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A Soul of Ash and Blood: Chapter 73

PLANS HAVE CHANGED

I made use of the chamber Poppy had originally been placed in to bathe and change into fresh clothing. The water was fucking freezing, but I didn’t want to return to her covered in blood and smelling like death. Hair damp, I stepped back into the hall. Kieran was waiting outside.

He hadn’t been earlier. “She’s likely asleep again.”

“Again?”

“She fell asleep while bathing,” he answered.

“You woke her from a bath?” My eyes narrowed.

“She was in there for quite some time. I called out to her more than once,” he explained. “When she didn’t answer, I figured I should check on her.”

“How did she handle your intrusion?”

A small smile appeared. “She said that among her people, it was impolite to stare.”

I faced him. “And were you staring?”

His smile kicked up a notch. That was…interesting. “A little.” His eyes met mine. “I saw her scars. Some of them.”

I tensed, though not because he’d obviously been staring more than just a little. Anyone else? They’d already be dead. But I knew she was self-conscious of those scars.

“I told her that among my people, scars are never hidden,” Kieran continued. “That they are always honored.”

I relaxed. Poppy…she needed to hear that. Know that. “You’re lucky she had no weapon on her.”

Kieran snorted. “Before her nap, she asked some questions about Atlantia.”

“I imagine she did.” I glanced at the closed door. “I told her I was taking her home. To Atlantia.”

One eyebrow rose. “Is that a part of the plan I’m not supposed to worry about? Because I am.”

I went to stand beside him. “I plan to marry her.”

Kieran slowly turned his head to me. A moment passed, his expression remaining unreadable. “Is that so?”

I nodded. “What happened to her in that cell won’t happen again if she is my wife. It offers her protection.”

The other eyebrow rose.

“And with her as my wife, the threat of us tearing down all their lies becomes more real. After all, if the gods have forsaken the Atlantians as the Ascended claim, then surely the Chosen—the child of the gods—would not be able to marry one. It’s more likely the Blood Crown will release my brother.”

Another moment passed. “And?”

“And once Malik is free, Poppy will be free of me.” I lifted my chin. “I told you that I care about her, so I have no intention of forcing her to remain married to someone she hates.”

“Someone she hates?” Kieran repeated, one side of his lips curling up. “When you went to bring her back to the keep, you were with her. I know you were. I smelled you on her.”

“Just because she’s attracted to me doesn’t mean she would want to remain married to the man who kidnapped her.”

“Or set her free,” he said, to which I frowned. “That’s a different way to look at what you’ve done, isn’t it? Set her free.”

Watching the snow fall, I supposed that was a lovely revisionist version of how we’d gotten to this point. “I killed those she’s cared about, both directly and indirectly. I don’t expect nor seek her forgiveness, Kieran. We will not remain husband and wife.”

“If you say so.”

“I know so.” The back of my neck prickled again, stronger than before.

Kieran watched me, head tilted. “You’ve been doing that a lot of late.”

“Doing what?”

“Rubbing the back of your neck.”

I was? My hand was on the nape of my neck, so yeah, I’d been doing that. “Think I pulled a muscle.”

Kieran snorted.

“What? Like that’s not possible?”

“Yeah.” He looked away. “You really think Alastir won’t see through this ploy? Your father?”

“Well, for starters, I plan to be gone before he gets here. If the snow ends. We’ll leave in the morning if possible. Either way, they won’t see through this—if I’m convincing enough,” I told him. “Which I plan to be.”

Kieran’s eyes narrowed on me. “Please tell me you’re going to tell her about these plans. That you’re not—”

“I will announce to those here that we are to marry. That is only to ensure her safety while we’re here.”

“That’s smart.”

“But she is no longer a pawn, Kieran. She will be fully aware of this ploy,” I swore.

“And if she doesn’t agree to it?”

I exhaled heavily. “If she doesn’t, then I…I won’t force her. And I know what that means, what I will be choosing,” I said before Kieran could. “But I will just have to convince Poppy to go along with this.”

