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The War of Two Queens: Chapter 19


I was rooted to where I stood, and then Tawny smiled.

And spoke. “Poppy.”

Springing forward, I was only distantly aware of Kieran reaching for me, but I was fast when I wanted to be.

I raced across between the tents, and I didn’t stop. For what almost felt like the first time with her, I didn’t hesitate to think about anything. I threw my arms around her as she did the same, and for several moments, that was all I could focus on. Tawny was in my arms. She was upright and talking. She was alive and here. Emotion clogged my throat as I fisted my hand in her hair, squeezing my eyes shut against the rush of tears.

“I missed you,” I said, voice thick.

“I missed you, too.” Her arms tightened around me.

I sucked in a shaky breath, becoming aware of several things all at once. Kieran was near. I felt Delano pressing against the side of my legs, and inadvertently, Tawny’s. His wariness confused me, as did Kieran’s reaction—his attempt to stop me—but it was how Tawny felt that was of greater concern. She was slimmer than before, in her shoulders and through her body, and she’d already been slender. With as long as she’d been asleep, the loss of weight was no surprise, but it was her skin that shocked me most. The coldness of it seeped through the long-sleeve tunic.

I drew back, my gaze lifting to her face. Whatever I was about to say fell to the wayside. “Your eyes,” I whispered. They were paler than a Revenant’s, nearly white with the exception of the pupil.

My eyes?” Her brows shot up. “Have you seen the glow behind your pupils?”

“Yes. Mine are different, too. It’s the—”

“The Primal essence,” she said, glancing behind me to where Kieran hovered. “I know what it is.”

“How…?” I looked to where Gianna lingered. I didn’t think the wolven had seen my eyes like this. “Did someone tell you about them? About the essence?”

“Yes, and no.” Tawny’s cold, cold hands slid down my arms to clasp mine. “And my eyes? My hair? I don’t really know why any of it’s like that. I’m guessing the shadowstone, but I can see fine. I feel fine.” Her head tilted, and a white curl fell against her brown cheek. “I feel so much better now that I’m here.” She glanced down at Delano, who watched her closely. “Even though he looks like he wants to eat me, and not in the fun way.”

A short laugh burst out of me. “Sorry,” I said, reaching out through the notam to let him know he had nothing to worry about. “The wolven are very protective of me.”

“Gianna said as much,” Tawny said, and the wolven gave me a short, awkward wave I felt in my bones.

I glanced over my shoulder to where Kieran stood. He wasn’t looking at me. His body was tense. His focus on Tawny. Tart wariness gathered in the back of my throat. He wasn’t the only one who stood close. Hisa and Valyn were right behind him. Unease was a heavy cloud, and—wait. Slowly, I turned back to Tawny, opening my senses to her. I felt…

I felt nothing.

And I knew Tawny wasn’t shielding from me. She was never good at that. Her emotions were always close to the surface, if not plainly written across her face. My heart skipped a beat as I pressed a little harder, finding nothing, not even a wall.

I tightened my grip on her hands. “I don’t feel anything from you.”

Her milky-white eyes flicked back to me, and I didn’t feel it, but I saw the pinch of concern settling into the fine lines of her brow. “I don’t know why. I mean, I do, but—” Her eyes closed briefly. “None of that matters right now. There is something that I do know.” Her chest rose with a deep breath. “There’s something I need to tell you in private. It has to do with Vikter.”

Blinking, I drew back. “Vikter?”

Tawny nodded. “I saw him.”

 

 

Private wasn’t exactly private.

Tawny and I had retreated to one of the receiving chambers, and I wasn’t sure if Nyktos himself would’ve stopped Kieran from being there. He sat beside me while Delano remained in his wolven form, sitting at my feet. Gianna stood behind, appearing to be genuinely concerned for Tawny’s well-being. Tawny hadn’t protested either’s presence, but she was clearly nervous, her knees pressed tightly together as she continuously twisted a curl around her finger, a habit she had whenever she was anxious.

Delano and Kieran’s rigid posture and quiet watchfulness probably had a lot to do with that. Kieran had stopped me before we entered the chamber, pulling me aside. He’d spoken low, but the words still echoed like thunder as I looked at Tawny. “She doesn’t feel right,” he’d said. “All of us can sense that.”

