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A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire: Chapter 3


If Kieran’s words were meant to reassure me, they’d done the exact opposite.

Pacing in front of the narrow window that was too small to escape from, I stared at the door. It had been locked from the outside.

Just like a cell.

My hands curled into fists as I made another pass in front of the window, anger mingling with the ever-present unease. It wasn’t what Kieran had said about Casteel earning the title of the Dark One. After how coldly and efficiently Casteel had killed Phillips, the guard who’d traveled with us from Masadonia, I already knew how he ended up with the nickname. Seeing him take out Landell was only further proof that he could—and would—kill without hesitation, but…

I stopped suddenly. I could also kill without too much reluctance. Hadn’t I proven that with Lord Mazeen? When Jericho and the others came after me, I’d been prepared to kill. My gaze dropped to my hands. They too, were covered in blood, and I couldn’t say it was just from self-defense and the necessity to survive. Lord Mazeen deserved the ending he got. The Ascended had taken the same perverse joy the Duke had when it came time for my lessons, but he hadn’t attacked me when I turned on him. He’d insulted Vikter within moments of my guard and friend taking his last breath, and I didn’t feel even a smidgen of guilt for how I handled it. Even if he hadn’t been a vampry, he was still a monster. Maybe that was why I wasn’t shocked by what Casteel had done in the hall.

And that quite possibly meant there was something wrong with me. Either way, it was what Kieran had said before he closed the door that made me angry.

That Casteel was the only person I never had to fear.

Kieran couldn’t be more wrong.

I looked to the bed then, and my stomach dipped as if I were standing on the edge of a Rise. I could almost see us, our limbs entwined, and our bodies joined. An aching pulse rolled through me as I touched the bite mark on my neck. I shivered, then searched for a hint of disgust or even fear. I found none.

He’d bitten me.

And his bite had hurt, but only at first, and only for a few seconds. Then, it had felt…it had felt like being drowned in liquid heat. I had never felt something so intense in my life—hadn’t even known something like that was possible. But it wasn’t the effects of the bite that had led to what we’d done in the woods while the snow fell around and upon us. Our bodies had come together because of my attraction to him. Because how I felt for him had been greater than the truth of what and who he was. That was what drove this need to understand how he’d gotten to this point in his life and why he was doing what he was now. It was what fueled this desire to forget everything except for the bliss I’d felt while I was in his arms—his lips against my skin, and the peace and companionship I experienced when we were simply speaking to one another.

But I wasn’t safe with him.

Even if Casteel never raised a hand to me, I couldn’t forget what he was. What he’d caused. Vikter’s death may not have come at the tip of Casteel’s sword, but it had been the jagged blades of the people who followed him. And what of Loren and Dafina, the Ladies in Wait who had died during the attack at the Rite? They had been excited to Ascend, but I doubted they had known the truth. They hadn’t deserved to die like they had, murdered by Descenters who most likely didn’t even know their names. Again, it hadn’t been by Casteel’s hand, but the act was carried out in his name. How could I ever forgive him for any of that?

And what kept hurting every time I thought about him was that he knew how badly I desired freedom. To have the ability to simply choose something—anything—for myself. Whether it be something as simple as walking where I wanted, unveiled, or speaking to whoever I wanted. To something as important as choosing who I shared my body with. He knew how much that meant to me, and he was trying to take it away. My heart twisted so painfully, it felt like someone had thrust a dagger deep into my chest.

What, if anything, could he feel for me?

My heart hurt deeply, as if I were grieving someone who had died. In a way, it was like that. I mourned the loss of Hawke, and it didn’t matter that he still lived and breathed. The Hawke I’d grown to trust, the man I’d shared my secrets with was gone. In his place was Prince Casteel Da’Neer, but I was still drawn to him. I still had that desire, need, and the…

That was why he was the most dangerous person in any kingdom. Because no part of me doubted that he planned to use me to free his brother, returning me to the same Ascended who had held him captive for five decades and who now held his sibling.

Pressure clamped down on my chest as I started pacing again, my thoughts shifting to Queen Ileana. My mother and the Queen had been close. So much so that when my mother chose my father over the Ascension, the Queen had allowed it. That was unheard of. Even rarer was how the Queen had cared for me after the Craven attack as if I were her own child. She had changed my bandages, sat with me when the nightmares of the attack came, and held me when all I wanted was to be hugged by my mother and father. She was the first to teach me not to be ashamed of the scars when others gasped and whispered behind their gloved hands. During those years, and before I was sent to Masadonia, she’d become more than a caregiver.

