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A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire: Chapter 9


“You think I might be a descendent of one of the other bloodlines? Or…or a changeling?” A thousand thoughts entered my head all at once. “I can’t change my form. I mean, I haven’t tried. Should I?” My nose wrinkled. “Probably not. Knowing my luck, my other form would be a barrat.” I shuddered. Barrats were rats the size of a small bear.

Kieran stared at me, his lips twitching. “You have a selective memory. I said most can shift forms, but not all. And it would be extremely doubtful that even a first-generation descendent of the changeling bloodline could do that.”

“Sorry, I got hung up on the whole shifting forms part. What can the others do? The ones who don’t shift?”

“Some have heightened senses—mental abilities. As those of an elemental line often do.”

“Like…being able to tell the future or knowing things about people?”

He nodded.

The woman who’d been in the Red Pearl came to mind immediately. She’d known way too much for someone I’d never met before, and I’d wondered then if she’d been a Seer, but it seemed more likely that she had been working with Casteel. But she’d said something. It had been strange then, but virtually meaningless. What had it been?

You are like a second daughter, but not in the way you intend.

Had she meant second daughter as in…second-generation?

Either way, with my abilities, it would make sense that I had descended from such a bloodline. Being able to tell what others were feeling was a heightened sense.

“What about the other bloodlines?” I asked. “The ones that died off?”

“There were—” Kieran’s head suddenly twisted toward the doorway. I followed his gaze, finding the area empty at first. However, within seconds, he appeared.

The breath I took sort of got stuck somewhere in my chest when I saw Casteel. Annoyed by the reaction and also somewhat awed by the idea that the mere sight of someone could cause such a physical response, I had to admit that he cut a striking and imposing figure dressed in black breeches and a tunic with a heavy, fur-lined cloak draped over his shoulders. As he strode forward, the cloak parted, revealing both of his short swords, sheathed close to the sides of his stomach, their deadly, sharp points were tucked away from his arms, and the serrated sides lay flat against him. His hair was windblown back from his face, sharpening the lines of his cheekbones.

Casteel had taken only a few steps into the banquet hall when he turned in our direction. His gaze found mine with unerring accuracy. The space between us seemed to shrink as he held my stare. My heart rate picked up, and my skin flushed.

I didn’t remember falling asleep this morning, but I did recall exactly what it had felt like with his arm draped over my waist, his chest mere inches from my back. It had been an experience and would’ve been perfect if things were…different. If things were different, I would be looking forward to the many nights and mornings that surely awaited us. A sharp aching pulse rolled through me.

Casteel’s lips rose, just a corner. I knew that if I were closer, I would see the dimple in his right cheek. It was almost like he knew where my thoughts had gone. Tearing my gaze from his, something occurred to me. Casteel did know.

Facing Kieran, I asked in a low voice, “Can he somehow sense…like what I’m feeling? Not like I can, but in another way?”

Kieran tilted his head toward mine, dark brows furrowing and then smoothing as a hint of amusement played across his lips.

Oh, no.

I tensed, instinctively knowing I probably wasn’t going to like the answer.

“Atlantians of the elemental line do have heightened physical senses,” he explained. “Their sight is far beyond what a mortal could even imagine, allowing them to see clearly even during the darkest hours of the night.”

I already knew that.

“Their sense of taste is also heightened, as well as their sense of smell,” he continued, his grin growing. “They can scent a person’s unique scent, and that can tell a lot of things about someone and their body—where a person has been, what they last ate, or who they’ve been close to.”

Relief began to seep into me. All of that didn’t sound too bad—

“One could tell, in certain situations, if a person is unwell or injured or the exact opposite. Like, for example, if someone is….” He paused. “Aroused.”

And there it was, what I feared.

Casteel could sense arousal?

Heat swept over every inch of my body, and I knew I had to be as red as the leaves within the Blood Forest. Oh, gods. That explained how he seemed to know exactly when I was lying about being attracted to him. But could he sense that from a distance? I doubted that.

