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A Soul of Ash and Blood: Chapter 6

PRESENT II

“Vikter,” I said, laughing roughly as I wrung the water from the towel. “He was not a fan of mine even before I became your guard.”

Silence was my only answer.

I looked up from where I sat at the foot of the bed to where Poppy’s head rested on the pillow. Her lips were slightly parted, and the thick fringe of her lashes framed the heavily shadowed skin beneath her eyes.

There had been no change in Poppy, but it had only been a few hours.

A few hours that felt like a lifetime.

It reminded me of how deeply she’d slept after Vikter was killed. I felt as helpless then as I did now.

My gaze moved to the thin blanket covering her chest and stayed there until I saw it rise with her deep, steady breaths. It was idiotic. I knew she was okay. I knew her heart beat calmly because mine did, but I couldn’t stop myself from checking every so often. The quiet of the chamber didn’t help my paranoia.

Delano was out in the hall, giving us some privacy while I removed Poppy’s dirty and bloodied clothing. Kieran had gone to talk to Hisa while I did my best to bathe the dirt and remnants of battle from her.

Talk to her.

I cleared my throat. “You know, it was almost like Vikter sensed my motivations or something because, from day one, he was not at all impressed.” I ran the cloth over her foot, paying close attention to the bottom. “But what he said to me? It felt like an omen. Almost like he was warning me of what was to come. And he had.”

Rinsing the towel, I moved on to her other foot, placing it carefully in my lap. “When we were in the Wastelands, after you were taken, I was distracted in those ruins—diverted by rage and the need for vengeance. I should’ve been focused solely on you, but I wasn’t. And you were hurt because of it.”

I looked up at her, seeing her as she’d been that night, bloody and in pain, so afraid yet desperately trying not to show it. The memory came far too easily.

I swallowed. “Looking back, I wonder if Vikter knew what would happen. He was, well, he is part of the Arae—the Fates—in a way. Did he know on some unconscious level?”

There wasn’t a speck of dirt left on her feet by the time I tucked them beneath the blanket and rose. I replaced the water in the basin with fresh before returning to sit at her side. Her hands were the last to be cleaned.

I picked up her left hand, her skin still so cold. Dirt and blood smudged the top and between her fingers. I turned her hand over, drawing the towel over the shimmering, golden swirl of the marriage imprint. What if…what if she forgot this? The ceremony. Everything that it took for us to get to that moment.

I cut off those thoughts, forcing myself to move past the fear.

“So maybe that was why Vikter didn’t like me from the get-go,” I continued, washing away the blood and dirt from her palm. “What he was—a viktor—could sense what I was about.” I smiled a little. “I wonder what he thinks now? Bet he had a few choice words about me.”

I lifted her clean palm to my lips and pressed a kiss to the imprint. “But I couldn’t blame him for not having the greatest opinion of me back in Masadonia. Even if he never suspected who I was, I was there to take you away.”

Lowering her hand to my lap, I rinsed the towel and then moved on to her fingers. “And I killed those he trusted. Hannes. Rylan.” I pressed my lips together as I shifted my gaze to her features. “It could’ve been Vikter that night. If he had taken Rylan’s place for whatever reason, it would’ve been him.”

Shaking my head, I returned my attention to her hand. I cleaned the ring. “I wouldn’t have cared then. I mean, I didn’t like ending the lives of good men, but it would’ve been a passing regret. Little to no guilt. I had a goal. That was all that mattered, and I…”

I sighed, placing her hand on her stomach as I moved on to her right. “I didn’t know you yet. I hadn’t even heard you speak, and I seriously thought you were this submissive creature who only spoke in whispers.” I laughed for real. “Or that you were a cohort in the Ascended’s plans. Gods, I couldn’t have been more wrong if I tried.”

The grime was far more stubborn on her right hand. “That’s the thing. I had all these preconceived notions about you—ones based on absolutely nothing. Because no one really talked about you. I think I just…well, I needed you to either be the enemy or weak. It made everything I planned to do easier.” I frowned. “Which actually makes me the weak one.”

If Poppy were awake, she would likely agree with that moment of self-realization.

I dragged the cloth between her fingers, oddly moved by how fragile her hand felt in mine, despite knowing how deadly it could be.

Looks could be deceiving, couldn’t they?

“But I was about to begin learning just how wrong I was about you,” I told her. “Because I was about to finally meet you, and you…” I looked at her still, serene features. “You were about to meet who I used to be.”


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