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The War of Two Queens: Chapter 11


Casteel

 

One more time.

Exhaustion dogged me as I braced a hand on the wall and slammed my foot down as hard as I could.

Bone cracked and gave way.

“Thank fuck,” I muttered, breathing heavily.

The Craven that had found its way into my cell this time had been nothing but skin and bones—brittle bones.

I lowered myself to the floor. Or my legs gave out. One or the other. Dizzy, I reached into the gore, pulling the shin bone free. One end was more jagged than the other. Perfect. I could sharpen it even further on the edges of the chains, where the hardened spurs were.

The weapon wouldn’t do much when it came to the Revs or even Isbeth. A false god was a god for all intents and purposes, but it could do some damage. Bloody damage.

I kicked the remains away, knowing that whatever Handmaiden would eventually show up and remove it before it revived wouldn’t look too closely at the Craven.

Leaning back against the wall, I took a breather. Only a few minutes. I needed to stay awake, even though I wanted nothing more than to sleep. To dream of Poppy.

But that hadn’t been a dream. At least, not a normal one. I should’ve known that it was something different. Poppy had looked far too real. Felt too real—too soft and warm. It hadn’t occurred to me that we were dream walking until I saw her eyes.

Saw how they were different.

By then, we’d begun to slip away from each other, and I had wasted the opportunity to tell her…

What would I have told her? Where I might be held? Which was somewhere…underground. Not really helpful information there, but I could have told her what Isbeth was. Someone may know if a demis had the same weaknesses as a god or goddess. I could’ve…

A spasm ran through me, tightening my muscles painfully.

I needed to feed.

The barbed ache of hunger chewed away at me, and with the only sound the trickle of water, my eyes drifted shut. I must’ve dozed off. Or passed out. Either was possible, but the sound of footsteps pulled me from the nothingness. My eyes snapped open, taking far longer than usual to adjust to the dimness of the space as I shoved the Craven bone behind me. The steps weren’t the shuffling click and drag of a Craven, nor obnoxiously loud as that Handmaiden’s had been. The rhythmic, lazy stroll ceased as I focused on the void of the entryway. At first, I saw nothing but shadows, but the longer I stared, I realized that the shadows were too thick. Too solid.

Awareness prickled over my flesh as I began making out the figure in the darkness. Tall but otherwise shapeless. The shadow drifted forward into the weak glow of the candlelight—the cloaked shadow.

I stared, heart starting to pound. The cloak was black and long, more like a shroud, and the hood was situated so the face was nothing but darkness. Much like the one I’d worn in Solis when I hadn’t wanted to be seen. The one that had given me the moniker of the Dark One.

This wasn’t a Handmaiden that stood before me. And the cloaked figure was too tall to be Callum.

It didn’t move.

Neither did I as acid churned in my gut.

The cloaked figure lifted hands to the hood, lowering it.

Every part of my being tensed.

I’d seen the life go out of men’s eyes. I’d stood in gore of my making, hands and face slick with blood as I stared upon something that had become unrecognizable. I’d seen all manner of shit that would haunt most, but I’d never wanted to look away. Not until the night Poppy had learned who I truly was. The horror and betrayal dawning in those beautiful green eyes and the way I saw her fragile trust shatter made me sick.

And I felt that now. Sick. Wanting to look away. But just like that night with Poppy, I made myself see what was before me. Something else that had become unrecognizable.

My brother.

What I felt was nothing like that night with Poppy when I had been choking on shame. I felt a brief burst of relief to see that he was alive, but that was quickly snuffed out. Now, there was only anger, and it crowded out any chance for denial to take root.

“Motherfucker,” I growled.

Malik smiled. It wasn’t a smile I knew. Wasn’t real. “Yeah…” His arms fell to his sides.

Several long moments passed. We just stared at each other. I didn’t know what the hell he saw. Didn’t care.

“You look well for someone who’s been held captive for a century,” I bit out.

Malik did look well. The light brown, shoulder-length hair was longer than I remembered him wearing it but clean. It even fucking shone in the candlelight. There was no gaunt paleness to his golden-bronze skin. No dullness to his amber eyes. The cut of his cloak was fine, the material sable in color and clearly tailored to the width of his shoulders. Closer now, I saw that he was thinner, but while Malik was a handful of inches taller than me, I’d always been broader.

“Can’t say the same about you,” he replied.

“Suppose not.”

He fell silent again. Just stood there, his expression unreadable. Poppy’s ability to read emotions would’ve come in handy. Unless he’d put shields up. Had he known to do so when we met in Oak Ambler? There had been no time to learn if she had picked up anything from him. To know if he was as empty on the inside as he appeared.

“Is that all you have to say to me?” Malik asked finally.

