A Soul of Ash and Blood: Chapter 68

NOT EVERYTHING WAS A LIE

“When I told Delano to put her somewhere safe…” I told Kieran, who was waiting for me in the now-empty stables as I washed the blood from my face with a clean bucket of water.

He’d waited after I handed Poppy off to Delano and warned the others not to touch her as I went out into the cold woods.

I had to cool off. Physically. Mentally. Everything. Because I was on the brink of losing control, likely to do something I’d regret.

Like tearing out the hearts of those who’d demanded Poppy’s death.

If I did that, shit would go south. Poppy’s life was on the line. So was Malik’s. The entire fucking kingdom was at risk. I needed that calm. I found it.

I dragged the towel over my face. “I didn’t mean the dungeons.”

“Yeah, well, it’s likely the only place she won’t be able to escape and slaughter everyone,” he replied dryly.

“True. Do you know how Phillips figured shit out?”

“Not sure, but like I said before, he’d been asking questions since the moment we left Masadonia.”

I supposed it didn’t matter now, but if he’d only kept his suspicions to himself—fuck, it wasn’t the man’s fault. He’d only been doing his duty.

“Word arrived from home.” Shoving open the barn door, I started across the packed snow. “Alastir finally learned of my plans.”

Kieran cursed. “We knew this would happen no matter what Emil managed.”

“Yeah, except that’s not all.” Yanking open the side door to the keep, I held it for Kieran. “My father is en route.”

He stopped, his brows lifting. “What the fuck?”

“That was my reaction.” I quickly told him about Berkton and my plan to hold them off there. “I’ll have to convince him that keeping her alive is the best course of action.”

“And if not?”

“Then war between Solis and Atlantia will be the least of our people’s concerns.” I passed the closed doors to the Great Hall. “I will not allow my father to harm her.” Stopping, I faced Kieran. “And I don’t expect you to stand with me on that.”

He stiffened.

“You stand with me against my father, it’s treason,” I reminded him. “I will not have you ousted from the kingdom—from your family.”

“The bond—”

“That’s an order,” I said, knowing it gave Kieran an out.

Kieran’s eyes turned a vivid, luminous blue. “That’s fucking bullshit, Cas.”

“More like it’s me doing the right thing for once.”

“No, it’s more like you being a stubborn asshole, per usual,” he shot back. “What do you think Delano will do if it comes down to you and your father? Naill? Elijah? My sister? Emil? I can keep listing all those who will back you.”

“They will be given the same order.”

“Do you think that will matter? Fucking gods, Cas. You know better than that.” Kieran shook his head. “They aren’t just loyal to you because you’re the Prince. They’re loyal to you because they care about you.”

“I know,” I shot back. “And that’s why I don’t want them getting messed up in this.”

“I have a spoiler alert for you—all of us are already messed up in this.”

“No, not this.” I shook my head, looking down the hall. “Everyone agreed to support me in freeing my brother. No one agreed to this.”

“And what is this?”

I wasn’t sure I could even answer that question. All I knew was that I wouldn’t allow anyone to take Poppy’s life from her.

“It is what it is,” I answered, walking once more. “I want Jericho out of here. Send him to Spessa’s End or back to Atlantia, but he needs to be gone.”

“Wise idea. He’s a problem.” Kieran paused. “So is this.”

A dry laugh left me as I reached for the exit. “Don’t I fucking know it?”

“We need to talk.” Kieran planted his hand on the door, stopping me from opening it. “You were with her tonight.”

“Of course, I was.”

His frosted blue eyes met mine. “I’m not talking about that, and you know it.”

I did.

“I thought you said she would leave you as she came to you,” Kieran said, voice quiet. “Clearly, that isn’t the case. What the fuck, Cas?”

I ran a hand through my hair. “Turns out I’m that kind of a piece of shit. Okay?” I reached for the door again.

Kieran’s palm flattened against it. “No, it’s not okay.”

My hand fisted as I stared at his, anger sparking. “We really don’t have time for this conversation, Kieran.”

“We’re going to make time because what I saw back there in the stables? You let her get the upper hand on you. Multiple times.”

I huffed out a laugh. “You know she can fight.”