And according to Casteel, she had been the one who branded him with the Royal Crest.

I could easily remember her holding my hand as we traveled the Royal Gardens under the star-swept skies. Her patience and kindness had seemed never-ending, and yet the same hand that had held mine had sliced into Casteel’s skin. If what Casteel said was true, the same softly spoken voice that’d told me stories of my mother when she was a little girl, running through the same paths we’d walked, had also fed an entire kingdom nothing but blood-soaked lies. If Casteel were telling the truth, she’d used the people’s fear of the creatures she and others like her had created to control every single mortal.

And if it all was true, then had the Queen known the whole time that I was half-Atlantian?

Gods, that was almost too hard to process. But what of Ian? How could he have Ascended? Casteel had said that Ian had only been seen at night, and he believed that Ian had Ascended. Was it then like someone had suggested at the dinner? Was Ian my half-brother? I found it hard to believe that either of my parents would’ve had a child by someone else. Their love for each other was…well, it was the kind people only hoped to find for themselves.

Or I could be entirely naïve. Because if Ian wasn’t their child, where did they get him? On the side of the road or something?

Casteel would likely think that I was being foolish.

Not that I cared what he thought. What the Queen knew and whether or not Ian was my half-brother, didn’t matter. My gaze tracked its way back to the door.

I had to escape.

Even with the warning Casteel had left hanging in the hall, it was evident that his people still saw me as the figurehead for the Ascended. I didn’t think Landell had said any lies when he spoke how my ancestry wouldn’t matter to the Atlantian people. I doubted the new arrivals would want anything different than the others. It had sounded like Alastir believed I should be in a cell instead of roaming around.

As if I were allowed to do that.

And once he brought me to Atlantia, if that was truly what Casteel planned, I would be surrounded by them, and in an even more precarious position.

A small seedling of excitement took root in my stomach when I thought of Atlantia. I couldn’t help but want to see the kingdom. Probably because I’d hardly seen anything in my life. But to be able to look upon a place that wasn’t supposed to exist? That was something very few people would ever be able to do.

Sighing, I shoved those feelings and thoughts aside. There would be no escape if Casteel managed to take me to Atlantia.

Kieran had been wrong to assume that I was fighting Casteel to return to the Ascended. I was fighting him to return to my brother.

I had to get to Ian, but it had to be on my terms. If I somehow managed to live long enough for Casteel to exchange me, I would be going straight from one cage to another. That could only be an option of last resort. So, I needed to get to Ian my way.

And then what?

I knew I wouldn’t be safe among the Ascended, but there were distant villages and towns I could try to carve out some kind of life in.

Slowly, I lifted my hand to my face, my fingers finding the longest scar. It would be hard to hide, wouldn’t it? I would have to try, though. Because I refused to hide my face ever again. I couldn’t live like that.

But that was a bridge I couldn’t even begin to cross until I figured out how to escape, make my way to the capital, and find Ian without getting caught or killed.

 We’d escape the Ascended together. Because even if Ian wasn’t my full-blooded brother and had gone through the Ascension, he couldn’t be like the rest. I refused to believe that. There was no way he would feed off the innocent and from children. There was no way that all Ascended were evil. Some had seemed rather normal.

But if they didn’t feed off the third sons and daughters given to the gods during the Rite, then how did they survive? They needed blood. If not, they would eventually die from whatever mortal wounds had plagued them before the Ascension. Ian had been healthy as a horse, but he would’ve been drained of nearly all his blood before feeding from an Atlantian to Ascend. That would’ve killed him, and could still kill him if he didn’t feed.

I wanted to see for myself what Ian had or had not turned into. I would do everything I could to help him. But if he had turned into a monster who preyed on others? On children? Then what? My heart squeezed, but I took a deep, slow breath. I knew what I would have to do.

I would have to end it for him, and I would. Because Ian was a kind, gentle soul—always had been. He was a dreamer, destined to spin tales for the rest of his life. Not to become a monster. There was no way he would have wanted to become something so evil. Ending that nightmare for him would be the honorable thing to do.

Even if it killed a part of me.

My muscles tensed for action, and the room seemed three sizes smaller than before. I couldn’t spend one more moment in here with these thoughts, not being able to do a damn thing.