A dry, wracking laugh shook my shoulders. “There’s a lot I want to say.”

“Then say it.” Malik came forward, brushing aside his cloak as he knelt. The shafts of his leather boots were remarkably clean. They’d never been spotless before, always splattered with mud or covered with pieces of straw he inevitably tracked from the stables through the palace. He stared at my wrapped hand. “I’m not going to stop you.”

My lip curled. “I haven’t earned your visit. So, what did you do to earn it, brother?”

“I did nothing, Cas.”

“Bullshit.”

His gaze flicked up from my hand. That mockery of a smile returned, hinting at the one dimple in his left cheek. “I’m not supposed to be here.”

There was a moment, a quick one, where hope took form. Just like that Handmaiden had said, Malik was never where he was supposed to be. Growing up, we had to hunt him down when it came to our lessons, something that had become sort of a game for Kieran and me. We’d made wagers on who would find Malik first. Come suppertime, he was always late, usually because he’d been fucking with the food or drink—or simply fucking. On more than one occasion, I’d heard our mother telling Kirha that she had a feeling she would become a grandmother while still Queen. She’d been wrong, much to the surprise of all. Even me.

But hope fizzled out. His inability to be where he shouldn’t be wasn’t a sign that my brother, the one I knew and loved, was still in this shell of a man. It was evidence of something else entirely.

“You and the bitch that close now?” The band at my throat tightened. I forced my body to relax against the wall. “That you don’t worry about being punished?”

The divot in his cheek disappeared. “What I do and don’t worry about doesn’t change that we’re still brothers.”

“It changes everything.”

Malik went quiet again, his gaze lowering. Another long moment stretched between us, and gods, he looked like my brother. Sounded like him. I’d spent decades fearing I’d never see him again. And here he was—yet wasn’t.

“What did she do to you?” I asked.

The skin around his mouth pulled taut. “Let me see your hand.”

“Fuck off.”

“You’re starting to hurt my feelings.”

“What part of fuck off gives you the impression that I’m worried about your feelings?”

Malik chuckled, and the sound was familiar. “Man, you have changed.” He grabbed my left wrist, and I started to pull away, as pointless an endeavor as that was in my current state. His eyes narrowed. “Don’t be a brat.”

“Haven’t been one of them in a long time.”

“Doubtful,” he murmured, beginning to unwrap my hand. His fingers were warm and callused. I wondered if he still handled a sword, and if Isbeth would allow that. He uncovered the wound, letting the bandage slip to the stone. “Fuck.”

“Attractive, huh?” My laugh was cold, even as I thought of all the times he’d inspected some minor scrape when we were young. When I was a brat. “Is this the truth she opened your eyes to?”

His gaze flew to mine, his eyes brighter than before. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I pitched forward, ignoring the band as it started to squeeze. My face was suddenly in his. “What did she do to break you?”

“What makes you think I’m broken?”

“Because you aren’t whole. If you were, you wouldn’t stand beside the monster you came to free me from. The same piece of shit that—”

“I know exactly what she did.” His stare held mine. “Let me ask you a question, Cas. How did it feel when you realized that our mother—and likely our father—lied to us about who Queen Ileana was?”

Anger pulsed hotly within me. “How do you think?”

“Furious. Disappointed,” he said after a moment. “Even more pissed. That was how I felt.”

Yeah, that about summed it up.

“Is that why you’re with Isbeth? Betrayed everyone and your kingdom?” I asked. “Because Momma and Papa lied to us?”

His lips twisted into a thin smile. “Why I’m here has nothing to do with our parents. Though, if they had been honest, I have to wonder if either of us would be here.”

Knowing who the Blood Queen truly was could’ve changed everything. “Yeah.”

“But none of that changes that your wound is infected.”

“I don’t give a shit about the wound.”

“You should.” A muscle ticked in his jaw, in the same place it did in our father’s, right below the temple. “This should’ve healed by now.”

“No shit,” I spat as the band dug into my windpipe.

“You need to feed.”

“Dare I be repetitive and say no shit?”

A slight upward curve of his lips appeared. “Dare you continue choking yourself?”

“Fuck you.” I sat back, taking shallow breaths as the band slowly loosened.

“You curse more than you used to,” he remarked, looking back down at my hand.

“Does it offend your newly found sensibilities?”

He laughed. “Nothing offends my sensibilities anymore.”

“Now that I believe.”

Malik raised a brow. “If I give you blood, my visit will be discovered.”

“So, you do worry about being punished?”

Those cold eyes lifted. “It’s not me who’d be punished.”

Disgust churned in my empty gut. “Is that supposed to mean you care about what she does to me? Even as you stand by her side?”

