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A Soul of Ash and Blood: Chapter 65

HIGHLY INAPPROPRIATE

I came back to the bed, a glass of mulled wine in one hand and a damp cloth in the other. Poppy hadn’t moved since I left her, actually listening to me. She lay on her side, her arms crossed over her chest, knees slightly bent, and gloriously nude. My gaze traced the decadent curves of her body. I could stand here all night and look at her, but that, admittedly, would be weird.

“Princess.”

Poppy opened her eyes as I planted a knee on the bed. “Don’t call me that.”

“But it’s so fitting,” I murmured, grinning where her brows snapped together. “I brought you something to drink.”

“Thank you.” Poppy sat, her chin dipped as she unfolded her arms and took the glass.

Sensing her shyness, I made myself act like a gentleman. For once. I waited until she was finished before I took a sip and then placed it on the nightstand beside her dagger. My grin spread. “Lie down.”

Arms pressed tightly to her sides and her hair tumbling in a wild mess over her shoulders and breasts, she stared up at me. She didn’t move.

“You look thoroughly debauched,” I said. Her cheeks turned pink. “I like it.”

“It’s inappropriate for you to point that out,” she said.

“More inappropriate than me licking between your thighs?”

Poppy’s lips parted.

“Did Miss Willa ever write what that was called in that diary of hers?” I asked, leaning over her. I pressed my fingers under her chin, tipping her head back so her gaze met mine. I kissed her. “There are many names for it. I could list them for you—”

“That won’t be necessary.”

“You sure?” I kissed the corner of her mouth as I eased her down onto her side and then onto her back.

“I’m sure.” Her hand went to my arm, loosely holding on as I sat beside her.

I chuckled. “Whatever you say, Princess.” I lowered the cloth I held, tearing my gaze from the tips of her breasts that peeked through the strands of her hair. “Can you do me a favor?”

“What?”

“Open your legs for me.”

Poppy blinked. “What…what for?”

I bent my head, kissing her cheek. “I would like to clean you,” I explained. Her inhale was sharp, the hold on my arm tightening. “I’m afraid I may have left an…inappropriate show of my affections behind.”

“Oh,” she whispered.

A heartbeat passed, and Poppy did as I requested. I spared a glance at the slickness along her upper thighs. I didn’t look long because I didn’t want to embarrass her, but I saw the evidence of my inappropriate affections and faint traces of a darker color I’d also seen on myself when I made use of the bathing chamber. Blood. I’d scented it the moment my body left hers. It wasn’t much, but I wanted to…I wasn’t sure…wipe away the remnants of the brief pain I’d caused her.

Which was fucking ridiculous, considering I was going to cause her—

I silenced those thoughts, not ready to face them. I’d have to do it soon enough.

Gently but quickly, I took care of her. We were both quiet through the intimate moments. When I was done, I bent and pressed my lips to where the cloth had just been, eliciting a soft gasp from Poppy, and a slight, needy jerk of her hips. Smiling at the response I doubted she was even aware of, I went to the fire and tossed the cloth into it. Flames crackled, spitting sparks. When I turned around, I found she had returned to her side and was watching me.

I could practically feel her stare as I walked back to her. “You know,” I drawled, picking up the fur blanket from the foot of the bed. “Some would say the way you’re staring at me and my unmentionables is inappropriate, but you know what I think?”

Her eyes narrowed. “I’m half-afraid to ask.”

Stretching out beside her, I drew the blanket up to our hips. “I rather enjoy you staring at my unmentionables as if they were good enough to eat.”

“I am not staring at them in that manner.”

“Oh, but you were.” I shoved her pillow back, working my arm under her head. “It’s okay.” I brought my mouth to hers. “Anytime you want to taste me, just let me know.”

“Oh, my gods.” She laughed.

I caught that laugh with my lips. “And the same goes for whenever you would like me to…eat you.”

Her hands went to my chest. “Why do I have a feeling that last part is highly inappropriate?”

“Because it most definitely is.”

“You are so—”

“Wonderfully wicked and devastatingly charming?”

Poppy laughed again, and damn, she truly didn’t do that enough. “Incorrigible.”

“I would’ve suggested incomparable,” I said, leaning back as her fingers danced over my skin, letting her touch me as much as she wanted. I watched her as she trailed two fingers down my sternum. “How are you feeling?”

Her eyes lifted to mine. “Okay. More than okay—”

“Are you in any pain?” I cut in softly.

“No. Not at all.”

I raised a brow.

Poppy’s fingers halted as one shoulder lifted. “I’m just a little sore, but nothing major. I swear.”

“Good.”

She smiled at me, a soft and sweet one that made me think anything was possible. Her fingers halted just below a pec. “How…how did you get this scar?”

I had to think about it. “Fighting, I believe. I was likely being overconfident and nearly took a blade to the heart.”

She winced, trailing her fingers to another shallow nick in my skin. “And this?”

