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A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire: Chapter 28


“There’s someone I’d like you to meet,” Casteel said as we rode past the town center, beyond the crowds of people.

The tightness in my chest eased with the crowd’s dispersal, but balls of nervous energy formed in my stomach. Would this person be friendly? Would they stare?

“You okay?” he asked as he guided the horses to a stop outside of one of the homes where vines with tiny pink flowers climbed the terrace’s latticework.

I nodded as my gaze shifted up the road, drawn by the clang of a hammer. Homes were being built. Men were on the roofs, their skin damp with sweat, and women ran tools over the exterior walls, smoothing out the clay.

A young wolven loped out from the inside of the house, dancing around the women’s legs, tail wagging. Remembering what was said the night before about not many young being here, I figured it was Beckett. A grin tugged at my lips as he nudged a spade with his nose, rolling it toward one of the women.

Casteel dismounted as the door to the house opened wider. Kieran strode out, his brows rising upon seeing me astride my own horse.

Before I could even feel embarrassment over what had happened this morning, he opened his mouth. “Dear gods, you have her on her own horse? Soon, she’ll be running one of us over instead of stabbing us.”

My eyes narrowed. “This is who you wanted me to meet?” I asked. “Not sure if you realize this or not, but I’m well aware of who he is.”

Casteel laughed as he came to my side. “It’s not him I want you to meet.” He held Molly steady. “You want to dismount on your own?”

I nodded, rising and drawing one leg up and over the saddle. I lowered myself to the ground, nowhere near as gracefully, but I did it.

Kieran applauded. “Good job.”

“Shut up.”

The wolven laughed as one of the workers called out Casteel’s name.

Casteel looked over, squinting. He touched my lower back. “I’ll be right back.”

I nodded as I turned to Molly, scratching her behind the ear as I watched Casteel jog toward the house.

 “By the way,” Kieran approached me, “I hope you’re not embarrassed about this morning.”

“I’m not embarrassed,” I whispered.

“You’re not?” He sounded doubtful.” “You won’t look at me.”

“I was just looking at you a few moments ago.”

“Only because you wanted to do violent and terrible things to me.”

I smiled because that was true.

“You look like you want to do that now.”

Brows raised, I looked at him. “Happy? I’m looking at you now.”

A half-grin appeared. “Yes, but your face is as red as a tomato.”

“Whatever,” I muttered.

“And you still look like you want to murder me.”

I sighed.

He adjusted Molly’s halter as he said, “You know what you felt during the feeding and what surely came afterward is only natural.”

“Thanks, but I don’t need you to tell me this.”

“Then maybe you would like some advice?”

“Not really.”

“I’m going to give it to you anyway.”

“Of course, you are.”

“If you wish for future feedings—and I’m sure you realize there will be future ones—to be less intimate, you could offer him your wrist.”

I spun toward Kieran. “Well, that information is so very helpful now.”

Kieran laughed, not even bothering to move out of the way when I punched his arm.

“Ouch,” he murmured. “That was actually hard.”

“Do I even want to know why you just hit Kieran?” Casteel asked as he rejoined us.

Kieran’s eyes lit as he opened his mouth—

“No,” I jumped in, shooting Kieran a look that promised death if he spoke as Casteel came to stand beside me. “You do not.”

Grinning, Kieran backed up. “When has she ever needed a reason to be violent?”

“Good point.” Casteel glanced down at me, one side of his lips quirking. The damn dimple winked into existence. “I guess I should be grateful that she didn’t stab you.”

“There’s always later,” I muttered.

A throaty, feminine laugh snapped my head around. “You’re right, Kieran. I like her.”

Standing barefoot in the terrace’s doorway was a stunning woman dressed in black leggings and a bright yellow, sleeveless tunic that fit the curve of her hips and chest. Golden cuffs encircled her wrists and upper arms. Her jet-black hair, braided in narrow, tight rows, nearly reached her waist. The pale, wintry blue eyes were a striking contrast to skin as beautiful as the rich black of the night-blooming roses. There was some vague familiarity about the slant of her cheeks and the shape of her brow, but I knew I’d never met the female wolven before.