Kieran choked on a laugh, and I couldn’t help but smile. “By the way,” he said, “your plan is…insane.”

“I know.” I followed his gaze to the snow. “But not only will it work, it’s the least I can do for her.”

Kieran was silent for several heartbeats. “But will it be enough?”

I knew what he meant. It was something I hadn’t allowed myself to dwell on. Freeing Malik took priority, but bringing him home wouldn’t fix everything in Atlantia, not with us running out of land. Our people had strengthened in the years since the war, replacing the numbers we’d lost and then some. That was good, except it wasn’t. We were running out of territory, and in the not-too-distant future, resources would become limited. If we didn’t expand beyond Spessa’s End, the future of Atlantia would be a troubled one. And besides that, would Malik be ready to take the crown? My chest hollowed as my throat dried. He’d be fine. Eventually. I would be there to help him. Our parents. Kieran and everyone else. He’d just need time.

“None of Atlantia’s struggles are Poppy’s,” I said. “She is not to be burdened with them.”

“A Princess who is to remain unburdened by the plight of her kingdom?” Kieran murmured.

“A Princess in name only,” I reminded him.

He turned, angling his body toward mine. “If she goes along with this, that means a part of her accepts the truth about the Ascended, and I don’t know her all that well, but you do. Do you think she will be satisfied with just freedom? While the Ascended continue on?” he asked. “Will she be able to remain unburdened?”

That was a damn good question. One I didn’t have an answer to.

I stepped back. “It’s almost time for supper. I’m sure she’s hungry.”

Kieran nodded, his lips curving into a faint smile as he looked away. “I’ll be waiting.”

Turning, I crossed the hall and entered my chamber, closing the door behind me.

I didn’t make it far at first. I saw her curled on her side, the dark crimson strands of her hair spread across the pillow. The sight of her seemed to rob me of the ability to move.

Sounded fucking silly as hell, but I had to will myself to take a step. I went to her side and sat on the edge of the bed. The movement didn’t wake her. I hadn’t taken that much blood from her, but she’d been through a lot. She was exhausted, but she needed to eat.

And if I told her about my plans before then? She likely wouldn’t consume a single bite. She would be mad at me by the end of supper, but I preferred her anger over her being harmed. Besides, I always found myself somewhat bemused by her ire.

There was likely something wrong with me.

I reached over, brushing her hair back from her neck. The two puncture wounds caused a visceral reaction. The sudden, sharp pulse of lust was damn strong. I couldn’t remember ever reacting that way to the sight of my bite before.

My fingers drifted from her cheek to the skin just above the bite. Poppy…things were just different with her.

Always.

Her eyes fluttered open, locking with mine. She didn’t speak. Neither did I while I waited for her to demand that I not touch her. She didn’t, but I withdrew my hand anyway, knowing better than to push my luck. “How are you feeling?”

Poppy’s nose scrunched, and then she laughed.

Completely caught off guard by the reaction, I felt myself grin. “What?”

“I can’t believe you’re asking me if I’m okay when I stabbed you in the heart.”

“Do you think you should be asking me that question?” I countered. When she didn’t answer, my smile spread. “I’m relieved to hear that you care. I’m perfectly fine.”

“I don’t care,” she muttered, sitting up.

“Lies,” I murmured. The thing was, I knew she did. She wouldn’t have taken my pain away earlier if she didn’t, but she didn’t want to care. My chest tightened. I couldn’t blame her for that. “You didn’t answer my question.”

“I’m fine.” She stared at the dull yellow of the quilt draped over her.

“Kieran said you dozed off in the bath.”

“Did he tell you he came into the bathing chamber?” she asked.

“Yes.”

Her gaze shot to mine.

“I trust Kieran,” I said. “You’ve been asleep for several hours.”

“Is that not normal?”

“It’s not abnormal. I guess I’m…” I frowned. “I guess I’m feeling guilty for biting you.”

“You guess?” she stammered.