And he was right.

Tawny didn’t feel right, but it was her. The hair and eyes, the cold skin, and my inability to read her wasn’t who I remembered, but everything else was her. And just because she didn’t feel right, didn’t mean she was wrong somehow. It just meant she had changed.

And I, more than anyone, understood that.

“As soon as I woke, I knew I needed to find you,” Tawny said as she clutched a glass of water. “I think everyone thought I was a bit out of it. Willa, Casteel’s mother,” she said, glancing at Kieran. “I can’t blame them for feeling that way. I was a bit—”

“Hysterical?” Gianna supplied for her.

Tawny cracked a grin. “Yeah, a little. They didn’t want me to leave, but you know I can be pretty insistent when it comes to doing what I want.”

Boy, did I ever.

“Anyway, Gianna actually volunteered to travel with me,” Tawny added.

“She was going to do it with or without someone.” Gianna sat on the arm of the settee. “It was too dangerous to make such a journey alone, especially when no one had any idea where you’d be.”

“Thank you,” I said to her, feeling a little bad about having threatened to feed her to barrats.

Gianna nodded.

“How is it that you woke up?” Kieran asked of Tawny. “Was it something Willa or Eloana was able to do?”

“I…I don’t really know, other than I don’t think I was supposed to—wake up, that is.” Tawny’s hand trembled, sloshing the steaming liquid in her mug. “I know that doesn’t make sense, but I felt like I was dying. I knew I was dying, until I saw Vikter. I think either he or the Fates did something to prevent that.”

“The Fates,” I murmured, almost laughing. “You mean the Arae? You’ve never believed in them.”

“Yeah, well, that has definitely changed,” she admitted, widening her eyes.

My breath snagged again. “How did you see Vikter?”

“I saw him in a dream that wasn’t a dream. I don’t know how else to explain it other than that.” Tawny took a drink. “I remember what happened in Oak Ambler—the pain of being stabbed. And then there was nothing for a long time until there was something. A silvery light. I thought I was entering the Vale until I saw him. Vikter.”

A fine tremor ran through me.

Delano leaned into my legs as Kieran asked, “And how do you know it wasn’t just a dream?”

“He confirmed who you are—that you’re a god—and I knew that. Isbeth had let that slip, but I hadn’t believed her, even though Ian did. And, gods, Poppy, I’m so sorry for what happened to him.”

“Yeah,” I breathed through that burn. “Me, too.”

“What exactly do you know of Isbeth and her plans?” Kieran jumped on that.

“Not much other than she believed Poppy would help her remake the realms,” she said, and I inhaled sharply at hearing those words once more. “And I didn’t understand what that meant. I wasn’t around her that much. I didn’t even truly understand why I was being summoned to Carsodonia other than they said they feared that I would be taken, too, because it was known how close you and I were. That didn’t make sense, but once I got to Wayfair and saw those…Handmaidens and the Revenants,” she added with a shudder, “nothing about the place felt okay. And when Isbeth told me you were her daughter, I thought that she wasn’t in her right mind,” Tawny said with a shake of her head. “But Vikter told me things that I couldn’t have known. Like a story about a god who had awakened long enough to prevent you from being harmed in the Skotos Mountains. He said that your suspicions were correct. That it was Aios who stopped you. He also told me it wasn’t just Nyktos who gave his approval for your marriage. That it was him and the Consort.”

I opened my mouth, but I couldn’t find the words.

“I also approve. Not that anyone asked.” Tawny gave me a quick, teasing grin that was so familiar, it eased something in me. It faded quickly. “Vikter also told me that he—that Casteel was taken?”

The burn in my throat increased. “He was, but I’m going to get him back—”

“You’re going to travel to Carsodonia and free him,” she interrupted, and I blinked. “I know. Vikter said you would.”

“Okay.” I took a deep, shuddering breath. There was no way Tawny could’ve known all of that. “Was Vikter a spirit?”

“No.” Tawny shook her head. “He’s a viktor.”

I jolted. Something about the way she said that tugged at a memory that lingered just out of my reach. “What do you mean?”