“Because she insinuated that I could be stabbed later?” Kieran muttered. “Shocker.”

Oh, gods, I really needed to stop talking about stabbing people.

The woman laughed. “Of course.” She stepped out of the doorway, her gaze flicking to Casteel. “Why are you standing there so quiet?”

“I am not interrupting you.” Casteel held up his hands. “The last time I did, you knocked me on my ass.”

I blinked.

“That is not why I knocked you on your ass,” she replied. “I don’t exactly remember why I did it, but I’m sure it was because you did something to deserve it.”

The corners of my lips turned up.

“Since both of them have no manners, I’ll introduce myself. I’m Vonetta, but everyone calls me Netta. I’m Kieran’s sister.”

Shock rippled through me. “You have a sister,” I blurted out.

Vonetta shot her brother a look. “Wow, Kieran.”

“Hey, Casteel never said I had one either.”

“Don’t drag me into this,” Casteel remarked.

“My feelings are hurt, and I am the baby of the family. My feelings should never be hurt,” she tossed over her shoulder. “I expect an extra batch of the candied fruit.”

“As soon as I have an hour to make some, I will.”

“You have had plenty of hours to do so already.” Facing me, she extended a hand. Her nails were painted a yellow as brilliant as her tunic.

“I’m Penellaphe,” I said, taking her hand. The moment our skin touched, her eyes widened. “Did you just feel something weird?”

“Yeah. Like a static charge,” she answered as Casteel moved in closer. She let go of my hand. “That’s strange.”

“Coulton felt the same thing,” Casteel said.

“And I felt something like that back in New Haven,” Kieran reminded me.

“That’s right.” I clasped my hands together. “I’d forgotten.”

“Well, I’m kind of offended now,” he muttered.

“Do you feel anything like that?” I asked Casteel, recalling a similar feeling a few times we’d touched.

“I have,” he said, head tilted as he examined me closely, like I was a strange new species. “I thought it was my imagination.”

“I’ve felt it when I’ve touched you.” I turned back to the siblings. “But I didn’t feel anything now or when Coulton or Kieran felt something earlier.”

“Apparently, we’re not as special as Casteel,” Vonetta commented.

“You should’ve already known that,” he replied.

She shot him a look. “You saying something like that was probably why I knocked you on your ass the last time.”

I laughed. “I like her.”

“Of course, you do.” Casteel sighed as he placed his hand on my back. But when I looked up at him, he had that look to him again. Like he’d lost his breath. Swallowing, he looked over at Kieran’s sister. “Are you going to invite us in?”

“Are you going to be less annoying?”

“Probably not, but since I’m your Prince….”

“Whatever. Fine.” Then she smiled. “Come in. I just finished making sandwiches.”

The living area was a round, cozy area full of color. Thick sky-blue floor cushions circled a low-to-the-ground white table. Bright orange and deep purple throw pillows covered a black settee. The breeze let in by the open windows and terrace doors lazily turned the blades of a ceiling fan. A stack of books on an end table by the settee snagged my attention as Casteel tugged me down onto one of the cushions on the floor while Vonetta and Kieran disappeared through a rounded archway.

“Is lemonade fine?” Vonetta’s voice carried out from the other room. “Kieran made it, so it’s more sweet than sour.”

Casteel glanced at me, and when I nodded, he called out, “That’s perfect.”

A few moments later, Kieran returned carrying four glasses, which he placed on the table before dropping onto the cushion on the other side of Casteel.

“Thank you,” I said, picking up the cool glass. Ice cubes clinked together, and I realized there must be a cold room underground somewhere since there appeared to be no electricity running in Spessa’s End yet.

“Don’t be polite,” Kieran remarked. “It weirds me out.”

