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The War of Two Queens: Chapter 6

That was his ring.

That was his finger.

That was a piece of him.

Kieran shot forward, smacking a hand down on the lid, but I still saw what lay inside. I would never not see it. Not if I lived thousands of years. I wouldn’t forget.

Piercing howls echoed from within Massene, shattering the stunned silence as I stared at the ruby-adorned box. Someone spoke, but I couldn’t make sense of the words. The shock and bitter-tasting horror pressed against my humming skin. I had no chance to shut down my senses. My icy disbelief and anguish crashed into others’, but it was what lay under the agony that choked me—the sour, suffocating churning of guilt that was mine. All mine.

Because I had caused this.

It had been my message that had antagonized the Blood Queen. My hand that held the blade that’d severed King Jalara’s head. My actions that had guided the Blood Queen’s hand. I had taken the risk, believing she wouldn’t harm him. Not when she needed him. I’d been mistaken.

I had brought this onto him.

The crack in my chest was a crevice that fractured and broke wide open. The flood of eather spilled from the chasm, brimming with unfettered rage and endless agony. The charged energy hit the air around me. Ancient power surged, rising once more, deep from the agony, absolute and final. A silvery-white aura crowded the corners of my vision as I sparked light and…

Tendrils of dark light arced and pulsed through the silvery aura as the eather manifested around me. Light lanced with shadows gathered near the ground, churning around my legs.

Delano edged Perry back—away from me. The wolven sank low to the ground, his ears flattening as Reaver stretched his head to the sky, emitting a strange, staggered sound.

In the back of my mind, I knew I was making them uneasy—that the raw anguish was calling the wolven to me. I might even be scaring them, and I didn’t want that. But all…

All I saw was his ring—his finger in that box.

I shuddered, and from that cold, hollow fracture in my chest, icy wrath and vengeance poured out.

That was all I became.

Not Poppy.

Not the former Maiden and now the Queen of Atlantia.

There would be no more waiting. No carefully laid plans. No hesitation or thought. I would tear through Solis, sweeping across the kingdom like the plague she was. No city would be left standing. I would rip the Blood Forest apart to find her precious Malec, and then I would send her the gift of her love in tiny pieces. There would be no place for her to run. Nowhere she could find shelter.

I would lay waste to the entire realm and her.

Turning stiffly, I splayed my fingers wide as I started walking toward Cauldra Manor—toward the waiting horizon of Oak Ambler. The reeds and tall stems of lavender parted, shrinking back. The pines trembled.

“Poppy!” a voice shouted, and my head snapped in the direction of the sound. The wolven halted a few feet from me, his wide eyes fixed on me, the blue now luminous, his pupils no longer black but glowing a silvery-white. “Where are you going?”

“Carsodonia,” I spoke, and my voice was full of…smoke and shadow. Full of death and fire. “I’m going to slice every finger from the Blood Queen’s hands, one by one. I’m going to peel the flesh from her body.” A shiver of anticipation swirled over my skin. “Then I will rip her tongue from her mouth and tear her eyes from her face.”

“That sounds like a damn good plan.” Kieran’s voice had changed, too, roughening as he took a step toward me. “And I want to be right there beside you when you do it. I would love nothing more than to help you.”

“Then help me.” My voice…it slithered with the wind, carrying far as the shadow-laced light rippled along the ground. Through the tall, bushy weeds and flowers, sleek, dark shapes raced toward us. The wolven. They too would swarm the cities, a sea of claws and teeth and death. “You can all help me.”

“We can’t,” Kieran said, the tendons in his neck standing out in stark relief. “You can’t. You can’t do this.”

I stopped. Everything stopped. The faint trembling under my feet. The wolven, who halted in their tracks. I stared at the one before me. “I can’t?”

He stretched his neck, his chest rising and falling. “No, you can’t.”

My head tilted. “You think you can stop me?”

A dry laugh rattled his body. “Fuck, no. But that doesn’t mean I won’t try. Because I can’t let you do this.” He edged closer, foolishly brave. Foolishly loyal. Because he wasn’t just a wolven. My fingers curled inward as I forced myself to focus on Kieran, on what he was saying. On what he meant to me. Advisor. Friend. More in the past weeks. “I know you’re in pain. That you hurt and are angry. You’re afraid for Cas—”

The silver-tinged shadows pulsed around me. CasHe loved it when I called him Cas. Had said only those he trusted most called him that. That it reminded him that he was a person. I shuddered, the back of my throat burning with the rage, the guilt, and the agony.