“Believe what you want.” He reached into the folds of his cloak, tugging on a strap. He pulled a narrow leather satchel forward, the kind Healers often carried with them. “Figured you’d need aid.”

I said nothing, just watched him pull out a small bottle. What that Handmaiden had said came back to me. She’d claimed to have made a promise when I asked why she was here. And said that she was bored. But she’d known my hand was infected.

And by the looks of it, Malik had come prepared because of that knowledge.

Had he asked her to check on me? Or had she gone to him?

“Without blood, your body is about as useful as a mortal’s,” he remarked. “The infection will spread and get into your blood. Won’t kill you, but you’ll end up where you don’t want to be even faster.”

I knew exactly where that was. I’d been at the edge with Poppy in New Haven, but I’d toppled over that cliff when I was held before.

Malik unscrewed the lid, and an astringent scent filled the space. “This is going to sting like the fires of the Abyss. Hope you don’t scream and cry like you used to.” He took my wrist in a firm grasp. “It won’t end well for you if you do.”

“I didn’t scream when the fucker cut it off, so what do you think?”

That muscle flexed under his temple once more. “You might want to take a deep breath then.”

I did, only because I knew what was coming. Malik poured the liquid over the partly exposed bone and nerve, his gaze locked on mine. And, fuck, I wanted to scream like holy hell. The breath I took did nothing to ease the fiery burn. I gritted my teeth so hard, it was a wonder my molars didn’t crack. The pain made it difficult to breathe or understand what the hell Malik was saying, but he was talking because his lips were moving, so I made myself push past the torment and focus.

“Stings like a bastard, doesn’t it? The pain is worth it. Shit’s a miracle. Not even sure how she created it. Didn’t really want to ask.” A wry grin came, and even in scorching agony, I recognized that lopsided grin that revealed one fang. That was real. “But it will force the infection out and get your skin healing.” He paused. “Yeah, it’s working.”

Jaw aching, I watched the liquid bubble across my hand and foam along the knuckle. The pain lessened enough that I no longer wanted to bash my head into a wall. From the froth, a thick, whitish-yellow pus oozed out, stinking about as bad as the damn Craven I’d kicked into the corner.

“You didn’t even flinch.” Malik sounded surprised. “I guess you’ve felt worse.” Another heartbeat of silence. “And you’ve probably inflicted far worse pain on others.”

“You heard?” I replied hoarsely.

“I have, but I’m not talking about what you did to the Ascended. Or to that Craven over there. Got a little messy, didn’t you?” He stared down at my hand. The pus had slowed, no longer a steady, disgusting stream. “You know what I’ve been thinking about lately?”

“How fucked up you’ve become?” I suggested.

He barked out a sharp laugh. “I should probably clarify. I meant to say—you know who I’ve been thinking about lately?”

“Options are limitless.”

“Shea.”

Her name was a surprise. Worse than a curse. A once-welcomed memory that had become nothing more than a waste.

“I know what she did. They told me. Didn’t believe it at first, but then I remembered how much she loved you. More than I think you even knew or deserved.” He tipped the bottle over the stump of the finger.

I hissed as the liquid hit my flesh and foamed once more, but not as intensely as before.

“Then I knew they didn’t lie. She set me up,” he continued with a short laugh. “You kill her?”

Unlocking my jaw, I forced out, “Yeah.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

I wanted to believe that he was. I didn’t.

He set the bottle aside. “Knowing you, you kept what she did a secret, didn’t you? Bet only Kieran knows.”

The stench from the wound wasn’t so bad now. Neither was the pain. “Does it matter?”

“Not really.” He let go of my hand. “Just that we’ve all had to do some messed-up shit, haven’t we?”

“Well, if anyone has been keeping score of messed-up shit, you’ve won,” I told him.

“Looks like it’s you who actually won, little brother.” He pulled out a small cloth from the satchel. “Found love.” Turning my hand over, he revealed the imprint. “Became a King.” He drew his thumb over the swirl. “You have the life I once thought I’d have.”

The rage returned, as fiery as the pain had been. “Poppy never would’ve been yours.”

“She could’ve been,” he murmured. His grip on my hand tightened. “You look like you want to punch me. Hard.”

“Sounds about right,” I snarled.

He smirked as he dabbed the cloth along the knuckle. “It’s funny.”

“What is?”

“You’re angry with me, when you’ve spent the last century living your life—your best life as it appears.”

“Living?” I seethed. “I spent those years trying to find a way to free you. Not just me. Kieran, Delano, Naill. Countless others. Many who gave their fucking lives to bring you home—good men and women you don’t even know, gave everything to free you. And this whole time, you were a willing pet.” Unholy fury swamped me as he dropped the cloth and pulled out some fresh gauze, unfazed by my words. That pushed out what I said next. “Do you even wonder what happened to Preela?”