“The same.” I plucked up a strand of her hair, grinning when the back of my hand brushed her breast, and she inhaled sharply. “A Craven caused the one beside it. The same on the right side of my navel.”

“You…you have a lot of them.” She peeked up at me through her lashes. “Scars.”

“I do.” I twirled her hair around my finger. It took a lot for an Atlantian of the elemental bloodline’s skin to scar. The same for a wolven. It usually only happened when one was weakened, or something was done to prevent the skin from healing as quickly as it normally would. “Most of them were from when I was a much younger, reckless sort.”

“And when was that?” She yawned, her fingers skating over my stomach. “A handful of years ago?”

I smiled faintly. “Yeah, something like that.”

“How did you get them when you were a younger, reckless sort?”

“Training. Picking fights on the training yard with those bigger and faster than me, trying to prove myself,” I said. Some of that was true. The Commanders who trained the Atlantian armies were notorious for knocking the ego right out of your ass, but the other scars, the Craven marks? The brand? They had come while I’d been held captive. “The father of a good friend helped train me—and my brother. We both learned fairly quickly that we were not as skilled as we thought we were.”

She grinned. “The ego of boys…”

“Was your brother flawed in such a manner?”

“No.” Poppy laughed as I tugged gently on her hair. “Ian’s never had any interest in learning how to wield a sword. He’s far more interested in making up stories.”

“Smart man, then,” I murmured.

She nodded. “Ian abhors violence of any kind, even in self-defense. He believes that any conflict can be resolved with conversation—the more entertaining, the better. He…” She peeked at me again. “He didn’t like that I trained to fight—well, he didn’t like the idea of the violence, but he knew it was necessary for me.”

“He sounds like he was a good brother.”

“He is.”

Is.

As in present tense.

But he likely wasn’t anymore. Whatever ideas of anti-violence Ian held had long since left him—the moment he Ascended.

That weighed heavily on my mind as I told her how I earned the scar on my waist, an inch-long slash courtesy of the tusks of a wild boar that my brother had dared me to attempt to capture.

Poppy struggled to stay awake through the conversation, and the way she kept blinking her eyes was…it was fucking adorable. Finally, sleep took her, but it evaded me as I lay there, my finger still wrapped around the strand of hair.

When she woke, I would have to tell her the truth and what was to come. I would need to convince her that the Ascended were the monsters. That way, I could prepare her for what she’d find in the capital when I exchanged her for Malik. She was a fighter. She would survive until I got to her again.

I can’t do this.

Fuck. The idea of handing her over to the Blood Crown sickened me. Anything could happen to her. Anything. They needed her for something. There was no reason for them to position her as a Chosen and convince an entire kingdom of that fact, unless it benefited them somehow. But even if they truly only planned to Ascend her? My chest lurched. I couldn’t let that happen—let her be turned into a cold, soulless creature who no longer sought to take away the suffering of others but thrived on causing agony.

But I had to free my brother, and the only way to do that was through Poppy.

The reality of the situation sat like a fucking boulder on my chest. There were so many what-ifs—what if I couldn’t return to her in time? What if she didn’t believe me? What if she chose to stay with the Ascended? And why wouldn’t she? Her beloved brother was one of them. The Queen she knew was like a mother to her. Sure, she understood that some of them were capable of evil, but she would also know that I’d been lying to her.

I would be telling her that the Ascended were using her to back their claims of being Blessed by the gods and could hurt her, but I had also used her. Was still using her.

And I would hurt her with the truth.

I watched Poppy sleep, fucking knowing that the moment she learned the truth there would be no more of this. No more just…just living. No more peace. I would become the one she’d been taught to fear as a child. She would hate me. And I deserved that, but she had to remember that what we’d shared was real. It wasn’t a lie. She had to.

No matter what, I needed to find a way out of this for Poppy.

Godsdamn it, there had to be another way. One that worked to free my brother, would prevent a coming war, and also ensure her safety even if she never stopped believing in the Ascended. Because it wasn’t like I could let her roam free, even here, not with those who believed she willingly symbolized the Crown that had taken so much from them. There were people I’d trust with her in Spessa’s End, which sat at the cusp of the Skotos. She could live a full, happy life there. But I couldn’t endanger all we’d worked for if she betrayed us in the end, running back to the Ascended the moment she had a chance.

I laid the strands of hair on her arm, my mind doing what it always did in the dead of night, but it wasn’t rehashing old memories. It was racing to find a solution.

But I already knew the answer, didn’t I?

Closing my eyes, I cursed under my breath. That was the only option…unless we reneged on the deal immediately after I made the exchange, not allowing the Crown to make it far with her. And it was we reneging on the deal. Not just me. I was honest enough with myself to acknowledge that it would take not only those who could fight here but also more.

And I was smart enough to realize that act alone might very well ignite the war I sought to prevent.


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