I cracked a grin at that as I took a sip. The sweet and sour mix was perfect. “This is actually really good.”

“Kieran is a master at making drinks,” Casteel shifted back on one arm, leaning slightly into my shoulder. “Especially the kind involving alcohol.”

“A man must have his talents.”

“Even if said talents are generally useless,” Vonetta commented as she entered, carrying a silver tray loaded with sandwiches cut into narrow strips and a large bowl of strawberries dusted with sugar.

“I’ll remember that the next time you ask me to make you a drink,” Kieran replied.

Vonetta snorted as she sat beside me. “I hope you like cucumber sandwiches. Other than cold cuts, it’s the only sandwich I can manage.”

“They’re one of my favorites. Thank you,” I said, picking one up. “And it’s the only sandwich I’ve ever made, actually.”

“Really?” Casteel asked, handing me one of the napkins from the tray.

 I nodded. “I wasn’t allowed to cook or to learn how, but I did sneak into the kitchens sometimes and watch,” I admitted, and then felt silly the moment the words had left my mouth. I had no idea how much Vonetta even knew about my past. Heat crept up my throat as I sat back a little, distancing myself from Casteel. I quickly shoved half the sandwich into my mouth.

“Kieran told me a little bit of what it was like for you,” Vonetta said, her tone soft. “But honestly, the not being allowed to learn how to cook part sounds amazing.”

I glanced up at her in confusion as Casteel reclaimed the short distance that separated us. His arm pressed to mine as he reached for a sandwich and then remained there.

“I don’t mean the not having a choice part. That sounds terrible. That is terrible.” She took a drink of lemonade. “But if I didn’t have to learn, then I’d have an excuse for why I’m horrible at cooking. Our poor mother spent many moons attempting to teach me how to bake bread. I’d rather sharpen a sword than knead yeast. Of course, Mom excels equally at both.”

“As do I.” Kieran grinned, and his sister rolled her eyes.

“Sounds like you and Poppy have that in common,” Casteel said, wiping his fingers on the napkin. It said something about his relationship with Kieran’s sister that he’d called me that in front of her. “She also has a fondness for sharp, deadly objects.”

“I do,” I confirmed.

Vonetta grinned. “Yet another reason to like you,” she said. “So, what do you think of Spessa’s End so far?”

Finishing off the last of the sandwich, I then told her how I hadn’t been aware of what had happened to Pompay and Spessa’s End. “I’m amazed by what has been done here—the homes are so much nicer than what most people have in Solis. And the gardens? There is nothing like that there. After seeing Pompay, I expected nothing but ruins.”

“Solis sounds like a really cruddy place,” she stated.

Casteel snorted. “Understatement of the year, Netta.”

“There are nice parts, but so very few people have access to them.” I picked up a plump strawberry. “And there are good people there. Scared individuals who don’t know any other way to live than what they were born into.”

She nodded as she brushed several braids back over her shoulder. “Hopefully, that changes soon.”

I agreed, and the conversation moved on from there. Casteel asked about Kieran and Vonetta’s parents. I learned that her mother was named Kirha and that Vonetta planned to travel home to see them soon. Their mother had a birthday coming up. They talked about how many new homes they felt would be completed in the next couple of months, and Vonetta mentioned a few people that she knew were interested in settling here. She asked about the potential for electricity, which led to a conversation about power grids and lines that sounded like a different language to me. I learned that Vonetta’s role in Spessa’s End was like one of a Rise Guard, and the way Vonetta and Casteel traded insults made it clear that the three of them had grown up together. The friendship between them was so real, that it made me fiercely yearn for the same thing—made me think of Tawny. She would love Kieran’s sister.

