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A Soul of Ash and Blood: Chapter 60


“Here.” Kieran reached inside his saddlebag as we rode through the northern valley, pulling out a chunk of cheese wrapped in wax paper.

Poppy eyed his offering. “You sure?”

Kieran nodded.

She hesitated. “But won’t you be hungry later?”

“We’ll be arriving in New Haven in a few hours,” he said. “I’ll eat then.”

“I can eat then, too.”

Staring at Phillips’ and Bryant’s backs, I grinned.

“But you ate all your cheese,” Kieran replied.

“And mine,” I added.

Her head whipped to the side. “You said you didn’t want it.”

“I didn’t.” I glanced down at her. “You know you want his cheese.”

Poppy’s chin rose stubbornly. “I’m not going to eat his food.”

“If he was planning on eating it, he wouldn’t have offered it.”

“He speaks the truth,” Kieran said, arm still extended, cheese lifted between his steed and Setti.

“Take it, Princess,” I said. “If not, you’ll hurt his feelings.”

Kieran sent me a droll look.

I ignored it. “He’s very sensitive, you see. He will take it personally.”

“I will not take it personally.”

Dipping my head, I whispered, “He most definitely will.”

“Fine,” Poppy relented, the corners of her mouth curling upward. She took the cheese. “Thank you.”

“More like thank the gods,” Kieran muttered.

Poppy eyed him as she popped a tiny piece of the cheese into her mouth. “So, will you be staying in the capital, Kieran?”

My grin went up a notch as I raised my brows at him. When Kieran first started riding beside us, Poppy had stayed quiet as she stole glances at him. She was nervous at first, seemingly unsure what to think of him, and then she’d started peppering him with questions, much to his rising discomfort. Where was he from? How long had he been a guard? Had he lived in Masadonia long? Did his horse have a name? That was my favorite question, because it was the first time Kieran had looked genuinely amused by the litany of questions Poppy came up with.

“Name’s Pulus,” he’d answered, which was amusing to me for two reasons.

That wasn’t the horse’s name. I wasn’t even sure Kieran knew what the steed was called.

And Pulus was also the name of a lesser god, one who had served under the goddess Penellaphe and was known in our histories for asking a lot of questions.

“I have no plans to stay in Carsodonia,” Kieran answered, scanning the hills to our right.

“Oh.” Poppy nibbled on the cheese. A few moments passed. “Then will you travel back to Masadonia?”

“I will be traveling again,” he said.

She looked up as a thick cloud passed overhead, letting a bit of the fading sunlight reach us. It was later in the day than I’d hoped. “It must be tiresome making such long trips and then having to turn around and do it again.”

“I don’t mind it.” Kieran shifted on his saddle. “I prefer being out in the open.”

Her brows rose. “You prefer being outside the Rise?”

Kieran nodded.

“But it’s so dangerous.” She lowered the cheese. “You saw what happens to those who live outside the Rise, or even those who live in cities that have walls like Masadonia or the capital. They end up becoming what we faced in the Blood Forest.”

“What’s inside those walls can be just as dangerous as what’s outside them,” he told her.

Poppy’s head tilted. She started to speak, but then took another bite of the cheese as I drew my thumb over her hip. “I suppose you are correct.”

She was likely thinking about the Descenters and the night of the Rite. The so-called Dark One and the Atlantians the Ascended swore lived hidden among them.

“I have a question for you,” Kieran said as a cool breeze caught in the nearby trees, rattling the limbs. The scent of snow was in the air. “If you had a choice, what would you be doing right now?”

“Instead of annoying you with questions?” she responded.

“Yes,” Kieran stated dryly. “Instead of that.”

“You’re not annoying him,” I said, cutting Kieran a dark look as I gave her hip a light pat. “He enjoys being asked questions because it means someone is paying attention to him. He likes attention.”

Kieran huffed.

“He doesn’t seem like someone who likes attention,” she noted, looking at him. “But to answer your question—what would I choose to do? I think…I think I would choose this.”

“You would choose traveling to the capital?” he asked as my stomach clenched.

“No. I’m not saying that.” Poppy fiddled with what was left of the cheese in the wax paper while a somewhat unsettling wave of relief went through me. “I mean, I would choose to be out here.” She looked up at the graying sky. “Just out here.”

Kieran looked over at her, the skin furrowing between his brows.

“I know that doesn’t make much sense.” Poppy laughed self-consciously. “It’s just that I’ve never been here before. I’ve never been anywhere, really. That I can remember much of, that is. And I don’t know what…” She trailed off, squirming a little. “Anyway, I would choose this, but with more cheese.”

I had a feeling I knew what she had been about to say. That she didn’t know what was out there to even choose something different than this. And, fuck, that was…it was tragic.

I could tell Kieran had sensed what she was trying to say, too. I saw it in the tension of his shoulders.

“You’re making sense,” I told her, well aware of Kieran’s attention shifting to me. My arm tightened around Poppy, drawing her back against my chest. “I would choose the same.”


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