“How is that even possible?”

“Each person has a unique scent. At certain times, the scent is stronger. Especially when someone is aroused.”

“I wish you’d stop saying that word,” I muttered.

“Why? There’s nothing to be ashamed of,” he responded. “It’s probably one of the most natural things there is.”

Natural or not, I now knew what it felt like to know someone could be privy to such intimate dealings. Feeling as if the tables had been turned on me, I picked up my cup and swallowed the sweet juice.

“Only the wolven have keener senses that allow us to track over longer distances,” Kieran added. “And for longer periods.”

I nearly choked on the juice.

The night in the Blood Forest came back to me in vivid, startling detail. Kieran had been keeping guard while Casteel…while he helped me sleep. At that time, I’d believed Kieran had been too far away to hear or see or scent anything.

I almost shouted a curse that would’ve shocked Vikter and then made him laugh.

“I’m curious,” Casteel said, causing me to jump. I hadn’t even heard him approach. “What are you two discussing that has Poppy looking as if she’s five seconds away from crawling under the table?”

“Nothing,” I said.

“I was just telling her about how you have heightened physical senses,” Kieran answered at the same time as I did. “Like your ability to see better than her, and scent her arousal—”

“Oh, my gods!” I spun on the bench, swinging at Kieran, but he easily avoided my fist.

“I’m sorry.” Kieran didn’t look remotely remorseful. “I meant desire. She doesn’t like the word arousal.”

“Careful, Kieran,” Casteel murmured, catching my hand before I could swing at Kieran once more. “She’ll be threatening to stab you next.”

The wolven grinned. “I’m pretty sure that’s already happened.”

“I hate you,” I announced. “I hate you both.”

Casteel chuckled. “That’s a lie.”

My gaze shot to his as I tugged on my hand. “You can’t sense that.”

He didn’t let go of my hand. “Not through any type of heightened senses, but I know you don’t nonetheless.”

“Whatever you think you know is completely wrong. I absolutely loathe your very existence.” I glared up at him. “And you can let go of my hand, please and thank you.”

“Why do you think you loathe my very existence?” His eyes glimmered as a hint of a smile played across his lips. “And even though you asked oh so nicely, I fear that if I let go of your hand, either Kieran or I will be in grave danger.”

Kieran nodded.

“Cowards,” I hissed.

“Also, I like holding your hand,” Casteel said, sucking his lower lip between his teeth—between his fangs.

“I don’t care what you like. And I also can’t believe you’re seriously asking why I would loathe you. Do you have memory problems?”

“I think I have a very impressive memory. Don’t you think so, Kieran?”

“There is very little you forget,” the wolven answered.

Steam had to be billowing out of my ears. “Besides the fact that you’ve lied to me, kidnapped me, and planned to ransom me, you kept me locked in a room all day. How is that any better than what the Ascended did to me my entire life?”

The warmth and amusement vanished under the ice drenching Casteel’s gaze. “Because this time, it is for your safety.”

I laughed harshly. “Isn’t that what they also claimed?”

A muscle ticked in his jaw. “The difference is that they were lying to you, and I’m not.”

“There are those who would risk death to seek revenge against the Ascended,” Kieran added. “He’s trying to protect you.”

“For what?” I shot each of them a withering stare. “So I stay alive long enough for him to trade me?”

Casteel arched a brow but said nothing.

Anger and embarrassment was a dangerous mix. I was furious over being locked up all day and embarrassed by the knowledge that both of these men knew how I responded to Casteel—how easily my body sang for him. “You’re no better than the Ascended.”

Casteel didn’t move.

Kieran didn’t speak.

Silence stretched out so long between us that unease blossomed, sending my heart pounding. I shouldn’t have said that. I knew that the moment it left my mouth, but I couldn’t take it back.

