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The Crown of Gilded Bones: Chapter 31


As we left Saion’s Cove and passed through the Pillars of Atlantia once more, we caught Vonetta up on all that had happened since we’d last seen her. The sorrow she felt for Beckett lingered long after she’d taken her wolven form, and we crossed the meadow of flowers.

The journey to Spessa’s End was as hard and fast as Jasper had warned, much more brutal than when we’d crossed over from the Wastelands. Under the canopy of red leaves, we stopped only to take care of personal needs and allow Setti and the wolven to rest and eat.

I busied myself by seeking out each wolven I caught sight of and reading their imprints. Vonetta reminded me of her brother, woodsy. But instead of cedar, her imprint was like white oak—and vanilla. Her father reminded me of rich soil and cut grass—an earthy, minty feeling. Others were similar, reminding me of cold mountains and warm waters. I followed each of their imprints, repeating it over and over until all I needed to do was look at one of them to find their imprint. When I spoke to Vonetta through the cord the first time, I might’ve given her a small heart attack.

We crested the mountains as night fell, and the mist…it was different. Only thin vapors trailed along the moss-blanketed ground instead of the thick mist that obscured the trees and the steep drops.

“I think it’s you,” Casteel had said as Setti rushed on. “You said you thought the mist reacted to you before. You were right. It must’ve recognized your blood.”

In the darkness, I’d looked for Kieran, hoping he was close enough to hear that I had been right about the mist when we traveled through it the first time.

Because the mist didn’t slow us down, we were able to continue through the night, making it farther than we’d thought we would by the time gray light filtered through the leaves.

The muscles in my legs ached as we cleared the Skotos, following Vonetta as we traveled through the valley. I couldn’t imagine how any of the wolven or Setti were still able to keep going. I couldn’t even figure out how Casteel’s hold on me hadn’t slackened even once during the trip. His grip and the anxiety of knowing I would see my brother soon were the only things keeping me sitting upright.

We reached Spessa’s End several hours before nightfall. Riding through the heavily wooded area skirting the east wall, we entered the town through a hidden gate, unknown to anyone who may be camped outside the northern wall.

My stomach began to twist and roil with anxiety as the sun followed us across the courtyard, where Coulton ambled out of the stables, dragging a white handkerchief over his bald head. The older wolven gave us a grimace of a smile as he caught hold of Setti’s halter. “I wish I was seeing you two under better circumstances.”

“As do I,” Casteel agreed, and I spotted several Guardians garbed in black among others stationed on the wall. Those who were attempting to make a home at Spessa’s End were on the wall.

Shoving the handkerchief into his back pocket, Coulton offered his hand in assistance. I took it, noting the slight widening of the man’s nostrils. “Now I know why I felt that zap,” he said, squinting up at me. “Meyaah Liessa.

“How did you know?” I asked as he helped me down. It wasn’t something we had gotten a chance to ask Vonetta.

“All of us felt something several days ago,” he explained as Casteel dismounted. “Hard to explain, but it was like this wave of awareness. None of us was sure exactly what it was, but now that I see you, I know. Makes sense,” he said as if the fact that I was a deity wasn’t remotely shocking or a big deal at all.

I kind of liked that. “By the way, you don’t have to call me that.”

“I know.” Coulton grinned, and I had a feeling he would continue calling me that. “Keeping our Prince in line?”

“I try.” I smiled at him as I walked to Setti’s head on legs weak from such a long journey.

The wolven chuckled as I stroked Setti’s nostrils. “I imagine it’s a full-time job.”

“I’m offended.” Casteel dragged a hand through his windblown hair as he squinted up at the wall. “How is everyone doing with the unexpected guests?”

“Nervous, but okay and prepared,” Coulton answered, and my fingers curled into Setti’s mane. “Once I get Setti taken care of, you all want some food sent to your rooms?”

“That would be good,” Casteel said, lifting the saddlebag over a shoulder as the weary wolven streamed across the courtyard, many of them panting, even Delano.

Concern blossomed as I watched Vonetta lower her belly to the ground, her fawn-colored fur identical to her brother’s. Jasper sat beside her as he scanned the courtyard, his large body hunched slightly. I searched for Kieran and found him nudging a smaller wolven with deep brown fur. Opening my senses, I focused on the wolven. The grittiness of exhaustion came back to me. I pushed past that as my chest hummed, finding the individual pathway. Through the cord, I felt the…warm, rolling waters. Lyra was the brown wolven. I shifted my attention to Kieran, searching until the phantom scent of cedar reached me. Having no idea if this would work, I followed the individual cord, pushing my thoughts through it. Are you all okay?