“No shit, but you’re a fucking elemental Atlantian. She is still just a mortal, gifted or not. You could’ve easily gotten her under control. You didn’t. Anyone else, no matter if they were of the fairer sex or not, you would’ve handled that—” Kieran jabbed a finger toward the stables “—in seconds. You didn’t with her. Why?”

Running my tongue over my upper teeth, I shook my head.

“What is going on with you? With her? And don’t give me a bullshit answer, not when you’re ready to go against your father over her.” Anger tightened Kieran’s features. “You don’t keep shit from me, Cas. We’ve been through too much for you to start doing that again, so let’s not have a repeat. What is it?”

What is it?

“I don’t have time to get into this. We don’t have the time. We’ll talk,” I told him, pushing down the irritation. He had every right to question things. “I promise.”

Kieran held my stare for a moment. The line of his jaw was tight as he lifted his hand. He said no more, letting me pass. I was being a shit for keeping things from him, but this…whatever this was with Poppy, was different.

I entered the narrow staircase, already fucking troubled. The underground level of Haven Keep was damp and dank. Foreboding. Comfort hadn’t been in the minds of those who’d built the keep. Fear had.

Poppy didn’t belong down here.

She belonged in the sun.

Steeling myself, I dipped under a low doorframe and entered a dimly lit hall. The dull gleam of the old gods’ twisted bones that adorned the ceiling haunted my steps as I went to where Delano waited.

“Leave,” I told him. The wolven hesitated, glancing back to the cell, but he left.

I stepped forward, my gaze drifting over her. She sat on a thin, dirty mattress, her back pressed against the wall. Her face was pale, but her stare was as defiant as ever. Brave. Bold.

“Poppy.” I sighed, hating that she was here. Loathing that she was here because of me, but knowing the moment I let her out, things would be worse. “What am I to do with you?”

“Don’t call me that.” She shoved to her feet. Chains rattled, drawing my attention.

My jaw clenched. Delano wouldn’t have put her in chains unless he had a reason, meaning she’d likely attacked him.

I lifted my stare to her. “But I thought you liked it when I did.”

“You were mistaken,” she shot back. “What do you want?”

The hardness in her voice? The coldness? It was brutal, but it was all blade-thin. Fragile. “More than you could ever guess,” I said.

“Are you here to kill me?”

Her question surprised me. “Now why would I do that?”

Poppy raised her arms and rattled the restraints. “You have me chained.”

Actually, I didn’t, but there was no reason for her ire to turn on Delano more than it likely already was. “I do.”

Her nostrils flared. “Everyone outside wants me dead.”

“That is true.”

“And you’re an Atlantian,” she said, with as much disgust as she had when she’d spoken about the barrats. “That’s what you do. You kill. You destroy. You curse.”

I huffed out a short laugh. “Ironic coming from someone who has been surrounded by the Ascended her whole life.”

“They don’t murder innocents, and they don’t turn people into monsters—”

“No,” I stopped her. “They just force young women who make them feel inferior to bare their skin to a cane and do the gods only know what else to them,” I reminded her. “Yes, Princess, they are truly upstanding examples of everything that is good and right in this world.”

Her chest rose sharply as her lips parted.

“Did you think I wouldn’t find out what the Duke’s lessons were?” I asked of her. “I told you I would.”

She staggered back, the skin of her throat and cheeks flushing.

“He used a cane cut from a tree in the Blood Forest and he made you partially undress.” I reached up, grasping the bars as fury resurfaced. “And he told you that you deserved it. That it was for your own good. But, in reality, all it did was fulfill his sick need to inflict pain.”

“How?” she whispered.

“I can be very compelling.”

Poppy turned her cheek, squeezing her eyes shut. A tremor ran through her, then her gaze snapped back to mine. “You killed him.”

Recalling the way the Duke had died, I smiled. “I did, and I’ve never enjoyed watching the life seep out of someone’s eyes more than I did while watching the Duke die. He had it coming.” I held her stare. “And trust me when I say his very slow and very painful death had nothing to do with him being an Ascended. I would’ve gotten to the Lord eventually, but you took care of that sick bastard yourself.”

Poppy stared at me for several moments, then shook her head, sending that piece of hair across her face. “Just because the Duke and the Lord were horrible and evil, that doesn’t make you any better. That doesn’t make all Ascended guilty.”

“You know absolutely nothing, Poppy.” Moving to the side, I unlocked the cell door. I wasn’t going to talk to her through bars.

