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A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire: Chapter 24


Heartmates.

Kieran didn’t elaborate on what that meant, and I didn’t ask for more information. I’d never heard of such a thing, and I didn’t want to.

Processing the idea of Casteel caring about me was complicated enough without adding yet another intangible element to it.

But what Kieran had said—all of it— lingered throughout breakfast, robbing the food of all taste as my gaze kept roaming back toward the white banners hanging on the walls of the dining hall, spaced six feet apart. In the center of each of them was an emblem embossed in gold, shaped like the sun and its rays. And at the center of the sun was a sword lying diagonally atop an arrow.

I knew I was staring at the Atlantian Crest.

We ate at a narrow table in a dining room that’d once served the people of Spessa’s End but now was empty except for Quentyn, who had brought the eggs, crispy bacon, and biscuits out to us when we arrived. He chatted with Kieran, his energy from the night before seeming just as high. I tried to focus on the conversation, aware of how different this was from the last time Kieran and I had shared food. Quentyn didn’t ignore me or treat me with barely contained dislike. If he knew I had once been the Maiden, he didn’t care. And that was, well…it would’ve been something to revel in if I didn’t keep looking around to see if Casteel appeared, or if my mind wasn’t so wrapped up in what Kieran had said.

I couldn’t focus on the fact that Casteel may care for me. I couldn’t even dwell on the revelation that I’d moved past the stage of caring for him quite some time ago. There was no amount of time or space for me to even come to terms with any of that and what it meant.

What I turned over and over in my mind was the reality that Casteel needed to feed, and if what Kieran had said was true, I needed to convince him to do so from someone else or…I needed to feed him.

But there really wasn’t an option between the two. Naill and Delano knew I was half-Atlantian, and if the others, whoever else was here, didn’t know, they would learn soon enough. Casteel feeding from someone else wouldn’t exactly convince anyone of our intent to marry, would it?

It would have to be me.

My stomach dipped as the bite of bacon scratched its way down my throat. Would I be okay with that? I thought of what it had been like when he’d bitten me before, and I picked up the glass of water, nearly downing the entirety of it. It wouldn’t exactly be a hardship. It would be…

Gods, it would be intense.

Nothing like when Lord Chaney had bitten me. Nothing like a Craven’s bite.

“The one thing I’m not looking forward to is traveling back through the mountains,” Quentyn said, drawing me out of my thoughts. I’d discovered when I first saw him in the bright lamplight that he was fair-haired, not blond-white like Delano, but more…golden. He was young, slim as a reed and already taller than me. There was a delicacy to his features, one that drew the eye and held it, and I imagined the beauty in the lines of his face would only increase as he got older. His eyes were a vibrant shade of amber, just like Casteel’s, but curved upward at the outer corners in a way that made his eyes seem like he was always smiling.

“Yeah, I’m not looking forward to that part of the trip either,” Kieran agreed.

“Are you talking about the Skotos Mountains?” I asked, glancing toward the doors for what probably had to be the hundredth time since Kieran and I had sat down.

Quentyn nodded as he looked over at me. When he first saw me, his gaze had snagged on the left side of my face, but that was all. He hadn’t continued to stare. He hadn’t quickly looked away in embarrassment, either. He saw them and seemed to move on from them, and I appreciated that. “The mist, man. The mist. During the day, it thins out a bit, but at night? You can barely see a few feet in front of you.”

I remembered what Kieran had said about the long mountain range. “And that’s…Atlantian magic?”

“Yes. It’s designed to ward off travelers, making them think there are Craven in the mountains, but there are none,” Kieran said, eyeing my plate. “You going to eat the rest of that bacon?”

“No.” I nudged my plate toward him. “How does Atlantian magic work?”

“That’s a complicated question with an even more convoluted answer.” Kieran picked up a slice of bacon from my plate. “And I know you’re gearing up for a hundred more questions.”

I totally was.

“But the easiest answer is that the magic is tied to the gods,” he said.

Well, that only caused me to have more questions and made me think of the Blood Forest tree, the omen, that had appeared out of thin air in New Haven.

“And besides, the mist isn’t just a mist,” Kieran added between mouthfuls of bacon. “Is it, Quentyn?”

“No.” The young man’s eyes widened. “It’s more like an…alarm system.”

“It responds to travelers, even Atlantians, and the way it responds is different for everyone. Larger groups seem to trigger it.” Quentyn’s fingers tapped nonstop on the table. “That’s why we split up into groups no larger than three.”

All of that sounded…concerning. “And traveling through the mountains is the only way?”

