A Soul of Ash and Blood: Chapter 72

I WAS RIGHT

Our return to Haven Keep didn’t go unnoticed. Everyone simply made themselves scarce as I crossed the courtyard in the falling snow with Poppy cradled to my chest.

Except for Kieran.

He stood at the second-floor railing, his arms folded across his chest. Our eyes locked. He raised a brow at the sight of me, shirtless—at the sight of us.

“You can put me down,” Poppy muttered. “I can walk.”

That was not the first time she’d said that. It was more like…the twentieth. I’d ignored the nineteen variations that came before. “If I do that, your pants will fall right off you.” I kicked open the door to the stairwell. “And then you would expose your thighs—your very lovely thighs.”

The flush in her face was visible, even in the darkened stairwell. “Only because you destroyed my clothing.”

“Be that as it may, I doubt you want to flash anyone.” I paused mid-step, glancing down at her. “Or is that what you’d prefer?”

Poppy blew out an exasperated breath. “No. That is not what I prefer.”

I grinned as I started back up the steps. “I didn’t think so.”

She was quiet as we rounded the landing and I climbed the remaining steps. I imagined she was reliving the moment she’d plunged the dagger into my chest. Truth be told, her pants weren’t the reason I’d insisted on carrying her. After all, I wouldn’t complain if she flashed me. Her thighs were so very lush. But the snow was coming down in sheets, soaking the rest of her clothing. She was cold. Hell, I was even getting cold. But keeping her close also kept her as warm as possible. Plus, I was faster.

Entering the second-floor hall, her hands curled tighter in the shirt she now wore, and her face burned brighter. I shifted her higher, allowing her cheek to reach my shoulder. She turned her head, pressing her forehead against me.

It wasn’t necessary for her to hide her face, though. Kieran’s attention remained fixed on the heavy snowfall and the forest beyond.

Wanting her in my chamber since it was bigger and a bit nicer, I passed the room she’d been kept in and took her to mine. A faint smile tugged at my lips. Kieran had cleaned up the blood.

And removed the dagger I’d plunged into the floor. Smart move there.

I carried Poppy to the much larger bed and set her down, grateful that the flames in the fireplace were still strong. As I straightened, her mouth opened. “I know you have questions,” I cut in. “I will answer them, but there are a few things I need to take care of.”

Poppy’s lips pinched but she didn’t argue for once. Turning from her, I stopped with my hand on the door, once more reluctant to leave her. I looked back at her. She was still where I’d put her, hands now resting on the bed.

“I’ll be back,” I promised, then stepped out into the hall. Forced myself.

Dragging a hand through my damp hair, I turned to Kieran.

“Do I even want to know why she is wearing your shirt and you are without one?” Kieran asked.

“Probably not.” Lowering my hand, I joined him at the railing. “Thank you for cleaning up the room.”

Kieran nodded. “No one needs to smell your blood.”

A wry smile tugged at my lips as I rested my hands on the railing. “I need you to watch over her for a little bit.”

“You trust me with that?” was all he asked. He likely already knew what I intended to do. “After I wanted to go after her?”

“But you didn’t,” I reminded him. “And you won’t.”

“Because she’s…” Kieran looked at me then. “How did you say it? ‘She is mine?’”

“That’s not exactly why.” I rolled my neck. “She’s half-Atlantian.”

Kieran pushed back from the railing. “You are certain?”

“I tasted her blood. I’m sure.”

His forehead creased as his brows lifted. “Well, I have a lot of questions about that.”

“I bet you do.” The snow was already well on its way to covering the tracks I’d left. “But what’s important right now is that she’s one of us—and, Kieran, the part of her that’s Atlantian? It’s strong. Look at my chest,” I said, and he did just that. “The wound is far more healed than it normally would be.”

Kieran stared, then his gaze cut to the door I’d exited from. “Damn.” He ran his hand over his hair, clasping the back of his neck. “It explains so much. Her abilities. Why the Ascended want her.”