“I hope I can explain this well enough to be understood.” Tawny blew out a breath. “A viktor is born with a goal—to guard someone the Fates believe is destined to bring about some great change or purpose. I got the impression that not all are aware of their duty, and they end up being there for that person anyway—like the Fates bring them together. I think other viktors are aware and are involved in the lives of the ones they’re protecting. Once they die, either while carrying out their purpose or from any other cause, their souls return to Mount Lotho.”

“Where?” My brows lifted.

“It’s where the Arae reside,” she explained. “Their souls return to Mount Lotho, where they wait to be reborn.”

“It’s a place written to be in Iliseeum,” Kieran told me, but all I could do was stare at Tawny.

“And you said Vikter was one of these?” When Tawny nodded, my thoughts began to race. “Does that mean he knew I was a god the whole time? What happened to him?”

Tawny tipped forward, placing her glass on the small table. “How Vikter explained it to me was that when viktors are reborn, they have no memories of their previous lives like they do when their souls return to Mount Lotho where they are once more given mortal form. But some viktors are basically, um, predestined to figure out what they are, and who they are sent to either protect or lead. Like Leopold. Viktor said that he figured it out, and that was why he sought out Coralena before you were even born.”

Another shock rippled through me, once more tugging at a strange feeling in the back of my mind. The sensation that I somehow knew this already. But I didn’t. “So, they weren’t together because they loved one another?” I asked.

“I don’t know, but they had Ian together. Ian told me they were his parents,” she said. “That doesn’t mean they were in love, obviously, but there was definitely something there, and I don’t think that being a viktor means you can’t love.”

I nodded slowly. I knew that Vikter had been in love with his wife. The grief he’d felt whenever he spoke of her was far too real to have not been birthed from love. And in that moment, I chose to believe that Coralena and Leopold—my parents—did love one another.

“Vikter had to know, though.” Kieran’s eyes met mine. “He became a Royal Guard—became your personal guard, and he made sure you could protect yourself. That you could fight better than most Rise Guards. Besides all of that, his name couldn’t be a coincidence.”

I’d always believed that Vikter had trained me because he knew I never wanted to be as helpless as I had been the night in Lockswood, but he could’ve been ensuring that I knew how to keep myself alive until I Ascended and completed the Culling.

“If he did know what his purpose was, why didn’t he tell her?” Kieran turned back to Tawny. “Could’ve made things a lot easier.”

“If he knew, he couldn’t because even though viktors are there to protect their charges, they cannot reveal their reasons. There was a lot of things he couldn’t tell me, saying it had to do with the Fates and balance, so he was very careful and deliberate with what he said,” Tawny said with a shrug. “It’s the same reason they’re born without memories and from what I gathered, even mortals who are bound to do some terrible stuff may also have viktors. He would’ve been unable to speak the truth.”

I didn’t know how to feel about the fact that Vikter could’ve known who I truly was or knew that Hawke was really Casteel. Or that he came into my life with one purpose: to protect me. Some of his last words came back to me then, squeezing my heart into pieces. I’m sorry for not protecting you. His belief that he’d failed me took on a whole new meaning now. I reached out, running my fingers between Delano’s ears when he rested his head on my knee. “Did he look well? Like, did he look the same?”

“He looked…” Tawny dragged her gaze from Delano. “He looked like I remember. Not the last time we saw him, but before that.” Tawny smiled, and it was only a little sad. “He looked good, Poppy, and he wanted me to tell you that, yes, he was proud of you.”

I sucked in a shaky breath as raw emotion rose, clogging my throat. I closed my eyes, struggling to keep the tears at bay. “Did he tell you anything more?”

“Yes, and no,” she answered.

“That’s not really helpful,” Kieran replied.

Tawny’s blanched eyes drifted to Kieran and the look she gave him was one I’d seen her give many Lords in Wait in the past. One that said she was sizing him up and wasn’t sure if she was impressed or not by what she saw. “No, it’s not.”

“So, Vikter was able to tell you all about viktors and update you on things that have happened in Poppy’s life, but he wasn’t able to say anything of importance regarding the Blood Crown’s plans?”

“I’m not sure if you were listening or you just didn’t understand when I said that there were things he couldn’t say because of the balance and the Fates,” Tawny said in a tone I also recognized. Gianna pressed her lips together to hide her smile, while I didn’t even fight mine. “So, he obviously couldn’t spill all the secrets.”