“It is, but don’t worry too much.” Quentyn smiled. “We didn’t have too much of a problem when we came through it before.”

Too much of a problem?

“Which reminds me, I can make some extra bacon for when we leave.” He popped up from the chair. “If you like?”

Kieran paused with the second slice halfway to his mouth. “When it comes to bacon, the answer is always yes.”

The young Atlantian laughed as he glanced over his shoulder. The door opened, and my heart launched itself into my throat as my gaze crawled over the faces of the men and women who entered. My shoulders lowered as I recognized none of the faces. There was a half-dozen.

“You guys hungry?” Quentyn called out and was greeted with several enthusiastic replies. Turning around, he shrugged as he said, “I like to cook.”

And then, with a nod at both of us, he raced off to the kitchen area.

I watched the group of newcomers split into two, seating themselves at the round tables near the door. All of them nodded in acknowledgment, but none approached. A woman with dark hair glanced over her shoulder. She had golden eyes. An Atlantian. As did the man who stared from where he sat across from her.

Ignoring the nervous fluttering in my stomach, I offered a smile.

The woman turned back around, and the man faced another beside him.

Sighing, I turned to Kieran. “When do you think we will leave?”

“If Elijah was able to get the first group out a day after we left, they’ll probably be at least two days. Since the group would be larger, they won’t be traveling as fast as we did.” He wiped the sheen of grease from his fingers on a napkin. “But we’re less than a half-day’s ride from the mountains, so we should reach them by tomorrow afternoon, which will allow us to cross halfway before nightfall. And then we’ll be in Atlantia.”

My heart skipped a beat. I hadn’t realized that we were now so close to what was basically an unofficial boundary line. “Just like that?”

He smiled slightly as one of the younger men with light brown hair bent his head to the woman, whispering. “Just like that.”

Leaning back in my chair, I peeked over at the people. Their postures seemed awfully stiff. I bit down on the inside of my lip and opened my senses, letting them stretch out. The moment their bitter and sour-tasting emotions came back to me, I immediately wished I hadn’t let my gift free. Distrust and dislike were often hard to separate, but in some cases, they were joined. Like now.

They had to know who I was. It was the only reason they’d feel this way.

“You’ve been quieter than expected,” Kieran commented.

I shut down my senses, offering a shrug. “I’ve been thinking.” Which wasn’t exactly a lie. I’d done a whole lot of thinking during breakfast.

“Great.”

I shot him an arch look. “It’s really your fault, by the way.”

“Probably should’ve kept my mouth shut.”

“I sort of wished you had.”

“But I didn’t.”

“No,” I sighed, picking at the napkin on the table. “Where is he?”

“Who?”

My head tipped to the side. “Like you don’t know.”

“I know a lot of hes.”

“Hes isn’t a word,” I muttered. “Where is Casteel? Is he…?”

“Is he what?” he quietly asked when I didn’t continue.

“What if he’s not okay?” I glared at him. “If he was closer to the edge than you realized, what if he’s out there, feeding off…random people.”

“I haven’t known you for long.” He gave a shake of his head, and I thought maybe he was searching for patience. “But sometimes, the things your mind conjures worry me.”

“I think it’s a valid concern,” I grumbled.

“I imagine he’s cooled down, gotten himself ready, and is speaking with people.” Kieran looked at me from the side of his eye. “Glad to see that you’re acknowledging that you care for him and are questioning his wellbeing.”

I started to tell him that I wasn’t, but that would have been an obvious lie. Kieran knew it. I knew it. And I hated everyone, but especially Kieran.

Something occurred to me in that moment, and I got up close and personal with abject horror. I had no idea what I was going to say to him about this morning. Not about the whole feeding thing. I knew what I needed to do to make sure he didn’t go all Ascended-eyed on me again. But the other thing? Could I just pretend like it didn’t happen?

That seemed like a successful plan.

Shoulders slumping, I changed the subject. “Can I ask you something?”

“I have a feeling if I said no, it wouldn’t stop you.”

He was right. It wouldn’t. I kept my voice incredibly low. “Casteel said that if I refused the marriage, he’d let me go. That he would take me somewhere safe. Was he telling the truth?”

Kieran looked at me, brows raised. “So, you’re basically asking me to betray him?”

“I’m not asking—okay. I am.”

“He wasn’t lying,” Kieran said after a moment. “If you had refused, he would’ve let you go. But I doubt you would’ve been free of him.”

The corners of my lips turned down. “If I’m not free of him, how would he have let me go?”