“It does.” I looked down at my hands. They were still stained with blood. Fresh streaks would join them soon. “And it doesn’t.”

It took a moment for Kieran to understand. “Her parents? Her brother…”

I nodded slowly. There was no way they were her parents—at least one of them couldn’t have been. But Ian? He could still be a half brother. Regardless, all of this would still come as a blow.

Kieran squinted. “They planned to use her to Ascend the Lords and Ladies in Wait? But why? They have Malik. They…”

I tensed all over. I knew what he was thinking. That they needed Poppy because Malik was… “He’s still alive.”

“I didn’t say he wasn’t.”

My heart thumped heavily. “He’s probably weakened, and using him to Ascend all those in Wait would likely kill him. That’s why they need Poppy. It’s the only thing that makes sense, especially if her blood is strong.”

“And for them to know that, they must have…”

Drank from her at some point, likely without her knowledge. My hands tightened on the cold railing until I heard the wood groan. I pushed away. “This won’t take too long.”

“You’re wrong, by the way,” Kieran stated when I was halfway down the hall.

I stopped, looking back at him.

“The reason I won’t hurt her has nothing to do with her being half-Atlantian or because she’s one of us.” Kieran faced me. “It has everything to do with the fact that I was right.”

I lifted my brows. “About what?”

“You. Her.” His head tilted to the side, and when he spoke again, his voice was low. “She’s yours, and you care about her. That’s why. And don’t even try to deny it. Not after the lengths you’ve gone to in order to keep her safe.” He took a step forward. “The lengths you are about to go to, to ensure that what happened in that cell doesn’t happen again.”

A faint tickle of sensation hit the nape of my neck. There was no point in denying it. “I do. I care about her.”

Kieran smiled like a kid who’d just run off with a handful of sweets.

“That wasn’t the reaction I expected,” I stated, tone dry.

“Honestly?” He lifted his hands. “I’m relieved.”

My brows inched up. “Really?”

“Yeah. It proves you aren’t the piece of shit I knew you weren’t.”

“How in the fuck does it prove that?”

“Because being with her wasn’t about getting off. It’s because you care about her. That changes things.”

Everything had changed.

Kieran shook his head. “In any other situation, it would be funny for you to fall for her—”

“Fall for her?” My stomach dipped as if I were standing on the edge of the cliffs in the Skotos. “I said I care about her, Kieran. I didn’t say I’d fallen in love with her. Lust? Yes. Respect and admiration for her? Fuck yes.”

Kieran’s brows creased further as he looked at me like I was missing half a brain. “What do you think lust, respect, admiration, and caring for someone adds up to?”

“Not what you think it does. Maybe for some people, but not me. I don’t—” I stopped myself, but what I didn’t say hung in the air between us.

I didn’t deserve to be in love—to experience that. Not after my actions had led to Malik’s capture. Not after Shea. Not with all the blood on my hands. Not after what I’d done to Poppy.

And Kieran knew that. He just didn’t want to say it. However, this otherwise pointless conversation about love and shit sparked an idea. A fucking insane one, but one that would not only give me what I needed and Poppy what she deserved, but so much more.

“Cas,” Kieran started.

I held up my hand, stopping him. My mind raced, filling in the blanks. This would give Poppy all the protection she’d ever need and then some while ensuring the Blood Crown did anything they could to prevent the knowledge of what she was. No one would dare touch her—not Atlantian or Descenter. Not even my father. My lips curved up.

“Why are you smiling like that?” Kieran asked.

“Look, I do care about her, but that’s not the point here. She is one of us, and there’s no way they didn’t know that.” I crossed the space, stopping in front of him. “Think about what that means.”

“For once, I’m not sure I follow.”

“The Blood Crown rules through lies, Kieran. Everything about them and everything they tell their people is a lie. And Poppy?” I jerked my chin at the chamber door. “She is the foundation of those lies.”

Kieran’s eyes widened as it began to click. “They’ve told the people she’s Chosen by the gods and, fuck, maybe she is, but we know she’s half-Atlantian.”

