly, I pressed against the base of a tree before moving around it. I stopped when I saw a flash of fawn-colored fur from the area of the stables. Kieran. He slunk along the side of the building, disappearing into its shadows.

“I don’t know,” Chaney replied. “But I’m hoping you’re someone who can answer my question. I would hate to see such a young life cut short.”

My fingers tightened around the bone handle of my weapon as I crept forward once more, my gaze swinging toward the knight. Could I get behind him before anyone saw me? Before Lord Chaney gave the go-ahead, and another life was ended? All it would take is one nod, and that child’s life would be over.

The soft crunch of dried leaves whipped my head to the right. A large white wolven brushed against the tree I’d just been hiding behind, nearly blending in with the snow.

A sudden memory surfaced—of me lying in the cell after the attack Jericho had led, bleeding out. A wolven with white fur had nudged my cheek and then howled. I’d thought it was Kieran, but it had been this wolf.

It had been Delano.

He looked at me, his pale blue eyes bright against the tufts of white fur. He made a soft chuffing sound as he drifted over to where I stood. His head reached beyond my hip, and I had the strangest urge to reach down and scratch his ear. I resisted, though. It didn’t seem appropriate.

Casteel stopped in the middle of the yard, his arms at his sides. “I can answer your question. The Maiden is here.”

That stopped me dead in my tracks.

“Is she?” Lord Chaney clapped his hands as he looked around the yard, to those lined up. “Now, how hard was that? I asked a question, and I received an answer.”

“You should ask how he knows that the Maiden is here,” Elijah said with a chuckle, and I saw Magda take a small step back.

Well aware of Delano at my heels, I moved forward as Lord Chaney stared at Casteel. I reached the last of the trees, stopping when Chaney demanded quietly, “You didn’t say who you were. You going to answer that?”

“I am born of the first kingdom.” Casteel’s voice carried like the wind and snow, stroking over the knights, who all turned, one by one, to look in his direction. “Created from the blood and ash of all those who fell before me. I have risen to take back what is mine. I’m who you call the Dark One,” he said, and chills danced across my skin. “Yes, I have the Maiden, and I’m not giving her back.”

Lord Chaney changed.

Gone was the veneer of civility. His face contorted, cheekbones sharpening as his jaw dropped open. Those eyes burned like coal—like a Craven’s. I stumbled back, bumping into Delano as I saw—

I saw the truth once more.

The Ascended bared his fangs as he hissed like a large serpent, dropping into a crouch.

“Mine are bigger than yours,” Casteel responded in turn, prowling forward.

Then the knights changed, at least half of them, exposing elongated canines as their lips peeled back. It felt like the ground moved under my feet, even though the entire world seemed to stop. There were Ascended among the Royal Army. That…that was unheard of. Only the Royals Ascended. That was what we’d been told—

And that was another lie, another fact exposed to everyone who stood here now. I immediately knew yet another truth. The Ascended didn’t intend for anyone to leave the yard alive tonight.


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