Kieran’s head jerked in my direction as Coulton began leading a tired Setti to the stables, where I hoped they showered him with carrots and fresh, green hay. A heartbeat passed, and then I felt the whisper of Kieran’s voice. We are tired but okay.

I shivered at the unnerving sensation of feeling his words. You all will rest, I sent back to him. It wasn’t a question, more a demand. I had a feeling they would all remain on guard with the Ascended near.

We will. His presence retreated briefly, and then I felt the brush of his thoughts against mine. Meyaah Liessa.

My eyes narrowed.

“Are you communicating with one of the wolven?” Casteel asked as he slid an arm around my shoulders, his gaze following mine to where Kieran playfully nipped at Lyra.

“I was.” I let him steer me toward the east corner of the Stygian Fortress. “I wanted to make sure they rested and didn’t patrol.”

He squeezed my shoulder as we walked under the covered breezeway, past several closed-off rooms. “I’m extremely envious of that ability.”

“You’re not worried that we could be talking about you without you knowing?” I teased as we neared the terrace at the end. It was as I remembered, the chaise lounge and low-to-the-floor chairs inviting.

“Why would I be?” Casteel opened the door, and the scent of lemon and vanilla greeted us. “I’m sure you only have amazing things to say.”

I laughed at that. “Your confidence is an extremely envious ability.”

He snorted as he closed the door behind us. “You should rest until food arrives.”

“I can’t rest.” I walked through the familiar sitting area, easily able to see Alastir seated there on the couch. I stopped at the entrance to the bedchamber, and for a moment, I was swept back to the night that felt like forever ago, when Casteel and I had finally stopped pretending. “I don’t think I can eat.”

“You should try.” Casteel was close behind me.

You should try,” I murmured.

“I would, but I can’t unless you do,” he said. “But since neither of us is going to rest right now, we might as well talk about tonight.”

I faced him. He was in the process of tugging off his boots. “Okay. What do you want to talk about?”

He arched a brow as he placed his boots near one of the chairs. “We need to be careful of what is said to your brother. Obviously, there’s a damn good chance they know what your blood is, but they may not know how your gifts have changed. He shouldn’t be told. The less they know about us, the better. It gives us the upper hand.”

I sat on the edge of the chair, slowly toeing off my boots. “That makes sense.” And because it did, it made me feel a little ill. “And what if Ian…if he is as I remember?”

“Even then, we don’t want to give them any information they do not already know.” He quieted for a moment as he unstrapped the sword on his left side and then the one on his right, lying them upon an old wooden chest. “I hope that he is as you remember, but even if he is, you need to keep in mind that he is here on behalf of the Blood Crown.”

“It’s not like I’m going to forget that.” I tugged off my socks, leaving them in a ball beside my shoes while Casteel had draped his over his boots.

He eyed me for a few seconds. “My mother and father could be right. Tonight may be a trap.”

I rose, beginning to pace in front of the terrace doors. “I know that, but that doesn’t change that my brother is here.”

“It should, Poppy,” he countered. “The Ascended want you, and they know exactly how to draw you out.”

“Do I really need to repeat myself?” I snapped as I walked past him into the sitting room. He followed. “I know that this could be a trap, but as I said, my brother is here.” I pivoted, prowling back toward the bedchamber. “He has a message from the Blood Crown. We are going to see him. And if you’re trying to stop me now, after we came all this way, you’re going to be very disappointed.”

“I’m not trying to stop you.”

“Then what are you getting at?” I demanded.

“Are you going to look at me and listen?”

My head shot in his direction. “I’m looking at you right now. What?”

His eyes burned a fiery gold. “But are you listening?”

“Unfortunately,” I retorted.

“That was rude, but I’m going to ignore that.” A muscle ticked along his jaw as he tilted his head. “You know that what we’re doing is a risk.”

“Of course, I know that. I’m not foolish.”

His brows rose “You’re not?”

My eyes narrowed. “I understand the risks, Casteel. Just like you understood them when you decided to masquerade as a mortal guard.”

“That’s different.”