Kieran was within reach now, mere inches from the swirling mass of power radiating from me. Tension had gathered in him, tightening the lines of his face. “You want to make her pay for what she did. I do, too. We all do. But if you do this—if you go anywhere like this—people will die. Innocents you want to help. People Cas wants to protect.”

Fiery anguish twisted my chest. Cas. Who was protecting him? No one. A tremor coursed through me, hitting the ground. The pines shook harder. “I don’t care.”

“Bullshit. You care. Cas cares,” he said, and I flinched. Not at the sound of the name but at the truth. “That’s what both of you have been trying to avoid. That’s why we have plans. But if you do this? Those you don’t kill will be terrified of you—of all of us. If they even saw you like this now, they would never see you as anything else.”

I glanced down at the whirling shadows and the light dancing over my skin. In my skin. The next breath I took was too tight. “She hurt him.”

“I know. Gods, I know, Poppy. But there will never be peace if you do this,” he rasped, his lips pressing back against his teeth. “Even if you destroy the Blood Crown and end the Rite, you will become what mortals and Atlantians fear, and you will never forgive yourself.”

I felt no fear from him as he lifted his hands, piercing the thrumming aura of power around me without hesitation. What bloomed in the back of my throat, easing the burn building there, was soft and sweet. The eather slipped over his hands and crawled up his forearms as his palms pressed against my cheeks—against the ragged scar along my left one.

His hands…they trembled. “What you’re feeling is you, but what you want to do isn’t. It’s her. It’s something the Blood Queen would do. It’s something she’d want you to do. But you are not her.”

I wasn’t anything like her.

I wasn’t cruel or abusive. I didn’t take pleasure in others’ pain. I didn’t lash out in anger…

Actually, I did tend to lash out with sharp objects when angry, but I wasn’t spiteful. I wouldn’t have done what she had, taking all the pain and hurt she felt after the loss of Malec and their son, all that hatred toward the former Queen of Atlantia, and turning it on not just Eloana’s sons but also an entire kingdom—an entire realm.

And that would be exactly what I’d be doing. I’d leave nothing but haunting graveyards behind. And I wouldn’t be like my mother.

I would be something far worse.

Kieran’s hands shook. His entire body rattled as if the ground were shaking, but it was him.

Concern rose, beating back the brutal tide of emotions. “W-why are you shaking? Am I hurting you?”

“No. It’s the…it’s the notam,” he bit out. “It’s making me want to shift. I’m fighting it.”

My gaze searched the taut lines of his face. “Why is it making you want to do that?”

A strained chuckle left him. “Do you think that’s an important question right now?” He gave me a short shake of his head. “Because I can protect you better in that form. And, yes, I know you don’t need our protection, but the notam recognizes the kind of emotion you feel as a—a call of alarm. I…I don’t think I can fight it much longer.”

My attention darted over his shoulder to where I saw the forms of many wolven among the weeds. There was no way all of them could’ve already been in their wolven forms. They had been compelled to do that.

I’d forced them, and that made my stomach hurt.

Ice drenched my skin, and the chill quelled the fire. I squeezed my eyes shut. Control. I needed control. There was no threat to me. The one at risk was in Carsodonia. Losing it did absolutely nothing to help him, and Kieran was right. I repeated that over and over. I hadn’t spent the past weeks planning for how to keep people safe only to turn around and be the cause of thousands, if not millions of deaths.

That wasn’t me.

That wasn’t who I ever wanted to become.

Another shudder rocked me as the vibrations in my chest eased and the hum receded from my skin. The rage was still there, as was the guilt and agony, but the wrath and the hunger for vengeance was banked, returning to those cold, empty places inside me where I feared it may fester.

“It’s okay,” Kieran said, and I was slow to realize that he wasn’t speaking to me. “Just give us some time, all right?” There was a pause, and then he moved close as he guided my head down to his chest. I didn’t fight it, welcoming the warmth and the familiar, earthy scent. He spoke about the box, about what was in it. He cleared his throat. “Don’t tell anyone about it. No…no one needs to know.”

Someone neared us, and Kieran’s hand slid to the back of my head as the other left my cheek. “Thank you,” he said.

In the quiet that followed, a rush of wings brought a gust of lavender-scented air. A few moments later, something brushed against my legs. Delano. I kept my eyes closed tightly against the sting. I wanted to tell him that I was sorry if I’d worried or scared him, but I couldn’t get the words past the knot in my throat. Kieran’s chin lowered, resting on the top of my head. The quiet went on for some time.