Keeping my eyes on her, I entered, but did so cautiously. Knowing her, she’d use those chains to choke my ass. I closed the cell door behind me. “You and I need to talk.”

Her chin lifted. “No, we don’t.”

“Well, you really don’t have a choice, do you?” I glanced at the cuffs on her wrists as I took a step forward. I stopped, inhaling deeply. Her scent reached me, but so did the smell of blood. Her blood. And I knew it was hers and not anyone’s who’d died in the stables. It was too sweet, too fresh. Concern took root. “You’re injured.”

Poppy stepped back. “I’m fine.”

“No, you aren’t.” I scanned her, my stare stopping on the damp spot on her shirt. “You’re bleeding.”

“Barely.”

No longer giving a shit about her strangling me with the chains, I crossed the distance between us. It startled her. She gasped, stumbling back into the wall. I took advantage of that, reaching for the hem of the coarse linen shirt.

“Don’t touch me!” She jerked to the side, wincing.

Everything in me stilled as I looked down at her. The panic I heard in her voice. The pain.

“Don’t,” she repeated.

Putting everything behind that wall inside me was harder than ever. “You had no problem with me touching you last night.”

Her lips pulled back in a snarl. “That was a mistake.”

“Was it?”

“Yes,” she hissed. “I wish it never happened.”

No doubt that was the truth. A bitter one I already knew. Still, it fucking hit deep to hear her say it. Those walls weren’t as fortified as I thought.

“Be that as it may,” I said, “you are still wounded, Princess, and you will allow me to look at it.”

That chin of hers went right back up. “And if I don’t?”

I laughed, genuinely amused with her resistance—impressed by it. But I would not fight her again. “As if you could stop me. You can either allow me to help you or…”

“Or you will force me?”

I didn’t want to, but I would. She was hurt. Fucking gods, I almost prayed that she submitted.

Poppy stared at me for so long I started telling myself that compulsion may be necessary. I didn’t know how badly she was injured, but even small wounds could turn bad for a mortal.

She looked away. “Why do you even care if I bleed to death?”

“Why do you think I would want you dead?” I countered. “If I did, why wouldn’t I have agreed to what was demanded outside? You are no good to me dead.”

“So, I’m your hostage until the Dark One gets here? You all plan to use me against the King and Queen.”

“Clever girl,” I murmured, relieved that she still hadn’t acknowledged the truth. “You are the Queen’s favorite Maiden.” I tried again. “Will you let me check you now?”

Poppy said nothing, which I knew meant she was relenting. I reached for the shirt, this time slower. She tensed but didn’t pull away. I lifted the hem as I looked down. The smell of her blood increased, even before I reached the seeping wound just below her breast. The gash was thin. I clenched my teeth together, my mind flicking through those who had been close enough to cause such a wound—a cut that could’ve taken her life if it had been an inch deeper. She would’ve bled out on that fucking stable floor.

“Gods,” I said, lifting my gaze to hers. “You could’ve been disemboweled.”

“You’ve always been so observant,” she snapped.

And I was also glad to see her temper hadn’t been wounded. “Why didn’t you say anything? This could become infected.”

“Well, there really wasn’t a lot of time,” she said, standing there with her arms at her sides. “Considering you were busy betraying me.”

“That’s no excuse.”

She let out a cutting laugh. “Of course, not. Silly me for not realizing that the person who had a hand in murdering the people I care about, who betrayed me and made plans with the one who helped to slaughter my family to use me for some nefarious means, would care that I was wounded.”

She was right.

She was completely right to think that.

And also utterly fearless.

“Always so brave,” I murmured, dropping her shirt. I turned. “Delano,” I called out, knowing he wouldn’t have gone too far. The wolven appeared in a heartbeat. I quickly told him what I needed, then I waited. I knew Poppy had returned to leaning against the wall and could come at me at any moment.

But I didn’t think she would. That wound was causing her pain.

Delano returned, handing the items to me in a basket. I could tell he wanted to ask about her before he left.

I faced her. “Why don’t you lie—?” I looked around, shoulders tensing once more upon seeing the mattress. “Why don’t you lie down?”

“I’m fine standing, thanks.”

Impatience grew as I moved toward her. There was no way I could do this with her standing. “Would you rather I get on my knees?”