“Really? Seriously? At any moment, you could’ve been discovered and captured. Then what?” I shot back. “But you did it nonetheless because you were doing it for your brother.”

“Okay. You’re right.” He stepped into me, eyes churning with flecks of heated amber. “I was willing to take those risks with my life—”

“I swear to the gods if you say you’re not willing to allow me to take those same risks, I’m going to hurt you,” I warned.

One side of his lips kicked up. “If that’s a threat, it’s my favorite kind.”

“It will not be in a way you like.” I glanced pointedly below his waist. “Trust me.” I turned from him and took a step. Without warning, he was suddenly in front of me. I jerked back. “Damn it. I hate when you do that!”

“You know I will never stop you from defending yourself—from picking up a sword or bow and fighting,” he said, coming forward. I held my ground. “But I also won’t let you walk right into a trap, arms open.”

“And if it is a trap, do you think I will just give up and say ‘You got me?’” I challenged. “You said it yourself. I can defend myself. I will not let anyone take you or me, and based on what I can do, I’m confident I can ensure that.”

“You were really hesitant about using your power not that long ago,” he reminded me. “You changed your mind?”

“Yes!” And I had, without a doubt. “I would use everything in me to make sure that I and those I love aren’t taken again by the Ascended.”

“That is a relief to hear,” he said.

“Well, I’m glad you’re relieved. If you’re not trying to stop me, then why are we even having this discussion?”

“All I am trying to suggest is that you hold back until we make sure it’s safe for you—”

“No.” I waved a hand, cutting him off. “Not going to happen. I’m not staying back. Would you if this were your brother?” I demanded. “Would those risks outweigh your need to go to him, and would you stand back?”

He dropped his head back, inhaling sharply. A long moment passed. “No, those risks would not outweigh my need.”

“Then why are you trying to stop me?” I honestly didn’t know why he was being like this. “You of all people should understand.”

“I do.” He reached out, curving his hands around my shoulders. A static charge of energy passed from his skin to mine. “I told you that I believed Ian had Ascended, but deep down, you hadn’t accepted that, and I understood why. You needed to believe that there was still a chance that he was mortal or like you.”

The air I breathed stung. I couldn’t deny anything he’d said. “What does that have to do with this?”

“Because when you learned he was an Ascended, you got so upset, you lost control of your emotions. You began to glow and call the wolven to you,” he said, lowering his chin so we were at eye-level. “They felt your anger, and I don’t know if you noticed or not, but I’m pretty sure if you had commanded them to attack, they would’ve done so without hesitation.”

I had noticed that.

“And while I have to admit that is a rather impressive ability, I also fear what will happen when you see Ian, and you no longer recognize him,” he said, and my heart seized. “And I don’t fear your anger or what you do with that wealth of power in you. I don’t fear that at all. I fear what it will do to you—the knowledge that your brother is truly gone.”

I sucked in a shuddering breath as I briefly squeezed my eyes shut. His concern warmed me. It came from such a beautiful place.

“Are you truly ready for that?” he asked, moving his hands to my cheeks. “Are you really ready to do what you believe is necessary if you find that he has become something unrecognizable?”

The air I breathed continued to hurt as I placed my hands on his chest, feeling his heart beat strongly under my palm. I looked up at him, seeing the flecks of amber. “You know I hope to find a part of him still inside there, but I know I have to be ready for what I find. I have to be ready if nothing of Ian remains.”

Casteel smoothed his thumbs over my skin. “And if you’re not ready when it comes to releasing him from this curse?”

“I am willing to shoulder whatever pain comes from giving my brother peace,” I told him.

 A fine tremor coursed through him. “I have to see my brother.”

“I know, and I swear, I’m not going to hold you back. That isn’t what this is about. Yes, I am worried about this being a trap. Like I said, they know exactly how to draw you out. But not for one second do I want to prevent you from going to see Ian. I just—I want to stop you from feeling that kind of pain if I can. I was hoping…” He shook his head. “I don’t know. That you wouldn’t have to deal with that on top of everything else,” he said. “But I should’ve known better. Life doesn’t wait to hand you a new puzzle until you’ve figured out the last one.”

“It would be nice if it did, though.” I exhaled roughly. “I can handle this, no matter what happens.”

Casteel touched his forehead to mine. “But you have no idea what the weight of that kind of pain is like. I do,” he whispered. “I know what it feels like to kill someone I once loved and respected. That pain is always there.”