Kieran’s eyes narrowed. “Obviously.”

Tawny lifted her brows at him.

“What was he able to say?” I asked before the argument I sensed brewing could really take off.

“He told me about the prophecy the goddess Penellaphe spoke about.”

Frustration rose, as did dread. I was so damn tired of that prophecy. “I know what the prophecy is.”

“But do you know what the whole prophecy is?” Tawny asked. “I don’t think you do. Or at least I don’t think Vikter believed you did.”

Again, it was a shock to hear Vikter’s name and to be given proof again that Tawny had spoken to him or someone who knew a whole hell of a lot. “What were you told?”

“I remember it completely. How, when I normally can’t remember what I had for supper a few hours after I eat it, I have no idea,” she said, and her memory was notoriously subjective. “‘From the…from the desperation of golden crowns and born of mortal flesh, a great primal power rises as the heir to the lands and seas, to the skies and all the realms. A shadow in the ember, a light in the flame, to become a fire in the flesh. When the stars fall from the night, the great mountains crumble into the seas, and old bones raise their swords beside the gods, the false one will be stripped from glory until two born of the same misdeeds, born of the same great and Primal power in the mortal realm.’” She took a deep breath. “‘A first daughter, with blood full of fire, fated for the once-promised King. And the second daughter, with blood full of ash and ice, the other half of the future King. Together, they will remake the realms as they usher in the end. And so it will begin with the last Chosen blood spilled, the great conspirator birthed from the flesh and fire of the Primals will awaken as the Harbinger and the Bringer of Death and Destruction to the lands gifted by the gods. Beware, for the end will come from the west to destroy the east and lay waste to all which lies between,’” Tawny finished and twisted a pure white curl. “That’s it.”

“Yeah,” Kieran murmured, clearing his throat. He looked to me. “That is much longer.”

It was. “A first and second daughter? I’ve been called the second daughter, but who is the first? And in what context?”

“I don’t know. I’m sorry.” Tawny’s brows pinched. “He couldn’t tell me what it meant, only that you needed to hear it. He said that you would figure it out.”

A choked laugh left me. “He’s giving me way too much credit, because I…” I trailed off, my thoughts centering on one part of what she’d said. “Wait. The once-promised King?”

Kieran drew back. “Malik?”

“When you were in Carsodonia, did you ever see Malik?” I asked.

Tawny shook her head. “No. I don’t know a Malik.”

“It has to be him if the second daughter part is about me,” I said. “Casteel is the King.”

Kieran nodded. “Yeah, but what is this blood full of ash and ice?”

I thought of the coldness in my chest, mingling with the eather. “I don’t know what that means or how I will remake the realms and usher in the end, alone or with anyone. I’m not going to usher in anything.”

“I don’t know either,” Tawny said. “Or who the false one is.”

Something occurred to me, and I stiffened. “You said that viktors will even guard those who are destined to do something—”

“I know what you’re about to say,” Kieran cut in, and I knew he thought of what I’d asked him the night before. “You’re not destined to do anything terrible.”

“He’s right,” Tawny said quickly. “I didn’t get the impression from Vikter that he believed you were destined to do anything evil.”

I nodded, feeling Kieran’s stare. I cleared my throat. “And that was all he said?”

“No. There was one more thing, but he told me it was only for you to hear and no one else.” She glanced at Kieran and then Delano. “I’m sorry.”

A muscle ticked along Kieran’s jaw. “I don’t like this.” He quickly glanced at Tawny. “No offense.”

She lifted a shoulder. “I wouldn’t like it either. I’m way too nosy.”

A wan grin tugged at my lips. “I need to hear what this is. Vikter wouldn’t have told her anything that would hurt me.”

“And if he had—which he didn’t—I wouldn’t repeat it,” she added and then pursed her lips. “Unless it was something she needed to hear. Like when she was about to make a bad life choice by not going back to the Red Pearl to find Hawke—er, Casteel. Whoever. Anyway, I did tell her to do that.”

“Oh, my gods, Tawny.” My head snapped toward her.

Kieran’s head cocked. “You weren’t actually going back to—?”

“Nope.” I gave him a small shove. Gianna grinned as she rose, along with Delano. “We’re not getting into any of that now. Sorry. Everyone out.”