Poppy held my stare as her lips started to curve up—

“I don’t mind.” I drew my lower lip between my teeth. “Doing so would put me at the perfect height for something I know you’d enjoy. After all, I’m always craving honeydew.”

Her eyes went wide as anger heightened the color in her cheeks. It wasn’t the only thing, though. For a moment there, a different kind of heat hit her blood.

Poppy pushed off the wall and stomped her way to the mattress. She sat. “You’re repulsive.”

I laughed as I walked over to her and knelt, having gotten what I needed from her. For her to sit. And I also discovered that she was still attracted to me despite everything. “If you say so.”

“I know so.”

I grinned, placing the basket on the floor. She checked it out, probably looking for something that could be turned into a weapon. She would be disappointed there. I motioned for her to lie back.

“Bastard,” she muttered but did as I requested.

“Language.” I reached for her shirt again, but she grabbed it herself. That reminded me of something very important. Control. She needed control because she never had any. “Thank you.”

Her lips thinned.

I smiled slightly, pulling a bottle from the basket. A bitter, sharp scent crowded the cell the moment I unscrewed the lid.

“I want to tell you a story,” I said, eyeing the wound.

“I am not in the mood for story time—” Poppy gasped and grabbed my wrist with both hands as I took hold of the clothing. “What are you doing?”

“The blade damn near ripped out your rib cage.” Anger sparked. “It extends up the side of your ribs.” I waited for her to deny that. She didn’t. “I’m guessing this happened when the sword was wrestled from you?”

Poppy stayed silent, but her grip remained on my wrist. Did she think…?

I sighed. “Believe it or not, I’m not trying to undress you so I can take advantage of you. I’m not here to seduce you, Princess.”

Her lips parted as she stared up at me. Her shoulders lifted from the mattress, and her fingers were too damn cold against the skin of my wrist. A tremor ran through her once more, and I had no idea what was going through her head at the moment. It could be anything, but the longer she stared at me, the more I knew it wasn’t good. Her thoughts were painful. I saw that in how her eyes started to glisten.

And I heard it in the hoarseness of her voice when she asked, “Was any of it true?”

Was any of it…?

I knew then what I should’ve made myself see while we were in the stables. That she had forgotten that our time together earlier was real.

Poppy let go of my wrist, closing her eyes. Mine followed. Anger rose. She’d forgotten. The anger I felt was wrong. I knew that, but I was also furious with myself for expecting her to remember. There was no point in telling her otherwise. She wouldn’t believe me.

Opening my eyes, I got to work. Lifting her shirt again, I looked closer at the wound’s jagged edges. I needed to close the gash, and there was a much easier, quicker alternative to what was to come. I could give her my blood, but I would have to force her to take it. This would hurt her, but completely stripping her of control? I had a feeling that would do lasting damage.

“This may burn,” I warned as I leaned over her, tipping the bottle. The astringent hit the wound, causing her to jerk. The liquid immediately bubbled in the cut as I gritted my teeth. I knew it had to sting, but Poppy didn’t make a sound.

“Sorry about that.” I set the bottle aside. “It will need to sit for a bit to burn out any infection that may have already been making its way in there.”

She said nothing, just let her head fall back against the mattress. The hair that was always in her face slipped down her cheek.

I stopped myself from moving it out of the way and instead focused on what I had to tell her. “The Craven were our fault,” I said. “Their creation, that is. All of this. The monsters in the mist. The war. What has become of this land. You. Us. It all started with an incredibly desperate, foolish act of love, many, many centuries before the War of Two Kings.”

“I know.” Poppy cleared her throat. “I know the history.”

“But do you know the true history?”

“I know the only history.” Her eyes opened, fixing on the bones above her.

“You know only what the Ascended have led everyone to believe, and it is not the truth.” I picked up the chain that lay across her lower stomach, moving it off her. “My people lived alongside mortals in harmony for thousands of years, but then King Malec O’Meer—”

“Created the Craven,” she interrupted. “Like I said—”

“You’re wrong.” I sat, drawing a leg up to rest my arm on. There wasn’t a lot of time to tell her this, but I had to if I had any hope of her understanding. “King Malec fell hopelessly in love with a mortal woman. Her name was Isbeth. Some say it was Queen Eloana who poisoned her. Others claim it was a jilted lover of the King’s who stabbed her because he apparently had quite the history of being unfaithful,” I told her, imagining my mother conspiring to poison someone. It wasn’t exactly that hard to imagine. “But either way, she was mortally wounded. As I said, Malec was desperate to save her. He committed the forbidden act of Ascending her—what you know as the Ascension.”

