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A Soul of Ash and Blood: Chapter 53


I fell silent as I lay at Poppy’s side, thinking about the days after the night of the Rite. I could still hear Poppy’s screams so clearly that thinking of them even now caused me to flinch.

I knew learning what Vikter really was hadn’t lessened the blow of his loss.

“Those days when you slept and I watched over you?” I said, “It makes me think about what Kieran must have gone through when I first returned home. The situations were different, and I stayed much longer in that grief and anger, even long past awakening.”

I curled my arm around her waist. “And everything with the Duke? Knowing what you had to deal with—how it made you feel? How I know it still gets to you sometimes?”

And I knew it did.

Sometimes, it was when she slept, her memories taking her back to the Duke’s study. It was how she’d go unnaturally still on the rare instance someone mentioned Duke Teerman.

We didn’t go through the same shit, but trauma was trauma. It affected everyone differently, but it always affected.

I cleared my throat. “I used to tell myself that what was done to me didn’t matter because I’d processed it. Dealt with that shit. But telling myself that proved I hadn’t really dealt with it. Because what I experienced will always matter in some way—sometimes, insignificantly and barely noticeable, and other times, it can ruin your entire fucking day. But that’s okay. And I mean that. Because saying someone chooses to live in the past, rehashing bad shit done to them, is bullshit. You can’t choose that. Things inside you? Parts of your mind and body that you don’t control decide that. And it took a hell of a long time for me to learn that what I can control is how I act in response to those memories—to those emotional wounds. How I treat myself. How I treat others because of it. It’s not as simple as saying that. I know. Nothing is simple.”

I inhaled deeply. “Even though my idiotic actions led to my capture, I know what was done to me wasn’t my fault. Took a long time for me to understand that, but I do. How I respond to it? Figuring out a good way to deal with it was my responsibility.” I smiled at her. “But I think you already know that. Because you deal with all you’ve gone through. I just wanted you to know that when you feel like you’re not dealing?” I leaned over, kissing her cheek. “It’s okay.”

Pressing another kiss to the bridge of her nose, I settled back beside her. “I should’ve known something was up with the Duchess when she had no problem with me being in your chambers, but things always seem different in hindsight, don’t they? I couldn’t even consider then that they knew who I was and not only allowed me to take you but practically helped facilitate it.”

My gaze shifted to the ceiling. It still amazed me how much Isbeth had manipulated or controlled, but in the end, even with all her plotting and planning, she failed when it came to Poppy.

I turned my head to her. For Isbeth to bring Kolis back to full power, she had chosen to sacrifice someone she loved and decided to let her heartmate go over her daughter—her daughters. Fuck. I couldn’t wrap my head around that slice of decency in Isbeth.

It was just a tiny sliver, but it had been there. And if I didn’t know what to think about that, how could Poppy?

And I couldn’t say for sure I wouldn’t do the same.

Then again, I didn’t have a child. I had no idea what that kind of love felt like. What type of bond it forged—one that could lead to choices you’d never believed yourself capable of.

But I’d seen it in action.

Look at what it had done to Isbeth. The loss of her son had tipped her over the edge. My parents? They’d lied for centuries, believing they were protecting Malik and me. They’d killed. And that bond was not one forged in blood. Coralena and Leopold were examples of that. They’d not only risked their lives but lost them, attempting to protect their son and Poppy, who they’d raised as their daughter.

That love made one capable of the greatest acts of selflessness, but it could also cause one to spiral into the depths of evil. And Isbeth, as depraved as she was, she still loved her daughters in her twisted, sick way.

“It’s hard not to wonder what would have become of Isbeth if Malec had made different choices. Hell. If my mother hadn’t gone after him, entombing him,” I said. “Would she and Malec have simply gone off and lived their lives? Would the Ascended never have taken root as strongly as they did with her and her knowledge guiding them?”

I didn’t think so.

In all reality, the realm would be a different place. A better one. Kolis wouldn’t be a threat. So many lives would’ve been saved. But it also meant I wouldn’t be here right now.

Poppy wouldn’t be alive.

I shook my head. There was really no point in dwelling on what’d never happened or could’ve happened.

Blowing out a long breath, I thought back to our last day in Masadonia. “Do you remember,” I asked softly, “standing by the Rise with your eyes closed and your face turned to the sun? I do.”


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