I wasn’t sure if I could resist Casteel.

If Casteel were right, I didn’t think I would survive my time in Atlantia.

But I could find my brother.

“And I will not spend one more fucking moment in this room,” I said out loud, stalking to the door. I leaned against it, listening for any sounds from outside. Hearing nothing, I rapped my knuckles on the wood. “Kieran?”

Silence.

Kieran wasn’t standing guard by the door. He likely thought I was safely tucked away in the room. It wasn’t like I could kick it down or climb out the stupid, pointless window. He probably thought there was no way out. And there wasn’t, if one didn’t have an older brother who had taught them how to pick locks.

My lips curved into a smile as I spun around. I grabbed the meat knife off the table and took it back to the door. The blade was thick near the handle, but the edge was thin enough to fit into the lock.

Kneeling, I slipped the point into the keyhole. Ian had taught me how to wiggle the knife around, applying pressure to the right and then the left, repeating until I heard the soft click. Before I requested to be moved to the older part of Castle Teerman that contained the old servants’ access, allowing me to move about unseen, I was often locked inside my bedchambers while Ian was allowed out for schooling, to play, and to do whatever. He’d never told me how he learned to pick a lock, but he spent many, many afternoons teaching me.

You have to be patient, Poppy,” he’d said, kneeling beside me as I jammed the knife into the keyhole. He’d laughed as he placed his hand over mine. “And gentle. You can’t come at it like a battering ram.”

So, I was patient, and I was gentle. I wiggled the knife until I heard the soft snick of the point finding the tumbler. Grabbing the handle with my other hand, I exhaled deeply as the mechanism gave a little. I willed my hand to steady as I turned counterclockwise.

The handle turned, and the door cracked open. Cold air seeped in as I peeked outside, peering at the empty walkway.

A rush of euphoria hit me as I closed the door, scanning the room. The leather satchel was already packed with the meager items I’d brought with me. I went to grab it, but my gaze strayed to the bed, to the flannel nightgown left out by someone for me to wear. Snatching that off the bed, I started to shove it into the bag when I saw the thigh sheath lying on top. Quickly, I strapped that on and slipped the knife inside it, breathing through the pang I felt when I thought of my wolven bone and bloodstone dagger. Could it still be lying in the stables, lost under piles of straw and hay?

I crammed the nightgown into the bag and then dropped the strap over my head and across my chest. Turning, I picked up the heavy, fur-lined cloak. It was a drab, dark brown, chosen when we left Masadonia since it wouldn’t catch the eye. Tossing it over my shoulders, my fingers were steady as I secured the buttons along the neck of the cloak, even though my heart pounded. I tugged on my gloves, wishing there were supplies in the room other than what I thought was liquor that sat on the table below the window. But I had gone without food before, usually when Duke Teerman was disappointed in something I did or didn’t do. I could go without again.

I didn’t have much of a plan, and very limited knowledge of the surrounding areas, but I knew that traveling east would take me closer to the Skotos Mountains. Supposedly, Atlantia lay—and thrived—beyond the cloud-capped peaks and the fog-drenched valleys. If I headed through the town, I could follow the road back to Masadonia, but that would take me straight through the Blood Forest. If I went southwest, through the woods, I would eventually reach…what was the town? My nose wrinkled as I tried to recall one of the maps I’d seen in the city’s Atheneum. It had been old, the ink faded, but there had been a bridge drawn—

Whitebridge.

The town of Whitebridge was to the south, but I had no idea how far it would be on foot. Cursing my inexperience with horses, I sprang forward, opening the door. Walkway still clear, I slipped outside, closing the door behind me. I could lock it from the outside, but the time it would take to do that wasn’t worth the seconds it would take for someone to unlock the door.

I hurried to the stairwell, sticking close to the wall. Stopping at the door, I listened for signs of life. When I heard nothing, I entered and raced down the steps, a surreal sense of deja vu hitting me as I reached the landing. I turned to the door that led outside, just like I had after stabbing Casteel.

I really hoped this had a different outcome as I pulled up the hood of the cloak, then reached for the door, opening it slowly.

A fine layer of snow crunched under my boot as I stepped out into the yard, the sound minuscule but sounding like a crack of thunder to my ears. Drawing in a deep breath, I reminded myself of all the times I’d snuck out onto the Rise without being seen, or moved throughout the castle and the city, never once being caught—until Casteel.