Poppy’s gaze shot to mine.

“Yes,” I confirmed what I knew she was putting together. “Isbeth was the first to Ascend. Not your false King and Queen. She became the first vampry. Malec drank from her, only stopping once he felt her heart begin to fail, and then he shared his blood with her.” I stretched my neck. “Perhaps if your act of Ascension wasn’t so well-guarded, the finer details would not come as a surprise to you.”

Poppy started to rise but stopped. “Ascension is a Blessing from the gods.”

I smirked. “It is far from that. More like an act that can either create near immortality or make nightmares come true. We Atlantians are born nearly mortal. And remain so until the Culling.”

“The Culling?” she repeated.

“It’s when we change.” I curled my upper lip, showing the tip of a fang. “The fangs appear, lengthening only when we feed, and we change in…other ways.”

“How?” Curiosity filled her.

“That’s not important.” I reached for a cloth. There wasn’t enough time to explain all of that. “We may be harder to kill than the Ascended, but we can be killed. We age slower than mortals, and if we take care, we can live for thousands of years.”

Poppy stared at me. She didn’t counter that, so I figured I’d made progress. Or it was just her curiosity. Probably the latter.

“How…how old are you?” she asked.

“Older than I look.”

“Hundreds of years older?” she whispered.

“I was born after the war,” I told her. “I’ve seen two centuries come and go.”

She gaped at me, and I figured it was best I continue.

“King Malec created the first vampry. They are…a part of all of us, but they are not like us. Daylight does not affect us. Not like it does the vamprys,” I said. “Tell me, which of the Ascended have you ever seen in the daylight?”

“They do not walk in the sun because the gods do not,” she answered. “That is how they honor them.”

I snickered. “How convenient for them, then. Vamprys may be blessed with the closest possible thing to immortality, like us, but they cannot walk in daylight without their skin starting to decay. You want to kill an Ascended without getting your hands dirty? Lock them outside with no possible shelter. They’ll be dead before noon. They also need to feed, and by feed, I am talking about blood. They need to do so frequently to live, to prevent whatever mortal wounds or illnesses they suffered before they Ascended from returning.” I glanced at her wound. The fizzing had eased. “They cannot procreate, not after the Ascension, and many experience bloodlust when they feed, often killing mortals in the process.”

I gently dabbed the cloth on the wound, soaking up the astringent. “Atlantians do not feed on mortals—”

“Whatever,” she cut in. “You expect me to truly believe that?”

I met her glare. “Mortal blood offers us nothing of any real value because we were never mortal, Princess. Wolven don’t need to feed, but we do. We feed when we need to, on other Atlantians.”

Poppy sucked in a soft breath, shaking her head.

“We can use our blood to heal a mortal without turning them, something a vampry cannot do, but the most important difference is the creation of the Craven. An Atlantian has never created one. The vamprys have.” I lifted the cloth. “And in case you haven’t been following along, the vamprys are what you know as the Ascended.”

“That’s a lie.” Her hands fisted at her sides.

“It is the truth.” I frowned, looking at the wound. The astringent that remained no longer bubbled. That was good. “A vampry cannot make another vampry. They cannot complete the Ascension. When they drain a mortal, they create a Craven.”

“What you’re saying makes no sense,” she argued.

“How does it not?”

“Because if any part of what you’re saying is true, then the Ascended are vamprys, and they cannot do the Ascension.” Her voice hardened. “If that’s true, then how have they made other Ascended? Like my brother.”

“Because it is not the Ascended who are giving the gift of life,” I bit out. “They are using an Atlantian to do so.”

Her laugh was scathing. “The Ascended would never work with an Atlantian.”