“And based on the lies they’ve told? Wouldn’t that make her half-monster?” I said, smirking. “And wouldn’t they do anything to prevent that knowledge from getting out?”

Kieran nodded as a slow smile began tipping up his lips. “Fuck yeah, they would, because if it’s revealed that she’s part Atlantian?” He huffed out a laugh. “It would begin their end, collapsing all their other lies.” His smile faded. “But how are you going to prove that? Better yet, how are we going to keep her alive? Alastir will still come, and half-Atlantian or not, your father could still make demands.”

“My father can.” I started backing up, my smile spreading. “But he won’t.”

Kieran stiffened. “Cas.”

“Don’t worry,” I told him. “I have a plan.”

“But that does worry me.”

I laughed, the sound traveling down the hall. “Keep watch over her.”

Leaving Kieran to do just that, I made my way to the main floor of the keep. I found Magda and Elijah in his study.

The bearded Descenter looked up from the ledgers piled on his desk. “Not sure if you realize this or not, but you’re half-undressed.”

“And it appears as if you’ve been stabbed.” Magda’s hand fluttered to her belly. “In the chest.”

“I’m fine, but speaking of clothing, is it possible for you to find something that would fit Penellaphe?”

Magda frowned as she rose from her chair. “Is the clothing I brought before unable to be laundered?”

My lips pursed. “That would be a no.”

“Okay.” She drew out the word. “Do you need clothing?”

“Likely, but that can wait. First, can you have hot water sent to my chambers? Kieran is there with her, and she will remain there.”

“Oh, man,” Elijah murmured while Magda nodded.

“And bloodstone.” I looked at Elijah. “I’m going to need bloodstone. Lots of it.”

“You’re going down to the cells?” Elijah asked.

“No,” I said. “I want them brought to the Great Hall.”

He stood, rubbing his chin through his beard. “Oh, man, oh, man.”

I smiled.

It didn’t take long to wrangle a couple dozen bloodstone stakes. They’d been placed in a canvas bag and dropped in the center of the Great Hall, the space all had to pass through to enter the dining hall. It was empty now except for Delano, the doors closed on either end.

“You feeling up to this?” I asked him as I waited.

Delano nodded, the set of his jaw hard. There was nothing boyish about his features. “I’m more than feeling up to this.”

“Good.” I glanced at him. “I’m glad you’re okay.”

“So am I.” A quick grin appeared. “I wouldn’t be if it weren’t for her. She saved my life, Cas, and she didn’t have to,” he said, and I had a feeling that was why he was so willing to carry this out. “I owe her. You know what that means.”

I did know what it meant when a wolven made that pledge. It was damn near an unbreakable oath. He would guard her with his life. Even against me, if it came to it.

I glanced at the door, hearing footsteps. I bent, reaching into the canvas. My fingers curled around a smooth bloodstone spike. “You never have to worry about me harming her, Delano.”

“I know,” he said, stretching his neck from side to side. “That I know.”

The door opened, and a trembling mortal was escorted inside.

One who had been given a second chance to live out his life with his wife and child.

He’d thrown that away.

Naill and Elijah let go of Mr. Tulis. The man staggered forward, his hands not bound but clasped. His wide, frightened eyes were unfocused. “I’m sorry—”

“You’re not here to apologize. We are past that.” I went to where he stood, each step slow and measured. “She had nothing to do with what happened to your other children, nor did she have anything to do with the Rite.”

“She is the Maiden—”

I caught him by the throat, silencing him. “Her name is Penellaphe Balfour. You should know the name of the person who felt sorrow for you and your family. You should know the name of the one you plotted to kill.” I lifted him to the tips of his toes. “And you should know the name of the one I told you not to harm.”

His eyes bulged. “I-I’m—”

“No.” I tightened my grip. “You threw away your life, not that of your wife or son. Let that be your last thought as you leave this realm.”