“I need to show you something,” Casteel bit out, all but lifting me off the bench. He started walking, tugging me along behind him, his grip on my hand firm but not painful.

I struggled to keep up with his long-legged pace as he crossed the banquet hall. “There is nothing you can show me that I want to see.”

“You won’t want to see this. No one does. But you need to see it.”

Confused by that statement, I looked over my shoulder to see Kieran leaning back, arms resting on the table, his long legs stretched out in front of him. He waved at me.

I did something that Ian had once taught me, something that I’d seen the guards do to one another—sometimes in humor and other times in anger. It was considered a foul gesture, and I’d never done it in my life.

I gave Kieran the middle finger.

Throwing his head back, the wolven laughed loudly and deeply.

Casteel glanced back at me, brows raised as his eyes flicked to Kieran. “Do I even want to know what you just did?”

“It’s none of your business,” I grumbled, cheeks feeling hot.

“You’re in a lovely mood today.”

“I’m beginning to doubt your comprehension skills. You’ve kept me—”

“Locked away in a room all day. I know,” he interrupted as we walked through the empty hall. “I would’ve preferred not to. Believe it or not, the idea of keeping you confined is something I find distasteful.”

I wanted to believe him. I really did, but I wasn’t that naïve. “Then you can simply not do it.”

He coughed out a dry laugh. “And risk you running off again, unprepared and unprotected? I think not.”

“I’m not going to try to run away—”

Casteel laughed again, this time as deeply as Kieran had. I figured there was a good chance I might explode as we entered the common area. People lingered in the space, and I had no idea what they thought when they saw Casteel and I walk past them. I imagined one or both of us looked as if we were charging off to do battle.

Up ahead, one of the men by the door opened it for us, and I had no idea where we were going as Casteel led me outside. Regardless, I was glad he wasn’t taking me back to the room. I’d definitely lose it then.

The snow was coming down in a light, slow flurry, having eased off a bit from before. We trudged through several inches on the ground as we crossed the yard.

“Why are we going into the woods?” I asked, wondering if I should be concerned, even though I knew I was no good to him dead.

“We aren’t going very far.” Having slowed down so I could walk at his side, he glanced over at me. “Are you cold?”

I shook my head.

“We won’t be out here for very long,” he said.

 I lifted a hand as we walked, momentarily distracted by the snow. I watched it fall and melt against my skin. After a moment, I became aware of Casteel’s intense gaze on me. Closing my hand, I lowered it to my side.

“It snowed in Masadonia, didn’t it?” he asked quietly as we reached the edge of the forest. “Were you ever able to enjoy it?”

“It would’ve been unseemly for a Maiden to be romping around in the snow.” I frowned as we stepped under the trees. Snow dusted large areas of the forest floor and drifted in higher piles where there were breaks in the trees. “But a few times when I was able to sneak out at night I saw it, but it wasn’t often. A couple of times with Ian. Once with Tawny.”

Tawny.

My heart hurt as I thought of her, almost wishing I hadn’t. Gods, I missed her. She was the second daughter of a successful merchant, given to the Royal Court at the age of thirteen during the Rite. She had been tasked to be a companion of sorts to me, but she had become far more than that. I often worried that our friendship was nothing more than a task, a duty to her. But I knew better now. She genuinely cared for me.

“Everyone seemed to go outside in the snow,” I continued. “So, going out without being seen wasn’t always feasible.”

“That’s a shame. There are few things more peaceful than being out in the snow.” Casteel’s steps slowed, and then he stopped, letting go of my hand.

Palm still tingly from the contact, I crossed my arms over my chest as he bent. “Does it snow in Atlantia?”

“In the mountains, yes.” He lifted a heavy branch and then swept the fine layer of snow off what appeared to be a wooden door in the ground. “My brother and I would sneak off quite a bit to go into the mountains when we knew it was snowing. Kieran would often come with us, as would…others sometimes.” He tugged on an iron hook, pulling a door up. “I can make a mean snowball.”