“Did I misspeak?” I challenged. “I don’t believe I did. I said they are using an Atlantian. Not working with one.” I picked up the smaller jar, unscrewing the lid. “When King Malec’s peers discovered what he’d done, he lifted the laws that forbade the act of Ascending. As more vamprys were created, many were unable to control their bloodlust.” I dipped my fingers into the thick, milky-white substance. “They drained many of their victims, creating the pestilence known as the Craven, who swept across the kingdom like a plague. The Queen of Atlantia, Queen Eloana, tried to stop it. She made the act of Ascension forbidden once more and ordered all vamprys destroyed in an act to protect mankind.”

Her gaze dipped to the jar. “Yarrow?”

I nodded. “Among other things that will help speed up your healing.”

“I can—” Poppy jerked as I touched the skin below the angry red flesh. I spread the ointment.

“The vamprys revolted,” I continued as I scooped out more of the balm, somehow finding the willpower to ignore the warmth building in her. “That is what triggered the War of Two Kings. It was not mortals fighting back against cruel, inhuman Atlantians, but vamprys fighting back. The death toll from the war was not exaggerated. In fact, many people believe the numbers were far higher.”

I glanced up to see her watching me. “We weren’t defeated, Princess. King Malec was overthrown, divorced, and exiled. Queen Eloana remarried, and the new King, Da’Neer, pulled their forces back, called their people home, and ended a war that was destroying this world.”

“And what happened to Malec and Isbeth?” Poppy asked.

“Your records say that Malec was defeated in battle, but the truth is, no one knows. He and his mistress simply disappeared.” I returned the lid to the jar and picked up a clean bandage. “The vamprys gained control of the remaining lands, anointing their own King and Queen, Jalara and Ileana, and renamed it the Kingdom of Solis.” I took a breath to calm the fury. “They called themselves the Ascended, used our gods, who’d long since gone to sleep, as a reason for why they became the way they did. In the hundreds of years that have passed since, they’ve managed to scrub the truth from history, that the vast majority of mortals actually fought alongside the Atlantians against the common threat of vamprys.”

“None of that sounds believable,” Poppy said after a moment.

“I imagine it is hard to believe that you belong to a society of murderous monsters, who take the third daughters and sons during the Rite to feed upon. And if they don’t drain them dry, they become—”

“What?” she gasped. “You have spent this entire time telling me nothing but falsehoods, but now you’ve gone too far.”

Shaking my head, I placed the bandage over her wound, pressing down on the edges so it stayed in place. “I’ve told you nothing but the truth.” I leaned back. “As did the man who threw the Craven hand.”

She sat up, lowering her shirt. “Are you claiming that those given in service to the gods are now Craven?”

“Why do you think the Temples are off-limits to anyone but the Ascended and those they control, like the Priests and Priestesses?”

“Because they’re sacred places that even most Ascended don’t breach.”

“Have you seen one child that has been given over? Just one, Princess?” I pressed her. “Do you know anyone other than a Priest or Priestess or an Ascended who has claimed to have seen one? You’re smart. You know no one has. That’s because most are dead before they even learn to speak.”

She started to deny it.

“The vamprys need a food source, Princess, one that would not rouse suspicion. What better way than to convince an entire kingdom to hand over their children under the pretense of honoring the gods? They’ve created a religion around it, such that brothers will turn on brothers if any of them refuse to give away their child,” I told her. “They have fooled an entire kingdom, used the fear of what they have created against the people. And that’s not all. You ever think it’s strange how many young children die overnight from a mysterious blood disease? Like the Tulis family, who lost their first and second children to it? Not every Ascended can stick to a strict diet. Bloodlust for a vampry is a very real, common problem. They’re thieves in the night, stealing children, wives, and husbands.”

“Do you really think I believe any of this?” Poppy demanded. “That the Atlantians are innocent, and everything I’ve been taught is a lie?”

“Not particularly, but it was worth a shot,” I said, also knowing it wasn’t something she’d believe immediately. She had to sit with it. I just hoped we had enough time. “We are not innocent of all crimes—”

“Like murder and kidnapping?” Poppy tossed out.

“That among other things,” I admitted. “You don’t want to believe what I’m saying. Not because it sounds too foolish to believe, but because there are things you’re now questioning. Because it means your precious brother is feeding on innocents—”

“No,” she cut in.

“And turning them into Craven.”

“Shut up,” she growled, launching to her feet.

I followed her, coming to stand before her. “You don’t want to accept what I’m saying, even as logical as it sounds because it means your brother is one of them, and the Queen who cared for you has slaughtered thousands—”

Poppy swung at me, dragging the chain across the floor.