Kieran lifted a shoulder in a shrug. “Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.”

My frown increased, but then I shook my head as I looked to the door. Knowing he wasn’t lying meant something. It meant a lot because Casteel would do anything to get his brother back.

Except he wouldn’t force me to marry him to achieve what he wanted. He wouldn’t use me as ransom, and for the first time since all of this began, I truly realized his plans to use me had changed long before I was even aware—probably even before he was aware they had. It wasn’t just his claim or what Kieran said. It was all of that and Casteel’s own actions. I just didn’t want to accept it—to see or understand. Because while Casteel wasn’t a monster, he was capable of doing monstrous things to get what he wanted. But I was exempt. He wasn’t the good guy—the savior or the saint. He’d killed to free his brother. He’d used countless others—mortals and Atlantians alike—to free his sibling. And he still would. To him, the means justified the end.

But Casteel had drawn a line that he wouldn’t cross.

And that line was me.

Truly acknowledging that was terrifying. Already, my heart was pounding, and that swelling sensation had returned, filling my chest. And that scared me. Ignoring and denying what I felt for him was easier when I could convince myself that I was nothing more than a pawn—another means to justify the end.

Now, there was no ignoring or denying anything.

I didn’t know if that meant what Kieran had claimed—that Casteel and I were heartmates, but it did mean something. What that changed for me—for us—I also didn’t know.

I took a breath. It went nowhere, and it felt like the floor was moving—the whole world was shifting under me, even though I was sitting. “I’m going to do it.”

“I’m half-afraid to ask what it is you’re going to do.”

Folding my arms across my chest, I rolled my eyes. “I’m going to offer myself up…for dinner basically. To Casteel,” I tacked on.

“As dinner?”

“Basically.” I peeked at Kieran, and I could tell he was trying not to laugh.

“Only a part of me is surprised, but I’m relieved.” And it did seem like his shoulders looked less hunched. “He needs you.”


I’d just returned to the rooms Casteel and I had been given, hoping he’d returned, when Alastir knocked on the main door.

Letting him inside, I told myself not to stress over Casteel’s continued absence. He had to be okay…ish, and it was still pretty early in the morning.

Alastir was dressed in an outfit far more suited for the temperate weather, wearing only a white button-down shirt and breeches. I was half-tempted to cut the sleeves off the sweater, even though it remained cool in the rooms.

“I won’t take up too much of your time,” he said, sitting on the edge of the settee as he brushed back a lock of hair from his face. “I just wanted to check in on you after hearing that you had a far more eventful trip here than I.”

I sat across from him in one of the thickly cushioned armchairs. “Most of it was rather uneventful up until I learned of the Dead Bones Clan with firsthand experience.”

“I couldn’t believe when Casteel told me they had attacked your group,” he responded, and the measure of relief that came with that was ridiculous. He had to have spoken with Alastir this morning. “To be honest, I figured they were mostly gone by now.”

“Well, they are definitely a few members short now.” The image of Casteel tossing the men from the trees filled my mind. “I still can’t believe the Ascended have either allowed them to live out there or don’t know about them.” I glanced around, shaking my head. “Part of me can’t even believe they don’t know about this. I was shocked when I saw it.”

“Solis is a powerful kingdom, but they are also an arrogant one. I don’t believe they even considered once that Atlantia might quietly take back some of their lands.”

“Casteel had once said something similar—about their arrogance.”

He nodded. “Did Casteel not tell you about Spessa’s End? How he hopes to eventually move hundreds here?”

I nibbled on my lip, unsure if I should lie or not, but I decided that doing so would be silly. It was clear I had no idea. “He hadn’t yet.”

A slight frown pulled at his lips. “I honestly expected he would. Reclaiming Spessa’s End is incredibly important to him and the kingdom. And, it was entirely his idea. Something he convinced his father and mother of.”

Irritation reared its head again, but so did something heavier. Embarrassed because this seemed like something a fiancée should know about, I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. “I’m sure he planned to tell me, but with everything going on…”

Alastir nodded, but I could see the skepticism in his gaze. “I’m sure he would’ve, and that it was a simple oversight. Not an issue of trust or inattentiveness.”

I stiffened, having not even thought of an issue of trust, but…but that would make sense, wouldn’t it? What was being done here in Spessa’s End would be highly coveted information to the Ascended. If they found out, it could mean yet another raid on the town, the destruction of what they were building here—whatever that was. I wasn’t exactly sure since I’d only caught glimpses of it. Was that why Casteel hadn’t shared any information until I was far enough away from the Ascended that I was no longer a risk to Spessa’s End if I were captured or if I…reneged on our deal? Did he think I would ever say something that would put innocent people in harm’s way?