And then Kieran said in a low voice, “You scared me a little, Poppy.”

Pressure clamped down on my chest. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

“I know you didn’t.” His chest rose against mine. “I wasn’t scared of you. I was afraid for you,” he added. “I…I’ve never seen that before. The shadows in the eather. And your voice? It was different. Like it was when you spoke to Duke Silvan.”

“I don’t know what any of that was.” I swallowed thickly.

“Your abilities are still changing. Growing,” he said, making me think of what Reaver had shared.

Was this—the shadows in the eather—a new manifestation due to me still going through the Culling? I didn’t know. And at the moment, I couldn’t spare the energy required to dwell on it.

“You know he’s still alive,” Kieran said after a couple of moments. Thoughts of the ever-changing abilities faded. “The imprint is still on your palm. He lives.”

I closed my left hand, pressing it to Kieran’s chest. “But she…” I couldn’t finish.

“He’s strong. You know that.”

Gods, I did know that. But it didn’t change what was done to him. “He has to be in so much pain, Kieran.”

“I know, but he will get past this. I know it. And you will get past this.” His hand tightened in my loose braid of hair. “He is still yours. You are still his.”

Tears stung my throat, my eyes. “Always,” I whispered hoarsely. I forced myself to take a deep, steady breath. “Thank you for…for stopping me.”

“You don’t have to thank me for that.”

“I do.” I lifted my head, and his hand fell to the middle part of my braid. “And I am sorry about worrying you—worrying all of them. I just…I lost it.”

“Anyone would, Poppy.” Kieran slid his arm away and brought his hand up so it was between us. He took my left hand and pressed something cool and hard into my palm. My breath snagged because I knew what he’d put in my hand. “In case you don’t know this, no matter what’s done to Cas, he won’t regret his choice.”

I tried to swallow again, to stop the words from coming, but I couldn’t. “I do. I regret it every moment I—” A soul-crushing sense of loss rose once more, stealing my breath. It took everything in me not to collapse under it and let all the rage and pain consume me once more. To lash out and inflict all that ate away at me onto anyone who stood in my way.

To unleash all the pain until nothing but bone and blood remained.

“Why did he do it, Kieran? Why?” I whispered, my voice catching.

Kieran squeezed my hand. “You know why. The same reason you’d do just as he did if someone was hurting him.”

Gods, I did know the answer. A tremor coursed through me. I would’ve done anything. Because I loved him. Because he was mine, and I was his. My other half. A part of me, even though I hadn’t spoken his name in many weeks. I barely allowed myself to even think it because it hurt.

But his name was love.

It was power and strength.

It would never break me.

Casteel. A shattered breath left me. Casteel. I made myself say it over and over in my mind. Casteel Hawkethrone Da’Neer. My chest felt as if a bolt were tearing through it all over again, but I said his name to myself until it no longer made me want to scream. Until I could say, “Casteel isn’t lost to us.”

“No. He’s not,” Kieran agreed, slipping his hand away from mine.

Slowly, I opened my fist. His…Casteel’s ring rested in my palm, strong and beautiful. There wasn’t a trace of blood on it. Either Emil or Perry had wiped it clean when they took it from the box. “What did they do with the…?” I couldn’t bring myself to say it.

“It’s up to you.” Kieran’s voice was hoarse. “You can burn or bury it. Or one of us can. You don’t ever have to see it again. You don’t need to, Poppy. There’s no reason to.”

I didn’t want to see it again. Forcing myself to do so did nothing but inflict damage. Glancing up at Kieran, I sensed that he had his emotions locked down once more. I knew he did it so it wouldn’t add to what I was feeling.

Kieran was…he was too good.

“Burn it,” I forced myself to say. “But I don’t want you to do it. I don’t want you anywhere near it.”

He inhaled sharply and nodded.

I squeezed the ring. Always and forever. “Was there anything else in the box?”

“A card.”

“Did you have a chance to see it?”

“Only briefly.”

“What did—?” My stomach twisted with nausea. “What did it say?”

“It said that she was sorry to have caused you any pain,” he told me.

There was something so, so wrong with her. But at once, I knew what I needed to do. I knew what had to come next.

Because I could no longer wait.

When I took my next breath, it was easier. “We have plans—ones that are important to Solis and Atlantia.” The next words were hard to speak, even though they were true. “Plans that are bigger than…Casteel and me.”