I stared at a dimly lit hole. Stone and earthen steps took form out of the shadows. “Ian taught me how to make snowballs, but I haven’t thrown one in years.”

He looked up at me, a slight smile on his lips. “I bet you’re the type who packs the snow so tight that it leaves welts behind when it hits someone.”

My lips twitched as I looked away, thinking the mask of the Prince had cracked a little just there, showing a peek of either Casteel or yet another mask.

“Knew it,” he murmured and then cleared his throat. “I ran into Alastir before I came into the banquet hall. He told me he spoke with you.”

“We did. Briefly.” I glanced at him. “Kieran was there.”

“I know.” He watched me. “What do you think of Alastir?”

I thought about that for a moment. “He seems nice, but it’s not like I know him.” I lifted my gaze to his. “Kieran said you are close with him.”

“I’ve known him my entire life. He’s like a second father to Malik and me. To even Kieran. When I wanted to do something and my mother said no, and my father would ask what my mother said,”—a faint grin appeared—“which was usually no, obviously, I then went to Alastir.”

“And what did he say?”

“Usually, yes. And if it was something reckless or if he thought I might find myself in trouble, he followed,” he said. “Alastir found you very…unexpected.”

“I thought you warned him about how outspoken I could be.”

“Apparently, not well enough.”

I took a deep breath. “Am I still in jeopardy with him?”

“Hopefully, not for much longer.” Casteel turned to the earthen steps. Another long moment passed. “I know you hate being kept in a room, secluded. I didn’t mean to leave you in there for that long.”

Saying none of what I wanted to, I stared at his shoulder.

“I had to speak with Mrs. Tulis about her husband,” he continued, voice soft. “About why what happened had to.”

Mouth suddenly dry, I lifted my gaze to his.

“She was upset. Unsurprisingly. She couldn’t believe that he’d taken part in what he did. I don’t think she even believed me.” He tipped his head back, squinting at the snow as it drifted through the trees. “I can’t even blame her for doubting what I said. How often had she been lied to by the Ascended? Speaking with her took longer than I anticipated.”

A smidgeon of guilt blossomed. “How…? Is she okay now?” I asked, wincing. Of course, she wasn’t okay. Her husband was dead.

“I gave her the option to stay with the people of New Haven, promising her that no harm would come to her or, if she wished, I told her I would provide her safe passage to another town.” He lowered his chin. “She is to let me know.”

“I hope she chooses to stay,” I whispered.

“As do I.” He exhaled roughly. “Can you see the steps?” When I nodded, he said, “I’ll follow you down.”

I hesitated and swallowed thickly. I wasn’t afraid of the dark or tunnels, but… “I’ve never been underground before.”

“It’s a lot like being aboveground.”

I sent him a dry look. “Really?”

He chuckled then, and the sound was soft and real. “Okay. It’s nothing like being aboveground, but we’ll only be in a narrow tunnel for a very short distance and then you’ll forget you’re underground.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“You will,” he said, his tone quiet and heavy.

My eyes met his for a moment, and then I exhaled, nodding. I had no idea what we were doing, but I was curious. I was always curious. Carefully, I made my way down the steps, placing my hands on the damp, cool walls. Once I reached the bottom, I tried not to think about how I was underground. I took a couple of cautious steps forward. Lit torches spaced several feet apart cast light upon the stone and dirt floor and the low ceiling, continuing for as far as I could see. It wasn’t as cold as I thought it would be.

The door clicked shut, and then Casteel landed behind me. I turned, wondering if he’d jumped, but he turned to face me. Suddenly, we were chest to chest. Under the scent of rich soil, there was the hint of him. Of pine and spice. His eyes met mine, and I quickly looked away, unsettled by…everything.

“What is this?” I asked, hoping my voice sounded steadier than it felt.

“It is different things to different people.” Casteel stepped around me, his shoulder and hip brushing mine. I knew the shiver had nothing to do with the surroundings.