Malik went rigid, his pupils dilating.

“Because I have. The bond weakened her, and yet she still tried to save you. No one could stop her. She snuck out one night, and we never saw her again. But we knew. She died, didn’t she?” I searched his face for a hint of something—guilt or sorrow. Anything. Preela was his bonded wolven, and they had been as close as Kieran and I were, which was why he had forbidden her from accompanying him when he left to look for me. “You would know exactly when she passed.”

I saw it—godsdamn, I saw the reaction. If I’d blinked, I might have missed it. A flinch.

“She died.” That muscle below his temple ticked even faster. “But not before she made it all the way to Carsodonia. I don’t know how she managed it, but Preela made it all the way here, just to be captured.” He leaned in. “The beast who’s currently missing a head thanks to your wife killed her. Not quickly. Not before he had his fun. Not before many, many others had their fun.”

Shit.

“I know this because I got a front-row seat. I got to see what he did afterwards when he carved her up, broke her bones into pieces that were eventually hardened and melded to bloodstone.” Only a thin strip of amber was visible as he stared at me. “He made seven wolven daggers out of her bones. I found six of them, and I know exactly where the seventh one is.” He nodded slowly. “Yeah, I know who has it.”

I couldn’t even focus on the possibility that Poppy’s dagger had been crafted from Preela’s bones. It was the answer to my question.

What had broken him.

This was it. And it had happened far before I ever imagined.

I couldn’t blame him.

It was then that I realized that Malik hadn’t been completely unaffected by what had gone down at Castle Redrock. Malik had shown some sort of emotion there. Twice. When Isbeth had summoned that Handmaiden and had one of her knights stab her, he had made a move as if to step forward. He’d been clenching his jaw, too, like he had when Alastir and our father spoke of war with Solis—something he’d been adamantly against. And he’d been shocked when Isbeth had killed Ian. He hadn’t expected that.

This was the third time I’d seen him affected.

“She told you my hand was infected, didn’t she?” I asked. “The Handmaiden.”

Those pupils expanded once more.

“She said some wild stuff while she was here.”

Malik didn’t blink as he locked stares with me. “Like what?”

“Like some nonsensical shit about things awakening, and Isbeth creating something powerful enough to remake the realms.”

He’d gone completely still, all except that ticking muscle.

Cold fingers of unease brushed the back of my neck. “What was she talking about, brother?”

Another long moment passed. “Who knows what she was saying. She’s a…”

I watched him closely. “A bit odd?”

Malik laughed, and it was a punch to the gut because it too was real. The amber in his eyes became more visible. “Yes.” He dragged his teeth over his lower lip. “I know you hate me. I deserve it. More than you realize. But you have no reason to hate her.”

“I don’t give a fuck about her.”

“Didn’t say you did, but she hasn’t done anything to you, and she took one hell of a risk searching for you and seeing what kind of mess you’d become. I know you don’t have any reason to protect her, but if anyone finds out that she was down here and talking to you? It will not end well for her.”

“Why should I care?” I challenged, wanting to know why he cared.

“Because, just like your beloved,” he said, his voice low as he held my gaze, “she’s had very little choice when it comes to her life. So, don’t take it out on her. That’s all I ask, and I’ve never asked you for anything.”

He never had.

It had always been me asking things of him. But that was a different life.

I searched those shielded eyes. If I weren’t so weak, I could use a compulsion—something Malik had never been good at. “You care for her.”

“I’m incapable of caring about anyone anymore,” he replied. “But I owe her.”

The flatness in the way he’d said that left a chill in my chest. I slumped against the wall. “I never gave up on you, Malik,” I said wearily. “And I didn’t live.”

“Until now.” He began wrapping my hand. “Until Penellaphe.”

“This has nothing to do with her.”

“Everything has to do with her,” he murmured.

“Bullshit.” I shook my head. “Why do you think I even entertained the idea of meeting with the Blood Queen after what she did to me—what she’d done to you? It wasn’t just about Atlantia. It wasn’t only about what the Blood Crown was doing to mortals. Those were secondary things. It was always about you. I came to Oak Ambler, prepared to negotiate for you. Poppy came to Oak Ambler, prepared to do the same, and she didn’t even know you.”

A strange look crossed his features, pinching his brow. “No, she didn’t know me.” He folded the gauze, covering the wound. “Or at least that’s what she remembers.”

My head tilted. “What does that mean?”

“You’ll understand soon enough.” Malik tucked the tail of the gauze under the wrapping. “I have a feeling you will be reunited with your Queen sooner rather than later.”


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