Kieran said nothing, but I knew he agreed. Even if Casteel stood beside me now, there would still be the Blood Crown. The Rites would continue. Children would be stripped away from their families, either to Ascend or become nothing more than cattle to the Ascended. Innocent people would still be murdered. Atlantia would still run out of land and resources.

All of this was bigger than us.

The Blood Crown had to be destroyed.

I brought the ring close to my chest as I lifted my stare to Kieran. “But Casteel is more important to me. I know that’s wrong. I know I shouldn’t think that, let alone say it out loud, but it’s the truth.”

Kieran said nothing, but he’d gone completely still.

“She’s not going to release him.” A breeze caught the loosened strands of my hair, tossing them across my face. “She will hurt him again.” Anger flared inside me, threatening to ignite once more. “You know that she could be doing anything to him right now. You know what it did to him last time.”

His jaw clenched. “I do.”

“I can’t let her have him for weeks and months. And that’s how long it will take for us to take the Atlantian armies across Solis. Casteel doesn’t have that kind of time. We don’t have that kind of time.”

Kieran stared down at me. “I know what you’re thinking. You want to go to Carsodonia.”

After we take Oak Ambler,” I amended. “The Blood Crown needs to be destroyed, and we need to do it the right way. I need to be here to convince Valyn and the generals that our plan is the right one. I need to be here to see that through.”

“And then?”

“And then I will go to Carsodonia, and you will lead the armies to the other cities.”

His pale blue eyes hardened. “And if you’re captured in the process?”

“It’s a risk I’m willing to take. I’ll be fine. Isbeth doesn’t want me dead,” I reasoned. “If that was what she wanted, she had ample opportunity to do so. She…she needs me if she seeks to control Atlantia. This is what I need to do.”

Kieran folded his arms over his chest. “I agree.”

My brows flew up. “You do?”

“I do. Cas needs to be freed, but there’s one problem with your plan. Actually,” he said, frowning, “there are a lot of problems. Starting with the fact that I doubt you even have a plan beyond walking up to Carsodonia’s Rise.”

I opened my mouth and then snapped it shut. His look turned knowing. Frustration bore down on me. “I will come up with a plan that doesn’t involve me walking up to the Rise of Carsodonia. I’m not a fool, Kieran.”

“You’re a fool if you think I’ll be anywhere other than by your side,” he shot back. “There’s no way in hell you’re going to Carsodonia without me.”

“It’s too dangerous—”

“Are you kidding me?”

“It’s too dangerous for anyone else to go.”

He stared down at me. “You do realize that we’re at war? Therefore, any number of us, including me, could die.”

I stiffened as the statement knocked the air from my chest. “Don’t say that—”

“It’s the truth, Poppy. All of us know the risks, and we’re not here just for you. He is our King.” He met my glare with his own. “Also, I don’t believe that once you have a couple of minutes to think about this, you won’t seriously reconsider taking on the entire damn Blood Crown by yourself.”

Maybe he was right. But at the moment, I really wanted to. “Okay, I won’t go alone. I will see who wants to make the trip with me. But I need you here. I trust you to make sure Valyn and the others follow our plans. Because there can be no truce this time. No stalemate. I trust you to make sure there is a chance for peace when we destroy the Blood Crown. As the Advisor to the Crown, they have to follow your orders.”

“I appreciate your trust. Am honored. Flattered. Whatever,” he said, and I didn’t think he sounded honored at all. “But you can trust others to ensure that our plans are carried out.”

“I do trust others. Your sister. Naill. Delano. Emil—I could keep listing names. But they hold no position of authority like you do as the advisor. You are an extension of the Crown. You speak on behalf of the King and Queen. None of the others have that kind of authority.”

“But any of them can,” he insisted. “You can make one of them a regent—a person that you, as the Queen, can appoint. Someone who will act on your behalf in your absence. Normally, that would be the Advisor to the Crown, but there is no law that states it has to be the advisor. The Crown Regent would temporarily act on your behalf, and their word must be followed no differently than if it were you issuing the orders.”

“Oh.” I blinked. “I…didn’t know that. But—”

“There is no but.”

But there is.” Panic started to creep in. “If something were to happen to you—”

“There would be nothing for Cas to forgive you for if something did,” he cut me off. “He would expect nothing less than me being by your side.”

I stared at him in disbelief. “If you’d let me finish a sentence, I was about to say I would never forgive myself.”