His hand curved around mine once more, and the spark of his skin touching mine traveled up my arm. “To some people, this is a place of reflection,” he said as he began walking, and I wondered if he felt that charge of energy. We continued down the tunnel. “For some, it is a place to bear witness to what many strive to forget.”

The shadows ahead disappeared as the tunnel came to an end. Several feet of stairs led down into a space that opened into what appeared to be some sort of circular chamber with high ceilings and…dear gods, it had to be the length of the keep itself. Dozens and dozens of torches jutted out from the stone, casting light across the chamber’s walls. Only the center was in shadows. Within that gloom, there appeared to be several benches.

“To others, this is simply a tomb. Hallowed ground.” Casteel let go of my hand. “One of the few places in all of Solis where those who have lost family members to the Ascended can mourn.”

I was moving before I knew it, walking down the stairs and then onto the chamber’s floor. Pedestals were situated every couple of feet, and upon them rested slender chisels and hammers. I went to the right, my gaze crawling over the wall—over what was etched into the stone. There were words. Names. Ages. Some with epithets. Others with none. As I drew closer, I saw sketches carved into the stone. Portraits rendered by capable, artistic hands. A shuddering breath left me as I followed the curve of the wall. The names…there were so many of them. They flowed over the surface, from floor to ceiling, but the dates were what formed a knot in my chest, each marking the birth and then the death. The realization that many shared the same death dates moved the knot to my throat, and the recognition of those dates caused the carvings in the wall to blur.

Quite a few of the death dates were sporadic, some several hundred years ago. While others were only a decade or five years ago, or last year, or…or a couple of months ago. But many others had dates that lined up with the Rites of the past.

And the ages…

My hand clutched at my chest. Two years of age. Seven months of age. Four years and six months of age. Ten years of age. And on and on. There were so many. Thousands. Thousands and thousands of children. Babies.

“They…they are from the Rites,” I broke the silence, my voice thick and hoarse.

“Many are, but others are Descenters who were killed,” he answered from somewhere behind me. “Some died of what the Ascended call a wasting disease, but in truth, it was due to uncontrolled feedings.”

My eyes squeezed shut as Mr. and Mrs. Tulis appeared in my mind’s eye. They had lost two children that way. Two.

“And some of the names, the ones you’ll notice have no end dates?” He was closer now. “They represent those who’ve disappeared, presumed to have become Craven or are dead.”

Opening my eyes, I blinked back tears. I stepped closer, reaching out to trace the grooves that formed cheeks and eyes, but stopped short. Below, set against the wall, were old, dried flowers. Some fresh ones. Pieces of jewelry that glimmered faintly in the firelight. A necklace. A bracelet. A ring. Two wedding bands laid to overlap one another. My hand shook as I drew it back to my chest. I stopped in front of a stuffed animal. An old bear with a pale ribbon as a crown. My throat burned.

“These are only a small fraction of the lives taken by the Ascended. There are large chambers with not a single space left for even one more name. And these are only the names of the mortals who were taken.” Each word bitterly clipped. “In Atlantia, walls that travel as far as the eye can see carry the names of our fallen.”

Swallowing hard, I spread my fingers over my cheeks, brushing away dampness as I stared at the bear.

“I am not without sin. I’m sure that I’ve caused names to be carved into different walls, but I am not them.” His voice was quiet in the chamber, and yet it somehow still echoed. “We are not them. And all that I ask is that the next time you think I am no better than an Ascended, you think of the names on these walls.”

The words I know you’re not like them rose to the tip of my tongue, but I couldn’t speak. I was barely holding it together.

“I can promise you that the vast majority of those I’ve killed, who’ve ended in tombs or on walls, deserved it. I don’t lose a single moment of rest thinking of them. But the ones who were innocent?” Casteel spoke again, his voice low and as sharp as the chisels that awaited fingers shaking with grief. “The ones caught in the middle or who died by those who support me? I lose sleep over them—over the Lorens and the Dafinas of the world. The Vikters—”

“Stop,” I rasped, unable to move for what felt like a small eternity.