I caught her hand an inch from my jaw. I twisted her, forcing her to turn away from me. Hauling her back against my chest, I trapped one arm with mine and caught her other hand. A sound of pure frustration tore from her as she lifted a leg.

“Don’t,” I warned, my mouth against her ear.

Poppy, of course, did not listen.

I grunted as her foot connected with my shin, likely bruising it as she had Kieran’s. A huge part of me was more than impressed by her tenacity. Hell, it was a turn-on—her willingness to fight her way out. Her strength. But we didn’t have all day for this.

Moving too fast for her to react to, I spun her and took several steps. Trapping her between the wall and me, I was…somewhat confident she couldn’t kick me.

“I said, don’t,” I repeated, my mouth now against her temple. “I mean it, Princess. I don’t want to hurt you.”

“You don’t? You already hur—” Poppy cut herself off.

“What?” I lifted her arm away from her stomach and the wound I’d just covered, placing her palm against the wall. She didn’t answer me, and I knew she was thinking of ways to take me out. Again, that was admirable and arousing, but also pointless.

I shifted my head, resting my cheek against hers. “You know you can’t seriously hurt me,” I said.

Every muscle of her body tensed. “Then why am I chained?”

“Because getting kicked, punched, or clawed still doesn’t feel good,” I drawled. “And while the others have been ordered to not touch you, it doesn’t mean they’ll be as tolerant as I am.”

“Tolerant?” She tried to push away from the wall—tried being the keyword there. “You call this tolerant?”

“Considering that I just spent time cleaning out and covering your wound, I would say so.” I paused. “And a thank you would be nice.”

“I didn’t ask you to help me,” she snapped.

“No. Because you’re either too proud or too foolish to do so. You would’ve allowed yourself to rot instead of asking for help,” I said. “So, I’m not going to get a thank you, am I?”

Her head thrust back, but I saw it coming. I pushed against her until there was no space between her and the wall, which she didn’t like. She started to squirm, pressing back—wiggling soft, shapely parts of her, and my body reacted immediately.

Fucking gods.

“You are exceptionally skilled at being disobedient,” I growled. “Only second to your talent of driving me crazy.”

“You forgot one last skill.”

“I did?” I frowned.

“Yes,” she hissed. “I’m skilled at killing Craven. I imagine killing Atlantians is no different.”

I laughed, enjoying her threats. “We’re not consumed by hunger, so we’re not as easily distracted as a Craven.”

“You can still be killed.”

“Is that a threat?” I asked, grinning.

“You take it however you want.”

It likely was a threat. My smile faded. “I know you’ve been through a lot. I know that what I’ve told you is a lot, but it is all the truth. Every part, Poppy.”

“Stop calling me that!” She wiggled, shifting slightly. Her ass rubbed against my cock.

“And you should stop doing that,” I bit out, unsure if I really wanted her to stop. “Then again. Please continue. It’s the perfect kind of torture.”

Poppy inhaled sharply as a tight, sweet shiver hit her. “You’re sick.”

“And twisted. Perverse, and dark.” I drew my chin across her cheek, smiling as her back arched in response. Her body knew what it wanted. Against the wall, I spread my fingers over hers. “I’m a lot of things—”

“Murderer?” she whispered. “You killed Vikter. You killed all the others.”

The breath I took was a heavy one. “I’ve killed. So have Delano and Kieran. I and the one you call the Dark One had a hand in Hannes’ and Rylan’s deaths, but not that poor girl,” I said, speaking of Malessa Axton. “It was one of the Ascended, most likely caught in bloodlust. And I am willing to bet it was either the Duke or the Lord.”

Poppy seemed to exhale the same heavy breath.

“And none of us had anything to do with the attack on the Rite,” I told her, which was true. They were never supposed to be near the Rite. “And what happened to Vikter.”

I could feel each breath she took as she asked, “Then who did?”

“It was those you call Descenters. Our supporters,” I told her. “There was no order given to attack the Rite, however.”

“You really expect me to believe the thing the Descenters follow didn’t order them to attack the Rite?”

“Just because they follow the Dark One, doesn’t mean they are led by him. Many of the Descenters act on their own. They know the truth. They no longer want to live in fear of their children being made into monsters or stolen to feed another. I had nothing to do with Vikter’s death,” I said, even though I felt responsible because I was responsible.