His stare softened. “And I would never forgive myself if you went into the heart of the Ascended without me.” He clasped the back of my neck. “Just as I haven’t for letting Cas go all those years ago.”

Oh, gods. “Kieran—”

“Don’t forget what he means to me, Poppy. I’ve known him my whole damn life,” he said. “We shared the same crib more times than not. We took our first steps together. Sat at the same table most nights, refusing to eat the same vegetables. We explored tunnels and lakes, pretended that fields were new, undiscovered kingdoms. We were inseparable. And that didn’t change as we grew older.” His voice roughened, and he dropped his forehead to mine. “He was and still is a part of me.”

I closed my eyes against the burn accompanying the images that his words brought forth. Them toddling about together, Kieran on two legs and four. Holding each other as they napped. Coming home covered in dirt and the gods only knew what else.

“Where I went, Cas was there. Where he traveled, I followed. The only time we have ever been separated and couldn’t get back to one another was when they held him captive—and now. But I was there for him afterward. I watched him night after night, waking in a panic and thinking that he was back in that cell. I saw what had been done to him. How he couldn’t stand to be touched at one point. How even the sight of bathwater caused him to freeze up.”

“Bathwater?” I asked, half afraid.

“They wanted him clean when they wanted him.”

Oh, gods.

Nausea churned. I shook, caught between rage and despair and shock because my mother had been one of his abusers. How could Casteel even look at me—?

I stopped myself from going down that path. He knew who I was.

“What he means to me has nothing to do with a damn bond,” Kieran said. “I need to go as badly as you do, and he needs me there just as badly as he needs you.”

Casteel did need Kieran.

“I’m sorry,” I croaked. “I forgot.”

“It’s understandable that you would.”

“No, it’s really not.” My grief was mine, and it was potent. But it was no more devastating than what Kieran or anyone else who cared for Casteel was experiencing. “I won’t forget it again.”

Kieran’s forehead slid against mine as he nodded. “We’re on the same page then.”

“We are.” I blinked back tears.

“Then who will be Crown Regent, meyaah Liessa?”

It was hard to focus when all I wanted to do was hug Kieran and sob. I wanted to sit down and have a good cry, but there wasn’t time for that.

I pulled away, forcing myself to think over what Kieran had suggested. Worrying my lower lip, I looked down at my closed hand. The ring had warmed to my skin. I didn’t know what kind of shape Casteel would be in when I found him. He could be okay or not, but he would want Kieran to be with me and to be there for him. It couldn’t be just Kieran and me or a handful of others. No Queen would travel across a realm without guards. But we needed the fire of the gods.

“I saw Reaver in his mortal form earlier.”

Kieran arched a brow. “That…was random.”

“He’s blond.”

“Thanks for sharing?”

“He was also completely naked while perched on a pillar,” I added.

“I don’t even know what to say to that.”

“Me, neither,” I murmured. “But the point is, we need to bring a draken with us. They can help. Not just with…with Casteel but also with my father. Nektas wants him back.”

“I agree.” He paused. “But I have a feeling I won’t like what you’re about to suggest. To bring Reaver with us. The other draken will be here soon. Aurelia shifted—”

“For only a few minutes. I at least know Reaver feels comfortable enough in his mortal form to do it for longer than that.”

“Great.” Kieran appeared as if he’d rather face down an army of skeleton soldiers again.

“He’ll need clothing.”

“Don’t know why you’re telling me this.”

“You two appear to be about the same size.”

Kieran stared at me and then cursed. “Whatever. I’ll see what I have.”

I grinned, and it incited a confusing mix of emotions. It felt odd. Even a little wrong. But it was also a relief to know that I could still find humor despite what I held in my hand.

Then I remembered what else Reaver had told me. “This may not be the best moment to bring this up, but when I talked to Reaver, I found out that I will have to feed eventually. And, apparently, because I’m a god, I can feed off anyone. Except the draken. Even mortals. Who knew?” I said, then told him what Reaver believed about how often I would need to feed. “But there’s more. It seems using eather can weaken me. He doesn’t know how much I can use before it has an effect. I don’t think it includes anything I was able to do before—”

“Does feeding off anyone mean you can feed off wolven?” he cut in.

“Yes. Wolven would fall under the everything-but-a-draken umbrella.”

“Then feed off me if you need to.”

I sucked in a sharp breath. “Kieran—”

“I know you don’t want to feed off anyone but Cas,” he said, and the breath I took withered. “And I know that feedings can get…intense, but you’ll be safe with me.” His eyes searched mine. “You know damn well that Cas wouldn’t want you feeding off anyone but me.”