Casteel quieted, and I didn’t know if it was because he’d said all that he needed to or if it was a small gift that he was bestowing upon me.

My lips trembled when I was finally able to move again. I walked on, discovering fresher flowers, newer dates, and more common names—and far too many too-short date ranges, and ones left open-ended.

I don’t know how long we stayed in there, but I felt like I needed to walk every foot of the chamber, see every name that I could read, commit as many to memory as possible, and bear witness just as others had to the horrific and painful loss of life.

 Casteel had been right when he said that this was something no one wanted to see. I didn’t, but I needed to see this. No one could fake this. They just couldn’t.

Slowly, I turned around.

He stood by the entrance. “You ready?”

Feeling as if I’d just battled a legion of Craven, I nodded.

“Good.” He waited until I joined him before he climbed the stairs. Neither of us spoke until we emerged to discover that day had long since given way to night.

I watched him close the door and move the limb over it. “Why did you remove the bodies from the hall?” I asked.

He remained kneeling. “Does it matter?”

“Yes,” I whispered.

Lifting his head, he stared out over the moonlight-drenched snow. “I didn’t lie when I told you that I had helped those cursed by a Craven die with dignity. I did. Because I believe there should be dignity in death, even for those I loathe. I’d forgotten that in my anger and in my—” He cut himself off and then looked up at me. “You reminded me that as Hawke, I believed in that.”

As Hawke.

“Thank you,” I said hoarsely. I wasn’t sure if I was thanking him for remembering or for showing me what I never wanted to see but needed to.

His head tilted as he stared up at me, and then he rose. “Come,” he said quietly. “We have a lot to discuss before it gets too late.”

His proposal that wasn’t a proposal.

Our future that really wasn’t one.

I said nothing though as we walked back toward the keep, nor did I resist when he took hold of my hand once more. I had no idea why he did it. I doubted he feared I’d run. Maybe he simply liked holding my hand.

I liked my hand being held.

The last to do it so often was Ian, and that had only been when no one was around. But that felt nothing like this.

Maybe I liked it so much because my mind was still in that chamber—no, that crypt with no bodies, among all those people who would never hold hands again. Perhaps it was because my mind was still in the moment where Casteel remembered a part of him that was Hawke.

We didn’t speak the entire walk back to the keep or up to the room. Once inside, he led me over to the hearth. I stood by it, letting the fire warm my chilled skin.

“Will we leave tomorrow?” I asked, breaking the silence.

“The storm is weakening, but it will have to clear a little from the roads.” Flakes of snow melted and disappeared in the dark strands of his hair as he looked to the rattling window. “The wind should help with that…and possibly blow down this keep if it keeps up like this for another night.”

I laughed out loud, thinking of the tale Ian had once told me he’d heard. Casteel turned to stare. “Sorry,” I said. “I was just thinking about this story Ian once heard. About a wolf blowing down the homes of pigs. For some reason, I thought of a wolven doing that.”

“You don’t need to apologize,” he said. “You’re beautiful when you’re quiet and somber, but when you laugh? You rival the sunrise over the Skotos Mountains.”

He sounded so genuine, as if he truly meant that, and I couldn’t understand it. “Why do you say things like that?”

His gaze searched mine. “Because it’s the truth.”

“The truth?” I laughed, stepping back from the fire. The burn was back in my throat, threatening to overwhelm me. “Will you add my name to the walls once you hand me over? I’ll be dead eventually. That’s the truth. So, don’t say things like that.”

“But it’s not the truth. Not at all,” he said, his gaze catching and holding mine. “It’s why we must marry.”

“Why are you so adamant about the marriage?” I demanded. “It makes no sense.”

“But it does. It’s the only way I can get what I want, and ensure you stay alive. Hopefully so you can live a long, free life.”


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