With the spike in my other hand, I drove it through his chest, the bloodstone slicing through mortal tissue and bone like warm butter. His death wasn’t instantaneous—I left the spike in, after all—but it was quicker than he deserved. He was dead before I impaled him to the wall.

They brought the next one in. Ivan. He already knew what was coming. Didn’t say a word. He didn’t beg or fight, and he, too, ended up on the wall. The rest were brought in, one after another. Wolven. Atlantian. Mortal. Some fought, swinging fists, baring fangs, and shifting into their wolven forms. Some pleaded, dropping to their knees. Some were already dead, having been dealt with during the attack. They all ended up the same. A spike to the chest or head and hanging on the wall.

I showed them more kindness than they’d shown Poppy. Those alive all died either immediately or within minutes, and I didn’t feel a fucking ounce of remorse. None of them did. All they felt was regret for the life they’d forfeited: theirs.

Blood splattered both Delano’s and my chest when Elijah and Naill dragged in the last one.

Jericho.

They shoved him forward. The wolven caught himself before toppling over. His pale blue eyes widened as he saw the wall of the Great Hall. “Cas,” he said, lifting both arms. “We can—”

“We can do what, Jericho?” I flipped a spike in my hand. “Talk this out?” I laughed. “We are beyond that, my friend. You were warned, and you were given grace.” I pointed at his stump. “And yet you betrayed me. Not once, but twice.”

“Betrayed you?” Jericho stiffened, his skin thinning. Beside me, Delano sighed. He was going to shift. “I have stood beside you for years. I’ve done all you’ve asked and more.”

“And yet you continuously did the thing I asked you not to do. I know I sound repetitive, but you were warned multiple times not to touch her.” I flipped the spike again. “You only lived the first time because Kieran managed to talk me out of killing you. He didn’t even try this time.”

“Of course, he didn’t,” Jericho snarled, voice guttural. “If you’re getting your dick wet in the Maiden, then so is he—” He yelped, falling backward under the force of the spike I threw. He hit the floor hard. “Fuck.”

I prowled toward him. “You know what the funny thing is, Jericho?” As he reached for the spike, I stomped my foot down on his right arm, breaking the bones. “I always knew I would kill you one day.”

“You…you missed my heart,” he grunted. “You prick. I…I never thought you’d kill me…over the fucking Maiden,” he rasped, blood trickling from his mouth.

“No.” I pushed down harder with my foot. Another bone crunched. Jericho screamed. “I wasn’t aiming for your heart, you fucking cunt.”

Understanding dawned, and then, then I saw fear. I gave his ruined arm one more punishing grind of my boot before stepping back. Delano was there, grasping Jericho by the arm.

“You will live,” I told him. “Until I’m ready for you to die.”

“How can you…do this?” Jericho growled, snapping at Delano as Elijah took hold of his other arm. They lifted him as I went to the canvas bag and pulled out two more spikes. “You’re making a mistake—”

“You never learn, do you?” Delano snarled. “Can you at least shut the fuck up?”

“How about you suck my—?” Jericho yelped as Delano drove his knee into said cock.

Elijah laughed. “Damn, my little marshmallow’s getting kinda crispy.”

With Naill’s help, they got him to the wall, holding his arms outstretched. Jericho, of course, did not shut the fuck up. “You’ve all…betrayed your kin and…kingdom. And for what? She’s…basically the Ascended.”

“She is not,” I said, thrusting a spike through his forearm. He shouted.

His lips peeled back over bloodstained teeth. “You…you think you can just will people…into forgetting what she is?”

I sighed.

“She’ll never be…safe here!” he shouted, spitting blood as it coursed down his chest.

“Oh, yes, she will be.” I drove the final spike through his remaining hand as the others backed off.

“You’re out…of your mind,” he swore, breathing labored. “If you…really think that.”

“I know it.” I caught his jaw, forcing his head back against the wall as I leaned in close and whispered the truth about Poppy and what I’d planned.

And Jericho?

That motherfucker finally shut his mouth.

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