A strangled laugh left me. Casteel would probably rip the limbs off whoever I fed from—anyone but Kieran, anyway—leaving them alive only because he knew the blood was necessary for me.

“It’s not that,” I said, shoving a strand of hair back from my face. Feedings could be intense, and I wasn’t sure if feeding off someone might cause the same kinds of wicked pleasure a bite could bring. But it wasn’t that—well, it wasn’t completely that. I hadn’t even begun to wrap my head around the possibility that me feeding off someone other than my husband could bring them pleasure.

Could bring me pleasure.

And I wasn’t about to start thinking about that right now. “I don’t want you to feel as if you have to offer yourself.”

“I don’t offer because I have to.” Kieran squeezed the back of my neck. “I offer because I want to.”

“Really? You sure that’s not the notam? That it’s not your friendship with Casteel?”

“It could be partly because of the notam. And it is because of my friendship with Cas. But it’s also my friendship with you. None of those things are mutually exclusive,” he told me. “I would offer the same to Cas. I would offer the same to anyone I cared about. Just like I know you would for me if I needed that.”

My breath stung. I would offer myself if he needed to feed, and the reminder of how far Kieran and I had come rattled me in an entirely different way. I was pretty sure he hadn’t liked me when we first met. Or, at the very least, I’d annoyed him to no end. But now…? I blinked back the dampness gathering in my eyes.

Kieran started to frown. “Are you about to cry?”


“Doesn’t look that way.”

“Then stop looking, and it won’t.”

“That doesn’t even make sense, Poppy.”

A burst of sugary amusement gathered on the tip of my tongue. I glared at him. “This isn’t funny.”

“I know it shouldn’t be.” His lips twitched. “But it kind of is.”

“Shut up,” I griped.

The grin appeared briefly. “We’re on the same page, right? When you need to feed, you’ll come to me?” All traces of humor were gone now. “And you won’t let it get to a point where you’re weakened?”

“We’re on the same page.”

His hold on the back of my neck firmed once more. “What about the regent?”

A few moments passed. “Vonetta. I would make Vonetta the Crown Regent.”

Approval hummed as he let his walls down around him, tasting of buttery cakes. “Good choice.”

I nodded. “You know how to get into Carsodonia, right? I doubt you and Casteel walked through the gates of the Rise.”

He snorted. “No. We went in through the Elysium Peaks.”

My stomach dropped all the way to the tips of my toes. The Peaks were vast—all one could see to the west and south of Carsodonia. And they extended into the Willow Plains. They’d even built the Rise into the— It struck me then. “You all went in through the mines.”

Kieran nodded. “The entrances to the mines are right inside the Rise. The tunnels are guarded, but not like the gates. Of course, that was also how Malik got in there. It was how Casteel and…” His mouth tightened. “That was how Shea got him out of Carsodonia. From there, he ended up on the beaches of the Stroud Sea.”

Shea. There’d been anger before when I thought of her. Now, there was only sadness.

“Can we get out the same way we get in once we find Casteel and my father?”

Kieran nodded. “We could. But, Poppy, it will take time to get out of those mines. Besides the likelihood of them guarding those entrances now, Cas was in them for a while, searching for a way out. He may have made it sound like it took no time, but it did.”

“Gods,” I whispered, heartsick over a past I couldn’t change. “Is there a better way?”

“Besides going through the gates in disguise, no. If we get caught in the mines, we can fight our way out and then disappear into the city far easier than if they discover us at the gates.”

That was true. Carsodonia was a maze of narrow streets and vine-covered alleys that ran through districts and neighborhoods sprawled across rolling hills and valleys.

He took a breath. “I don’t know how to say this other than to just say it. We don’t know what kind of shape Cas will be in, but we know that your father will likely be worse off.”

He didn’t say anything else, but I knew what he meant. We couldn’t free both of them.

“We will still free him,” Kieran said quietly. “Freeing Cas doesn’t end the war. We will have to go back to Carsodonia.”

I nodded, hating the idea of being so close to my father and doing nothing. But he was right. Again.

“It’s a plan, then?” Kieran asked.

“It is.”

I took yet another breath, and it was less painful than all the ones before it because we would find and free Casteel. And I would make sure that any piece of him that he lost was found once more. He would know exactly who he was when I saw him again.

I would make sure of it.


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