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A Soul of Ash and Blood: Chapter 59

THREE RIVERS

You have the touch.

Phillips’ words kept cycling over and over as I stalked past Noah’s horse. We’d found the steed a few hours after leaving the Blood Forest, grazing in a meadow without a care in the realm. We’d ridden hard, reaching the outskirts of Three Rivers at dusk with plans to take a few hours to rest and then ride the remainder of the way to New Haven.

Nearing the cluster of trees, I looked back to where Poppy sat near a fire, eating a supper of cured meat and cheese—mostly cheese, from what I’d noticed. We were on high ground with only a few scattered pines and a clear view in every direction. A small fire to beat back the chill was safe, but I didn’t wander far. Phillips was beside her, and although he hadn’t mentioned what we’d witnessed with Airrick, he kept looking at her in wonder.

And why wouldn’t he?

Phillips had witnessed Poppy—the godsdamn Chosen—ease a dying man’s grave and painful wounds with her touch.

Fuck, I was filled with awe and a little disbelief.

She’s Chosen, born in a shroud.

Gods.

I looked for Kieran. We hadn’t had a chance to talk until now. Luckily, he hadn’t gone far.

He appeared in the trees, the collar of his tunic damp from the stream he must’ve used to wash the blood away.

“Did you see what happened back in the Blood Forest?” I didn’t waste time.

“I heard Phillips saying some weird stuff about a touch.” He stopped in front of me. “But I didn’t see what was going on.”

“Remember what you said about the shroud?” I kept my eyes on Poppy as my thoughts ran a hundred miles a minute. They’d been like that for the last couple of hours. “That it wasn’t impossible for a mortal to be born in one? Well, I think that part about Poppy is true.”

“Poppy?” Kieran repeated.

“That’s what she—it doesn’t matter. It’s just a nickname,” I said. “Have you actually heard of a mortal being born in one?”

“Not that I can recall at the moment,” he answered, eyeing me closely. “Doesn’t mean one hasn’t been at some point.” His head tilted. “What happened back there?”

Brows raised, I shook my head. “She eased his pain with her touch—and I’m one hundred percent sure that’s what happened.”

“That’s not—”

“Possible,” I cut in. “I know. She’s mortal.” My heart fucking skipped as I looked at him. “Unless she’s not.”

“Half-Atlantian? I’m not even sure that would explain these abilities—this kind of gift,” Kieran argued. “The bloodline of Atlantians capable of such died out ages ago. And, yeah, sometimes certain abilities skip a generation or two, but that is a hell of a lot to skip.”

“Her brother is a vampry, and unless that’s not her full-blooded brother, her being part Atlantian doesn’t make sense.”

“And nothing has ever indicated that her parents aren’t who she believes they are?” He scratched his jaw when I shook my head. “Are you sure that’s what you saw? The mortal body goes through some weird shit at the end.”

“It’s what I saw. Her touch took his pain. Gave him…gave him peace.” Exhaling slowly, I watched Poppy as Phillips offered her one of the canteens. “I don’t think that was the first time she’s done it. Phillips said it’s true—the rumors.” I thought about Jole Crain. “One of the guards spoke of the child of the gods—her. Saying she would’ve eased his suffering and given him dignity.” I dragged a hand over my head. “He was infected, so I dismissed it.” I turned to him. “But that’s what she did with Airrick.”

Kieran stared at me, his mouth opening and then closing. “How is that even possible, though?”

“No fucking clue.”

A bird hopped from one branch to another, peering down at us. “Well, this could be why she’s so important to the Blood Crown—at least part of the reason.” He, too, was staring at Poppy, his brows raised.

“Definitely.” But while the ability to ease another’s anguish was remarkable and astonishing, why would that be of value to the Ascended? They sought power and endless life. They didn’t seek to give others peace. Poppy handed the canteen back to Phillips as she looked over her shoulder, searching out where Kieran and I stood in the shadows of the pines. “I’m guessing you’ve also never heard of a mortal with those kinds of abilities?”

Kieran’s laugh was gruff. “You’ve been around them more than I have. If you haven’t, I sure as hell haven’t. My father? Different story. He may have, but…” He cursed. “What if she is Chosen?”

I met Kieran’s gaze. “The gods are asleep.”

“Do we know if that means they can’t do whatever it is they do to choose someone?” he challenged. “We don’t know. What we do know is that life and death and everything in between carries on while they sleep.”

“True,” I murmured. The last of the sunlight pulled back from the western valley below. “We need to figure out what her gifts are and how the Ascended likely plan to use them before we make this trade. This has to be tied to why she is so important to them.”

A keenness entered his eyes. “I agree that we need to know more about what she can do, but is that the only thing I need to know before we make this trade?”

“Yes.” But it wasn’t the only thing. I needed to know exactly where Poppy stood when it came to the Ascended. Sure, she didn’t want to be the Maiden. She questioned everything about that and didn’t support the Rite, but she hadn’t outright voiced any real dissent against the Ascended, and especially not her beloved Queen Ileana. I would have to know her stance before the exchange.

But then what? What if she wised up to the Ascended? Her brother was one of them. Could I make the exchange, free my brother, and then recapture Poppy once more? I’d gotten into the capital before without being caught. I could do it again. That was an option.

A risky fucking option.