Vonetta then asked about how I’d learned to fight, and minutes ticked away, the sandwiches disappeared, and throughout the afternoon, there was never more than a few minutes where some part of Casteel’s body wasn’t in contact with mine. Whether it was his arm resting against mine or his knee, or him messing with my hair, tucking it behind my ear, or fixing the sleeves on my borrowed tunic. The constant contact, the small touches here and there, made it all too easy to forget that we were pretending.

And it was hard not to notice, at least for me, how different Vonetta was toward me compared to the others. It could be because she was Kieran’s sister and Casteel’s friend, but the wolven in general had entirely different reactions toward me. They weren’t distrustful, and while I did briefly open my senses to Vonetta when I caught her staring at me strangely, all I felt from her was curiosity.

“So, the whole static charge thing,” Vonetta brought back up after Kieran had cleared the table. “I want to see if it happens again.”

My brows lifted, but I was also curious. I extended my hand, and a moment later, Vonetta placed her palm flat to mine. She frowned slightly. “Do you feel anything?”

“No.” She sounded disappointed.

“I only felt it once,” Kieran remarked, letting an arm dangle over a bent knee. “Actually, come to think of it. What does she smell like to you?”

I drew my hand back, twisting toward Kieran. “That’s right. You said I smelled like a dead person.”

“I didn’t say you smelled like a dead person,” he countered. “I said you smelled of death.”

“How is that different?” I demanded.

“That’s a good question.” Casteel turned his head, brows lifting. “You’re really smelling her, aren’t you, Netta?”

I looked to find Vonetta’s head close to mine. “Please don’t say I smell of death.”

“You don’t.” She drew back. “But there is a unique scent to you.” Her dark brows knitted together. “You smell…old.”

“Um.” I shifted uncomfortably. “I’m not sure if that’s any better.”

Casteel dipped his head, and I felt the bridge of his nose along the side of my neck. “You don’t smell like that to me,” he murmured, and a shiver curled its way down my spine. “You smell like honeydew.”

Oh, my gods….

“I’m not saying she smells like mothballs and stale peppermint candy,” Vonetta said, and Kieran laughed. “It’s just… I don’t know how to explain what I mean.”

“I think I understand.” Casteel sat back.

“You do?” I questioned.

He nodded. “Your blood tastes old to me—old in a way that it’s rich. Powerful for someone who is not full-blooded Atlantian. It’s probably the bloodline.”

Vonetta tilted her head. “And what kind of—?”

A sudden, loud crash from outside interrupted us. Shouts of alarm rang out, and all three of them were on their feet in a matter of seconds.

“Sounds like that came from up the street where the houses are being worked on,” Vonetta said as I rose to my feet. Casteel was already out the terrace doors, Kieran following quickly behind him.

I trailed them out into the late-afternoon sun. We didn’t have to go far. Alastir rushed down the dirt-packed road, carrying the limp form of a small wolven.

Beckett.

I already knew he was in pain. I could feel it pinging against my skin, hot and sharp. I swallowed hard.

“What happened?” Casteel demanded.

“Beckett was being—well, he was being Beckett.” Alastir’s face was pale as he gently laid his nephew down in a patch of grass. The wolven’s growl ended in a whimper. “A piece of the roof collapsed, and he couldn’t move out of the way quick enough.”

“Shit,” Casteel grunted, kneeling beside Beckett.

Emil appeared behind Alastir. “Where is the Healer?”

“Talia is in the training fields,” a mortal woman said. “Someone was injured during practice.”

“Go and summon her. Tell her to come as soon as she can,” Casteel ordered one of the wolven. The man took off, shifting into his wolven form in a blur of speed. “It’s okay, Beckett. We’re getting help.”

Beckett’s chest rose and fell rapidly, and his mouth hung open. The whites of his eyes were stark against his dark fur. My senses stretched and pushed at my skin, and I tensed, trying to prepare myself as I opened up. Burning, acute pain rolled through the connection, stealing my breath. It was throbbing and endless, painting the soft grass in shades of red and soaking the sky in embers. This was definitely no minor hurt.