Knowing he was talking about Shea, I resisted the urge to take his pain. “It lessened, though, didn’t it?”

“It did. A little with each passing year, and even more so when I found you,” he confided. “And that’s no lie.”

I curled my fingers into his shirt. “And it will lessen for me because I have you.”

He swallowed and then pulled me to his chest, wrapping his arms around me. “I know it’s selfish of me to not want you to bear that pain.”

“You not wanting that is one of the reasons I love you.” I lifted my mouth to his because saying it wasn’t enough.

And that kiss of gratitude and affection quickly turned into something needier, more demanding. The one kiss quickly spun out of control, or maybe that was the thing about kisses. They weren’t meant to be controlled.

I didn’t know how he got me undressed so quickly, but I was completely nude by the time I managed to pull his shirt off over his head. He caged me in, my back flush with the wall and my front against his. My senses nearly shorted out at the feel of his warm, hard skin.

Scraping a fang over the side of my throat, his hands skimmed down, one stopping on my breast and the other gliding between them, lingering where the bolt had entered me. There was no sign of that now, but I knew he would never forget the exact spot of the wound. His hand continued on over the softness of my stomach and the scars, slipping between the vee of my thighs. His fingers spread out, the pads of his fingertips brushing against the very center of me, sending a jolt through my body.

“You know what I’ve been craving?” He captured my lips in a quick, scorching kiss as his other hand teased the aching peak of my breast. “Poppy?”

I swallowed as his hair tickled my cheek. “What?”

“Are you even listening to me?” He nipped at my throat. I shuddered as he said, “Or are you not capable of listening?”

“Totally.” My entire being focused on how his fingers curled around my nipple, how his other hand stroked lazily between my thighs. “I’m totally capable of—” I gasped, clutching his shoulders as he slipped one finger inside me. “Of…of listening.”

He chuckled against my neck as he slowly moved his finger in and out, over and over until I was breathless. “So?” Do you know what I’m craving?”

Truthfully, how quickly he distracted me utterly astonished me. Pleasure curled, stirring something deep. “What?”

“Honeydew,” he whispered against my lips, picking up the pace as he tipped his head down. “I could live on the taste of you. I swear to you.”

My pulse rocketed as his decadent oath wove its way through me. He lifted his head, working another finger inside as his eyes became bright and full of more wicked promises. He watched, soaking in every soft gasp and flutter of my eyelashes as his fingers pumped in and out, his gaze latched on to mine, refusing to allow me to look away, to escape the maddening rush of feelings he created.

Not that I ever wanted to.

A dimple appeared in his right cheek as he brushed his thumb over the sensitive part of me, his eyes alight as I sucked in a shrill breath. He began tracing an idle circle around the tightened bud, coming close to touching it but always straying away at the last moment.

“Cas,” I panted.

“I love the way you say that.” Golden flecks sparked to life, churning. “I love the way you look right now.”

“I know.” My hips moved forward, but he pressed in.

“Stay still,” he ordered gruffly. His thumb made another enticingly close circle. “I’m not finished looking at you. Do you know how beautiful you are? Have I told you that today?” he asked, and I was almost sure he had. “How stunning? With your cheeks flushed and lips swollen? Beautiful.”

How could I not feel that way when I could feel that he believed what he said. I felt like I was burning up inside, catching fire. My hands slipped down his chest. Awed by the way his heart pounded against my palm, I strained against his hold, brushing my lips against his. He leaned into me, his arousal pressing against my hip as he kissed me.

“I have to do something about that craving,” he told me, and that was the only warning I had.

Before I could protest the absence of his hand between my legs, he was kneeling. “I could spend an eternity on my knees before you,” he vowed, his eyes amber jewels.

“That would be painful.”

Casteel pressed his thumb down on the bundle of nerves, and I cried out, my hips arching into his hand. “Never.”

 His mouth closed over me, and he did something truly devious with his tongue. I cried out, driven to the edge with his sensual assault. My back arched as far as he’d allow it.

I wanted more.

And I wanted this to be about both of us. Not just me.

Maybe it was everything that had happened and what I could soon face. Maybe it was the heat of his mouth against me. It could’ve simply been the fact that I needed him—needed to remind both of us that no matter how tonight ended, we were alive, we were here, together. And nothing could ever change that.