Going into Carsodonia was like falling face-first into a viper’s nest. My gaze flicked to where Poppy was redoing the braid in her hair.

Poppy…she was worth the risk. To give her a chance to actually live.

But I wouldn’t ask any of my people to help me with it. Not even Kieran. I’d have to do it alone.

“What’s going on in your head?” Kieran asked, drawing my attention back to him. “I can practically see the wheels of something really bad turning.”

I let out a dry laugh. “Just thinking about everything.” I sighed. “I’ll talk with her once we get to New Haven and see what I can find out. Right now, we need to get some rest.”

Kieran nodded. “Yeah, but you and I need to talk about her real quick.”

The muscles along my spine tensed. “What about her?”

“I thought her name was Penellaphe.”

I frowned. “It is.”

“But you called her Poppy.”

What the fuck was he getting at? “Out of everything that just went down, you want to talk to me about a nickname?”

He raised a brow. “Just wanted to say that it seems like a…cute nickname.”

“So?”

“Also sounds like a nickname someone close to her would use.”

“Let me repeat myself—so fucking what?”

Kieran stepped in close, keeping his voice low, even though the other guards weren’t within earshot. “Okay, I’ll be more blunt. She is still a maiden, yes?”

Everything went quiet in me as I locked eyes with Kieran.

“I know you said you were willing to do anything to gain her trust,” Kieran went on. “Clearly, you’ve gotten it.”

I gritted my teeth as I looked away. This was not the conversation I wanted to have with him. Not now. Not when I even thought about the trust I’d gained but didn’t deserve.

Kieran saw it and kept going. “So, there is no reason for you to do anything—to do that to her. Especially if what you’ve told me about her is true. She doesn’t deserve how that will fuck with her.”

My head whipped in his direction. “You think I don’t know that?” I seethed. “You think I haven’t thought about that?”

Kieran’s jaw locked down, his nostrils flaring. “I don’t know what you’re thinking half the time anymore.”

I inhaled sharply, feeling those words like a punch in the chest. I started to tell him that wasn’t true. That out of everyone in this fucking realm, he knew me—my thoughts and all, but fuck. He really had no idea what I was thinking when it came to Poppy. Did I even know? I dragged my fingers through my hair as my attention shifted past Kieran, landing on Poppy.

“She will leave me as she came to me,” I said, meeting his stare. “I’m not that much of a piece of shit.”

The skin at Kieran’s mouth grew taut. “I didn’t say you were.”

I huffed out a low laugh.

“Seriously.” He clasped my shoulder. “The whole point of this awkward-as-fuck conversation is so you aren’t feeling that way about yourself when this ends.”

When this ends…

With me just handing Poppy over to the Ascended.

“I know.” I cleared my throat, knowing that Kieran was also looking out for Poppy—a girl he didn’t know but didn’t want to see hurt. It was one of the reasons I loved him. He cared when he didn’t need to. “Get some rest,” I told him, clasping the back of his neck and squeezing. “We’re going to need it.”

“Yeah,” Kieran murmured.

We started back to the fire, parting ways, but I knew Kieran worried. He had good reason to. I went to Setti and grabbed the bedrolls and a blanket. Phillips took note of my approach and rose. Nodding at me, he strode off.

The breeze stirred the flames, sending sparks into the air. Poppy’s features were softened in the firelight, giving her an almost ethereal appearance.

What if she was Chosen?

I shook the bedrolls out, placing hers on the side that would be the warmest. “We should get some rest.”

“Okay.” Poppy rose, dusting off her hands. She looked up at me with such brilliant green eyes.

She moved to where I placed the bedrolls and sat as the stars appeared. Unstrapping the swords, I put them within arm’s reach, then draped the blanket over her legs.

“You don’t need this?” she asked, smothering a yawn.

“I’ll be fine.” It wasn’t too cold for me here. “Got you to keep me warm.”

That got a pretty flush out of her as she hastily looked around the campsite. No one was close enough to hear us.

I dropped onto the bedroll beside her. “We only have a few hours to rest, then we’ll ride through the night.”

“Okay,” she repeated, nibbling on her lower lip. She peeked at me. “What you saw back there? With Airrick?”

I shook my head. “We’ll talk about that later.”

“But—”

“Later.” I caught her hand, tugging her down. I didn’t want anyone to potentially overhear us when we talked about this. “We need to rest. The ride will be hard from here on out.”

The breath Poppy let out could’ve blown out the fire if she faced it. My lips twitched as I watched her close her eyes. They didn’t stay closed.

“Hawke—”

“Sleep.”

Those eyes narrowed. “I’m not tired.”

“You just yawned as loud as a tree bear.”

“I did not—” A yawn interrupted her words.

I laughed.

A second passed. Maybe two. Her head turned toward mine.

“Do you need help relaxing again?” I offered. “I’m more than happy to help you fall asleep.”

“Not necessary,” she snapped, all but throwing herself onto her side, turned away from me. The sudden, heady increase of her scent completely ruined her denial.

And the fact that she peeked at me from over her shoulder.

I smiled, but it didn’t last. What if Poppy was Chosen by the gods? If the impossible were somehow possible?

That had to be the reason she was so important to the Blood Crown.

What did it mean for them? How could they use that, other than they did now? I suspected it was somehow tied to the planned Ascensions, but how? I didn’t know, but I was sure it was terrible.


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