Innocent people I had assumed were guilty not all that long ago.

Unsettled by my thoughts, I asked Alastir about his trip. From there, he spoke of the upcoming journey. I relaxed as he talked. It was his voice and his raspy laugh, so familiar and so like Vikter’s. There was a calming quality to it, and I was so grateful for his visit that when it became clear that he would soon be leaving, I wanted to find an excuse for him to stay.

“There was another reason I wanted to speak with you,” he said as he leaned in. “When I spoke with Casteel this morning, he appeared…well, as if he were strung too tight. Then I learned that he’d been wounded when your group was set upon by the Dead Bones Clan.”

Keeping my face blank, I nodded. “He was wounded.”

“I don’t know how much you know about Atlantians and their needs or customs like the Joining, or what happens when they choose to be with someone, but he may need to feed. And with you not being accustomed to the Atlantian ways, I wanted to make sure you knew,” he said, his gentle smile creasing the skin at the corners of his eyes.

There was a sudden knot in my throat, and I almost launched myself at the poor man, but I somehow managed not to repeat that awkward moment. “I know he needs to feed. He will.” I felt my cheeks heat. “But what is the Joining?”

Alastir’s eyes widened. “He didn’t tell you?”

My shoulders started to slump. “Should he have?”

“I would think so.” His eyes narrowed slightly. “It may be expected, especially since you’re not a full-blooded Atlantian, but it—well, it wouldn’t exactly be the easiest of conversations with someone who didn’t grow up in Atlantia.” He started to stand. “And it’s one I was eternally grateful I never needed to explain to my daughter.”

“Wait.” I lifted a hand. “What is it?”

“You should ask Casteel.”

“You should tell me since you brought it up,” I pointed out. “What is this thing? The Joining?”

Alastir was still for a moment, and then he closed his eyes. “This is going to be an incredibly awkward conversation.”

I started to grin. “Now, I’m really interested.”

“And you will likely change your tune fairly quickly.” He rubbed his chin. “Gods, he probably never told you because of your background.”

“My background?” My brows rose. “As the Maiden?”

He nodded. “In your own words, you said you were quite sheltered, but even if you weren’t, what you’re about to hear would have come as a shock.”

“Okay?” Curiosity burned through me.

“The Joining is a very old tradition—one that isn’t often done. And thank the gods for that.” His upper lip curled in distaste. “It’s quite crass.”

Now was probably not a good time to admit that I was even more curious.

“When a bonded elemental takes on a partner, the bond can be extended to that person. It requires an exchange of blood between the three—or the four if the partner is also bonded. And the exchange of blood…well, it is quite…” He cleared his throat as his cheeks flushed. “It can become very intimate. In a way that would most likely make you very uncomfortable.”

There were many times in my life that I was shocked by something. The last several weeks had been one surprise after another, but this…

Even as sheltered as I was, I had a pretty good idea of what Alastir was trying to say thanks to Miss Willa Colyns’ diary. “Do you mean sex?”

His face was as red as mine felt. “Unfortunately.”

I stared at him, mouth open, but I had absolutely no words.

“But,” he said quickly, “like I said, it is a very old tradition, and while some of my younger brothers and sisters are far more open to the archaic traditions, it’s not one often practiced these days for…well, for obvious reasons.”

“I…” I felt hot and cold at the same time. “But you said that it may be expected since I’m not a full-blooded Atlantian. Why?”

“Why?” He blinked at me, and then his expression smoothed out. “Penellaphe, my dear, have you and Casteel not discussed the future? At all?”

The look in his expression caused acid to pool in my stomach. It was one of parental patience, the kind when a child was in over his or her head and needed an adult to rescue them.

“You will age, and while Casteel will also, he will do so in a way that, in eighty years, he will look the same and—”

“And I will be old and gray if I even survive that long,” I cut in, and then lied through my teeth. “We’ve talked about that.”

His gaze searched mine. “The Joining would not only ensure that the wolven would be duty-bound to protect your life, but the bond would tie your life to the elemental and the wolven. You would live as long as the wolven did, however long that may be.”

Yet again, I was utterly speechless. So many things raced through my mind, but what came to the forefront was the fact that I knew why Casteel had never mentioned this. Tension crept into my muscles, and the heaviness in my chest felt suffocating. There was no need for this…this thing to take place. No matter what Kieran thought, Casteel didn’t plan for us to remain married.


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