I wasn’t going to think about that right now. I would think about how much I excelled at sneaking off, right under the noses of many.

I could do this.

My breath puffed out in small, misty clouds as I looked to the right, toward the stables. Could the wolven dagger really be in there?

Could I really be stupid enough to check?

Yes?

The dagger meant…well, it meant everything to me. But Ian was more important—my freedom was more important. Going to the stables was too much of a risk. There’d be stable hands there, Descenters and possibly even Atlantians or wolven.

I wasn’t that stupid.

“Dammit,” I muttered and then pushed away from the wall. I ran for the shadows, the edges of my cloak streaming out behind me as I avoided the lit torches and their buttery glow.

I didn’t even realize I’d made it to the forest until the silvery moonlight became fragmented, leaving just enough light for me to not be taken out by a tree. I didn’t slow. I ran faster than I ever had, keeping the pace to put as much distance between me and the keep as possible. When my boot snagged on an exposed root, bringing me down hard, my knees cracking off the frozen ground, I climbed back to my feet and ran some more, pushing past the pain and the cold, the damp air stinging my cheeks. I ran until the dull ache in my side turned into a stitch that forced me to slow. By then, I had no idea how far I’d traveled, but the trees were less crowded, and the snow-covered ground was untouched.

Panting as I rubbed at my side, I forged forward. There couldn’t be more than a day’s ride between New Haven and Whitebridge. So, on foot? A day and a half, maybe two if I rested. Once I got there, I could find the next group who was traveling toward the capital. I could get lucky. Maybe there wouldn’t be a long wait. But if not? I would have to make do, though the real concern was if Whitebridge was as controlled by Descenters as New Haven was. If so, would they know who I was? I didn’t think so. Very few people knew I was scarred. But if Casteel got word out, just like the Ascended would once we didn’t show at our next outpost, I would be recognized. As far as I knew, we hadn’t planned to stop at Whitebridge, but whatever plans had been shared with the Duchess hadn’t been real. But could I use my identity? If I could prove to any of the mortals or possibly the Ascended that I was the Maiden, then I was sure I could secure travel to the capital, and then I could escape once we were inside. That would be a risk, but nothing about this was safe. Only the gods knew what lived in these woods. Knowing my luck, probably a cantankerous family of very large, very hungry bears. I’d never seen a bear before, though, so that would be kind of an amazing sight to behold right before it chewed off my face. But at least I doubted—

 The snapping of a branch stopped me as I climbed over a fallen tree. Looking down, I saw nothing but smooth snow and scattered pine needles. I held my breath, skin prickling as I strained to hear any other sounds. A cracking noise came again, this time closer, sending a rippling wave of wariness through me.

Spinning around, I scanned the trees and their low-hanging branches, weighed down by the snow and ice. Was that the cause of that sound? Branches breaking? I turned in a full circle, slower this time, my eyes watering from the cold air. My head jerked to the right. I squinted at the thicker, deeper shadows where the moonlight didn’t quite penetrate. Reaching into the folds of my cloak, I pulled the meat knife out. I really hoped it wasn’t a bear. I didn’t want to have to kill the ursine. I almost laughed because I doubted the knife would do much against a bear. My muscles tensed as the shadow peeled away, slinking out from the gloom. I jerked back a step at the size of it, nearly as tall as a man, it’s tawny fur dusted with snow.

My heart sank all the way to the tips of my freezing toes as the wolven prowled forward, its muscles bunching and rolling under the heavy fawn-colored fur.

Kieran.

“Dammit,” I growled, tasting fury in the back of my throat.

His ears flattened as he climbed halfway onto the fallen tree, the claws of his front paws ripping into the wood. He dropped his chin, those pale blue eyes alert as we stared at each other. He was waiting, probably for me to run, but I knew that wouldn’t end well for me. The sense of hopelessness, of how unfair this was almost brought me to my knees.

But I stood my ground.

I would not give up.

The handle of the knife dug into my gloved palm as my heart slammed against my ribs. “I’m not going back to the keep,” I told Kieran. “You will have to force me, and I will not make it easy for you. I will fight you.”

“If you’re looking for a fight…” came a voice that sent a shiver down my spine and then over my skin. My head jerked in the direction of the sound. “You’ll fight me, Princess.”


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