“I think his back legs are broken,” Alastir said, his hands trembling as he placed them on the ground. “He needs to shift. He needs to do it now.”

“Oh, no,” Vonetta whispered.

“If he doesn’t, the bones will start healing before we can straighten them.”

“I know,” Casteel said as I severed the connection before his physical pain overwhelmed me. “Beckett, you have to shift. I know it hurts, but you have to shift.”

The young wolven whimpered as he shuddered.

“He’s in too much pain.” I stepped around Vonetta.

“He’s too young,” Kieran said in a low voice, to no one in particular. “He won’t be able to do it.”

My gift hummed, demanding to be used as it guided me toward the wolven. My fingers tingled with the urge. Vonetta caught my arm. “Don’t get too close, Penellaphe.” Concern clouded her pale eyes. “An injured wolven is a very dangerous one, no matter how young.”

“It’s okay. I can help him.” I stepped to the side, slipping free of her grip as I searched out Casteel’s gaze. “I can help him.”

Casteel was still for a half a second and then nodded. “Come to his back. Beside me and away from those teeth.”

Aware of Kieran shadowing my steps and us gaining an audience, I lowered to my knees. Beckett’s rear legs were twisted at awful, unnatural angles. Beckett growled, lifting his head and kicking out with his front leg, both weak attempts to warn us off, but I knew he could strike a lot more quickly.

“Can you do it?” Alastir whispered. “What you did in New Haven?”

I nodded.

“If you can help him and he’s able to shift,” Casteel spoke low and fast, “that’ll make it so much easier for Talia.”

“Okay,” I said as Casteel angled his body so he would have to go through him first if the wolven reared. “I’m not going to hurt you, Beckett. I promise.”

Lips peeled back, revealing canines sharp enough to pierce skin and strong enough to crunch bones. I tried not to think of that as I placed my hand on his back. Opening myself up again so I could monitor his pain, I swallowed back the bile crowding my throat. His pain…it made me want to throw up. I started to drum up warm, happy memories—

Something… something different happened the moment my fingers sank into Beckett’s soft fur.

The tingling sensation in my palms ramped up as if static danced over my skin, and my hands heated. The wolven twitched, whimpering quietly as a muted glow appeared between my fingers, peeking through the strands of fur before washing over my hands.

My lips parted. “Uh…”

“That’s not normal,” Casteel observed, a dark eyebrow raised. “Right?”

Out of the corner of my eyes, I registered Emil’s mouth drop open. I saw the same reaction from most of those around us. Alastir rocked backward, paling even further as he stared at me. Whispers and gasps echoed around me.

“Well,” I heard Vonetta say. “I think you forgot to tell me something, Kieran.”

I don’t know what Kieran said in response. I heard Casteel whisper my name, but I shook my head as Beckett’s head lowered to the grass. I could feel his pain lessening. “It’s working, but I’ve never seen it do this before.”

“You mean you’ve never seen your hands glow?” he asked. “Like twin stars?”

“They’re not glowing that brightly,” I denied.

“Yeah, they kind of are,” Kieran murmured, and Emil nodded when I looked up.

“Okay. Whatever,” I muttered. My hands were glowing brightly now. “I’ll freak out over that later.”

Beckett’s breathing steadied, and the whites of his eyes became less visible.

“Sweet gods of mercy,” someone murmured.

“Princess?”

“Hmm?” I focused on Beckett. Emotional pain was harder to cut through and whatever release I brought was incredibly short-lived, but physical pain took longer to ease. I believed it had to do with all the important nerves and veins, and physical pain almost always carried an emotional anguish with it, especially if it was as intense as it was for Beckett. Easing his pain was two-fold, but the throbbing was dulling, becoming little more than an ache. He only needed a few more moments.

“Poppy,” Casteel called, and this time, I looked over at him. Sunlight glinted off the curve of his cheek as his gaze swept over me, around me. “You’re glowing. Not just your hands. You.”


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