All of those reasons could have fueled my actions. Given me the strength to take control of my desires, the situation, and of Casteel—and prove that I could handle him at his calmest and at his wildest, his most loving and his most indecent.

I pushed off the wall, clasping the back of his neck. I wasn’t sure if I just surprised him or if I had overpowered him. It didn’t matter. Curling my hand around the back of his neck, I urged him to stand, bringing his mouth to mine. I tasted him on my lips. I tasted me and us. Slipping my hands into his breeches, I undid them as I walked him backward, helping him get rid of them. When his legs hit the bed, I pushed him.

Casteel sat, his brows lifting as he stared up at me. “Poppy,” he breathed.

Placing my hands on his shoulders, I planted my knees on either side of his thighs. “I want you, Casteel.”

He shuddered. “You have me. You will always have me.”

And I did have him as he shifted under me. I lowered myself onto him, the air seizing in my throat as we became one.

Pulse fluttering, I curled my arm around his neck, sinking my fingers into his hair as I dropped my forehead to his, clutching his arm with my other hand. I began to move, rocking against him slowly. I gasped as heat filled my chest and settled between my thighs in a tight, hot ache. My breath touched his lips. “Prove it,” I ordered. “Prove that you’re mine.”

There wasn’t even a moment of hesitation. His mouth crashed onto mine, and the kiss was stunning in its intensity, stealing my breath. My entire body tensed as I lifted myself and brought my body back down, drinking as deeply from his lips as he did from mine. The fine, rough hairs on his chest teased the aching tips of my breasts as I rode him.

“Yours.” Stark need shone through the slits of his eyes. “Now. Forever. Always.”

My fingers tightened around his hair. With each roll of my hips, he reached that spot inside me, the one that sent pleasure bounding through every limb. I moved faster, moaning as I angled my body toward his. I shuddered, letting go of his arm and dragging my hand over his chest. A wildness entered my veins as the friction of the hard length of him ignited a fire. I kissed him greedily, sucking on his lip, his tongue. His hands gripped my hips as he lifted his, meeting my thrusts.

“Should have known,” he said, his breath coming in shorter, faster pants. “You’d love doing it like this.”

“I love…I just love doing it,” I whispered. “With you.”

His hands slid to my rear, cupping it as he rocked me harder against him. “Yeah, you do.” He squeezed, holding me tightly against him until there wasn’t a breath of space between us. “Promise me.”

All the throbbing tension in me curled tightly. I tried to lift myself but he held me in place. “Anything,” I rasped, my nails digging into his skin. “Anything, Cas.”

“If Ian is what you fear and giving him peace is something you cannot safely carry out…” he said, his words causing my already stuttering heart to skip. He dragged his hand up my back, fisting his fingers in my hair. He tugged my head to his. “Promise me that if it puts you at risk, you won’t attempt it. That you will wait until it’s safe. Promise me that.”

The words spilled from me. “I promise.”

Casteel moved at once, lifting me from his lap and onto my belly. Before I had a chance to take a breath, he thrust deeply into me. My back arched as I kicked my head back, his name a hoarse shout on my lips. He rolled into me, grinding his hips against my rear.

I cried out, and a word snuck out, a demand that scalded my cheeks. “Harder.”

“Harder?”

“Yes.” I curled my upper body around, reaching back and clasping his hips. “Please.”

“Fuck,” he growled, and I felt him jerk deep inside me. “I love you.”

There was no chance to tell him the same. He forced an arm under me, curling it just below my breasts. His chest came down on my back, his weight supported by the arm propped by my head. Then he gave me what I wanted, thrusting into me hard.

Casteel was relentless, his body pounding against mine. We became twin flames, burning bright and uncontrollable, lost to the fire. It was a welcomed madness, the frenzy in our blood and our bodies, and it went beyond sex and finding pleasure. It was all about us taking and giving from one another, falling and letting go together, being swept away in trembling waves of rippling pleasure.

 But when the tremors subsided and Casteel eased us onto our sides, my promise to him returned like a vengeful ghost, there to warn me that I might not be able to keep it.


Casteel and I dressed as the last traces of sunlight slipped over the floor, both of us donning the extra black tunics I’d packed. I did manage to eat some of the roasted chicken that had been delivered to the room, and we were able to freshen up. I took my time smoothing my hair into a braid.

Vonetta arrived shortly after, her striking features tense. “They’re here.”


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