I wasn’t sure. If I hadn’t bitten her, I never would’ve discovered that she was half-Atlantian. Then again, there was a lot with Poppy that I felt guilt for but didn’t regret. “I believe so.”

“You should feel guilt!” she exclaimed.

I raised a brow. “Even though you stabbed me and left me to die?”

Her mouth clamped shut. “You didn’t die. Obviously.”

“Obviously. I was barely winded.”

“Congratulations.” Poppy rolled her eyes.

Amused, I chuckled.

Poppy, however, was not amused. Shoving the quilt aside, she scooted to the other side of the bed. “Why are you here? To take me back to the cell?”

“I should. If anyone other than Kieran knew you had stabbed me, I would be expected to.”

Poppy stood. “Then why don’t you?”

“I don’t want to.”

Her hands opened and closed as she stared. “So, what now? How is this going to work, Your Highness?”

My jaw clenched.

“You’ll keep me locked up in a room until you’re ready for us to leave?” she asked.

“Do you not like this room?”

“It’s far better than a dirty cell, but it’s still a prison,” she said. “A cage, no matter how nice the accommodations are.”

She was right. “You would know, wouldn’t you? After all, you’ve been imprisoned since you were a child. Caged and veiled.”

Surprisingly, she didn’t deny that as she turned to the small window, her arms folded over her chest.

My gaze dropped. The breeches she wore fit her like a second skin. I liked it. A lot. “I came here to escort you to dinner.”

“Escort me to dinner?” Her eyes widened.

“I feel like there’s an echo in this room, but yes, I imagine you’re hungry,” I said. “And we’ll discuss what will happen next when we have some food in our stomachs.”

“No.”

“No?” I repeated. When there was no further explanation, I stretched out on my side, plopping my cheek on my fist. “You have to be hungry.”

Poppy shook her head, but the act didn’t match her words. “I am hungry.”

I sighed. “Then what’s the problem, Princess?”

“I don’t want to eat with you. That’s the problem.”

I fought a grin. “Well, it’s a problem you’re going to have to get over because it’s your only option.”

“See, that’s where you’re wrong. I have options.” She turned from me.

Big mistake.

I rose silently.

“I’d rather starve than eat with you, Your Highness—” Poppy squeaked as I stepped in front of her. “Gods,” she gasped, pressing her hand to her chest.

“That’s where you’re wrong, Princess.” I met her stare. “You don’t have options when it comes to your own well-being and your own foolish stubbornness.”

Her brows shot up. “Excuse me?”

“I won’t let you weaken or starve yourself because you’re mad. And I do get it. I get why you’re upset. Why you want to fight me on everything, every step of the way.” I took a step toward her. She didn’t back down. Her chin lifted, and I knew she was digging in for a fight, but little did she know, it wouldn’t get the desired effect. “I want you to, Princess. I enjoy it.”

Poppy blinked. “You’re twisted.”

“Never said I wasn’t. So, fight me. Argue with me. See if you can actually injure me next time.” I paused. “I dare you.”

Her arms unfolded. “You’re…there’s something wrong with you.”

“That may be true, but what is also true, is the fact that I will not let you put yourself in unnecessary danger.”

“Maybe you’ve forgotten, but I can handle myself,” she retorted.

“I haven’t forgotten. I won’t ever prevent you from lifting a sword to protect your life or those you care about,” I told her. “But I won’t let you shove that sword through your own heart to prove a point.”

She was quiet as she appeared to process what I shared, and then she let out a shriek of frustration. “Of course, you won’t! What good am I to you dead? I imagine you still plan to use me to free your brother.”

“You are nothing to me if you’re dead,” I snapped, my irritation flaring to life. That wasn’t at all what I’d been getting at.

Poppy’s sharp inhale stung like a lash against my skin.

This was not a good start.

“Come. The food will grow cold.” I took her hand, but she didn’t budge. “Don’t fight me on this, Poppy. You need to eat, and my people need to see that you have my protection if you have any hope of not finding yourself spending your days locked in a room.”

Poppy clearly wanted to fight, but in this, she relented.

For now.


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