Poppy shivered. “But the others you claim. You killed them. Owning it doesn’t change it.”

“It had to happen.” I moved my chin without thought, much like a cat seeking touch. “Just like you need to understand that there is no way out of this. You belong to me.”

You belong to me.

My eyes opened, fixing on our joined hands against the cold stone wall. The back of my neck prickled.

“Don’t you mean I belong to the Dark One?” she countered.

I swallowed. “I meant what I said, Princess.”

“I don’t belong to anyone.”

“If you believe that, then you are a fool.” I moved my head, preventing her from retaliating. “Or you’re lying to yourself. You belonged to the Ascended. You know that. It’s one of the things you hated. They kept you in a cage.”

“At least that cage was more comfortable than this one.”

“True,” I admitted, and fuck if that wasn’t a kick in the nuts. “But you’ve never been free.”

“True or not, that doesn’t mean I’ll stop fighting you,” she warned. “I won’t submit.”

“I know.” Admiration for her rose once more, but so did concern. I didn’t need her to submit. I needed her to see the truth, and there was so much I hadn’t told her. There wasn’t time. I needed to get to Berkton.

Poppy stiffened against me. “And you’re still a monster.”

Another truth. “I am, but I wasn’t born that way. I was made this way. You asked about the scar on my thigh. Did you look at it closely, or were you too busy staring at my co—”

“Shut up!”

“You should’ve noticed that it was the Royal Crest branded on my skin.” I wasn’t going to shut up. “Do you want to know how I have such intimate knowledge of what happens during your fucking Ascension, Poppy? How I know what you don’t? Because I was held in one of those Temples for five decades,” I hissed. “And I was sliced and cut and fed upon. My blood was poured into golden chalices that the second sons and daughters drank after being drained by the Queen or the King or another Ascended. I was the godsdamn cattle.”

My lips peeled back over my teeth. “And I wasn’t just used for food. I provided all sorts of entertainment. I know exactly what it’s like to not have a choice.” I went there because she had to know. “It was your Queen who branded me, and if it hadn’t been for the foolish bravery of another, I would still be there. That is how I got that scar.”

I let go of her then, burning with anger and grief, shame and desperation. The walls were down. Backing away, I saw that she trembled. I knew that what I’d shared shook her. Good. It was terrible. Horrific. It was the truth of those she wanted so badly to believe were the heroes.

The thing was, there were no heroes here. Not really. But my people weren’t monsters.

I left the cell before she turned around, crossing her arms over her waist.

I gripped the bars as she stared at me. “Neither the Prince nor I want to see you harmed,” I said, speaking of my brother. “As I’ve said, we need you alive.”

“Why?” she whispered. “Why am I so important?”

“Because they have the true heir to the kingdom. They captured him when he freed me.”

Her brows knitted. “The Dark One has a brother?”

“You are the Queen’s favorite. You’re important to her and to the kingdom. I don’t know why. Maybe it has something to do with your gift. Perhaps it doesn’t.” I forced myself to say what I needed to, because now wasn’t the time to tell her I had no plans of letting her go back to or stay with them. That conversation would have to come once she accepted the truth. “But we will release you back to them if they release Prince Malik.”

“You plan to use me as ransom.”

“That’s better than sending you back in pieces, isn’t it?” I countered, grip tightening on the bars.

Disbelief filled her expression. “You just spent all this time telling me that the Queen, the Ascended, and my brother, are all evil vamprys who feed on mortals, and you’re just going to send me back to them once you free the Dark One’s brother?”

There was nothing I could say that she’d be willing to listen to.

A harsh, hurt laugh left her, and the bars dented under my hands as she lifted hers to her chest.

“A more comfortable sleeping arrangement will be made.” I pushed back from the bars. “You can choose not to believe anything I’ve said, but you should so that what I’m about to say doesn’t come as such a shock to you. I will be leaving shortly to meet up with King Da’Neer of Atlantia to tell him that I have you.”

Her head jerked upright.

“Yes. The King lives. So does Queen Eloana. The parents of the one you call the Dark One and Prince Malik.” I turned from her, stopping. My hands fisted at my sides. “Not everything was a lie, Poppy. Not everything.”

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