Kieran arched a brow. “Is that an order?”

“Yes,” I said. “And you know it was.”

“Whatever,” he muttered as he rose. “I’ll be waiting outside.”

“Okay.”

“So,” Tawny drew out the word. “Why is it that he behaves as I would expect from your husband?”

Heat crept into my cheeks. “He’s the Advisor to the Crown.”

Tawny stared at me.

“And a friend. A close friend—but not like that,” I quickly added as interest sparked along Tawny’s features. “Honestly, I don’t know what it’s like. It’s complicated.”

“I would say,” she murmured. “And I cannot wait to hear all about this complication in excruciatingly painful detail.”

I laughed and realized I was close to crying because this was Tawny. My Tawny. “I’ll tell you everything.”

She nodded. “But later?”

“Later. I have to leave tomorrow,” I told her, hating that I would, and we’d have little time together. It didn’t seem fair, but I was grateful that she was here now. “I need to free Casteel.”

“I understand.” Her eyes searched mine. “I’m just glad we reached you when we did.”

“Me, too.” I started to speak, then stopped and tried again. “Did you learn about the Ascension? What really happened to the third-borns?”

“I did,” she whispered. “Ian told me after I arrived in Wayfair. You know, I didn’t want to believe him. I didn’t want to admit that I bought into this horrific lie—that I was a part of it.”

“But you didn’t know. None of us did.”

“Doesn’t seem to make it better, though, does it?”

Meeting her gaze, I shook my head. “No, it doesn’t.”

Tawny scooted forward until her knees pressed into the coffee table. “I think I know why you can’t sense anything from me. I think it’s because I was dying, Poppy. Whatever the Arae or Vikter did could only stop the process. But look at me. My hair. My eyes. My skin is so cold. I think I’m dead but…not.”

My heart stuttered. “You’re not dead, Tawny. You breathe, right? Eat? Think? Feel?” When she nodded, I took a deep breath. “Then you’re alive in all the ways that matter.”

“True,” she murmured. “But the Ascended can do all of those things.”

“You’re not an Ascended.” My gaze searched the beautiful, fine lines of her features. “We’ll figure out what happened to you. Someone has to know.”

“We will.” She inhaled sharply, meeting my gaze. “Vikter told me why no one was allowed to know the Consort’s name, and why those who did were not allowed to repeat it in the mortal realm.”

My lips parted. “Okay, I was not expecting that.”

Tawny laughed. “Yeah, me neither, but Vikter said that her name is power, and that to speak it is to bring the stars from the skies and topple the mountains into the sea.”

I stilled as she basically repeated what Reaver had said.

“But only when spoken by the one born as she and of a great primal power.”

“I’m…I’m not a Primal,” I said, still not understanding why or how the Consort could be so powerful that no one dared to utter her name in the mortal realm.

“I don’t know. I wish Vikter could’ve told me more, but he told me this.” Tawny leaned in even closer then, over the table. “He told me you already knew her name.”

 

 

The sky was overcast when I walked out of Castle Redrock the following morning, the toy horse secured in its pouch, a piece of parchment and pencil tucked within a satchel, and the words Sven had said I would need to speak to cast the Primal spell committed to memory. My hair was braided and pinned beneath a wide-brimmed cap. We were all dressed in the brown usually worn by the Huntsmen of Solis, our cloaks that bore the crimson crest of the Blood Crown—a circle with an arrow piercing the center—taken from the Rise Guards. The crest was supposed to represent infinity and power, but it was more a symbol of fear and oppression.

I hated wearing it as much as I did the white of the Maiden, but the Huntsmen were one of the only groups who were seen moving freely through Solis, ferrying messages from city to city or transporting goods.

The wolven paced restlessly, their agitation at not accompanying us tart and lemony. I hated that our plans left them uneasy, but even if they were all in their mortal forms, it would be too noticeable and too risky.

Isbeth would have them slaughtered.

I turned to where Tawny stood beside me. We’d spent the remainder of yesterday together as I caught her up on everything she hadn’t already been told, and she’d talked to me about what it had been like when she saw Vikter. It reminded me a lot of how it had been when I too had been at the Vale’s door and had dreamed of the Consort. I still had no idea why Vikter would think I knew the Consort’s name.

Tawny smiled at me. “You’re going to be careful.”

“Of course.”

She took my hands in hers. The coldness of her skin seeped through my gloves. “As careful as you were when we snuck out of Castle Teerman and would go swimming as naked as the day we were born?”

“Even more careful than that.” I grinned. “And you? I want you to stay close to Vonetta and Gianna.”

She glanced to where Vonetta waited. “I’ll probably get on her nerves.”

“No, you won’t.” I squeezed her hands. “Vonetta is very nice. You’ll love her.”

Tawny stepped in, lowering her voice. “Have you gotten used to them? And I don’t mean that in a bad way. I’ve seen Gianna shift about a dozen times now, and other than a whole lot of nakedness, I can’t wrap my head around how all of that works.”

I laughed. “You saw Vikter—who died in front of us—and you can’t wrap your head around a wolven?”

She pinned me with a knowing look.

“Okay, no, I’m still sometimes caught off guard by it. But wait until you see a draken do it.”

Tawny’s eyes widened. “I can’t wait.”

She’d yet to see any of the draken, as they remained out of sight, and Reaver was in his mortal form. That would change soon.

“You should be going,” she said, her lower lip trembling.

“Yeah,” I whispered, pulling her in for an embrace. “This won’t be like before.”

“Promise?”

“Yes.” I started to pull back and then stopped, holding her tighter. “You’ve always been a great friend to me, Tawny. I hope you know that. I hope you know how much I love you.”

“I know,” Tawny whispered. “I’ve always known.”

Parting ways with Tawny was hard, but I had to. Kissing her cool cheek, I promised to see her in Three Rivers and then walked to where Vonetta waited with Emil. I caught sight of Reaver, wearing black breeches and a simple tunic sweater he’d apparently borrowed from Kieran, securing an additional horse to the wagon, where several crates of whiskey had been placed in the back under a cover that also hid a small arsenal of weapons. The liquor had been Emil’s idea. The whiskey could be used as a distraction for those who pried too closely or asked too many questions.

“I hate that I’m not going with you.” Vonetta clasped my arms. “You know that, right?”

“I hate it, too, but I trust you to lead in my absence.”

“Hey,” Emil cried, pressing his hand to his chest. “I’m standing right here.”

“As I said, I trust you to lead in my place,” I repeated to Vonetta with a small grin.

Emil sighed. “Rude.”

Vonetta rolled her eyes. “He’s a mess.”

“You like my kind of mess,” the Atlantian said.

“I wouldn’t let Kieran hear that,” I teased, wanting to hug her. And since I wanted that, I did it instead of thinking about how much I wanted to. “Take care of Tawny, please?”

“Of course.” Vonetta returned the embrace without hesitation. I closed my eyes, soaking in the feel as I did with Tawny. “I will see you in Three Rivers.”

“You will.”

Pulling back and wondering why I suddenly wanted to cry, I turned to Emil, and he gave me an elaborate bow. “Really?”

“Really.” Upon rising, he took my hand in his and stepped into me. He dipped his head, pressing his lips to my forehead. “Go get our King, my Queen,” he whispered.

My breath snagged then. I nodded, stepping back when he let go. Turning away as Kieran spoke to his sister was hard, as was stopping to say goodbye to Delano, Naill, and Perry. Delano gave the best hugs. Anything could happen between now and when I saw them in Three Rivers. Anything.

I went to my horse, picking up the reins. His name was Winter. The steed was large and white, beautiful, but he wasn’t Setti. I didn’t think it was wise to bring him to Carsodonia. I glanced at the entrance to Redrock, relieved to see Vonetta speaking with Tawny and Gianna. Tawny would be okay. They would all be okay.

Kieran came up behind me, touching my arm. “You ready?”

“I am,” I answered, lifting myself onto the saddle. My gaze swept past the group—past my friends—and made its way to the valley below, where the stately manors sat. As we rode out of Oak Ambler and beyond the Rise now draped with Atlantian banners, a part of me hoped I never returned. That might make me a coward, but I never wanted to step foot in the city again, even though I knew I would never really leave.

A part of me would remain in the still-smoking ash of the Temple of Theon. Charred and ruined.


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