War is only the beginning…

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Jennifer L. Armentrout comes book four in her Blood and Ash series.

From the desperation of golden crowns…

Casteel Da’Neer knows all too well that very few are as cunning or vicious as the Blood Queen, but no one, not even him, could’ve prepared for the staggering revelations. The magnitude of what the Blood Queen has done is almost unthinkable.

And born of mortal flesh…

Nothing will stop Poppy from freeing her King and destroying everything the Blood Crown stands for. With the strength of the Primal of Life’s guards behind her, and the support of the wolven, Poppy must convince the Atlantian generals to make war her way—because there can be no retreat this time. Not if she has any hope of building a future where both kingdoms can reside in peace.

A great primal power rises…

Together, Poppy and Casteel must embrace traditions old and new to safeguard those they hold dear—to protect those who cannot defend themselves. But war is only the beginning. Ancient primal powers have already stirred, revealing the horror of what began eons ago. To end what the Blood Queen has begun, Poppy might have to become what she has been prophesied to be—what she fears the most.

As the Harbinger of Death and Destruction.

Series:

Blood & Ash

Book 4

Book Type:

Fantasy / Romance

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Read First 3 Chapters: The War of Two Queens
By Jennifer L. Armentrout

Read First 3 Chapters: The War of Two Queens

Jennifer L. Armentrout’s Blood & Ash series has been phenomenal and her much anticipated fourth book THE WAR OF TWO QUEENS is out this week! I’m so excited and honored to share the first three chapters below, as we dive back in to this high-stakes fantasy world!

CHAPTER 1

Casteel

 

The click and drag of claws drew closer as the weak flame above the lone candle sputtered and then went out, pitching the cell into darkness.

A thicker mass of shadows appeared in the open archway—a misshapen form on its hands and knees. It halted, sniffing as loudly as a godsdamn barrat, scenting blood.

My blood.

The smooth bands of shadowstone tightened around my throat and ankles as I shifted, bracing myself. The damn stone was unbreakable, but it did come in handy.

A low-pitched wail came from the creature.

“Mother—” The thing exploded out of the archway, scurrying forward, its keening moan becoming an ear-piercing screech. “—fucker.”

I waited until its stench of decay reached me and then pressed my back against the wall, lifting my legs. The length of the chain between my ankles was only about half a foot, and the shackles wouldn’t give an inch, but it was enough. Planting my bare feet into the creature’s shoulders, I got a good, most unfortunate look at the thing as its foul breath blasted me in the face.

Man, the Craven was not a fresh one.

Patches of gray flesh clung to its hairless skull, and half of its nose was gone. One entire cheekbone was exposed, eyes burning like hot coals. Lips torn and mangled—

The Craven twisted its head down, sinking its fangs into my calf. Its teeth tore through the breeches and into flesh and muscle. Air hissed between my gritted teeth as fiery pain burned its way up my leg.

Worth it.

The pain was more than worth it.

I would spend an eternity taking these bites if that meant she was safe. That it wasn’t her in this cell. That she wasn’t the one in pain.

Shaking the Craven free, I dragged the short chain over the thing’s neck as I crossed my feet. I twisted at the waist, pulling the dull bone chain tight across its throat, ending the Craven’s screams. The shackle clamped down on my throat as I kept turning, cutting off my air as the chain dug into the Craven’s neck. Its arms flailed on the floor as I jerked my legs in the opposite direction, snapping the creature’s spine. The spasming became more of a twitching as I hauled it within reach of my bound hands. The chain between my wrists, connected to the shackle at my throat, was much shorter—but long enough.

I grasped the Craven’s cold, clammy jowls and brought its head down hard, slamming it against the stone floor by my knees. Flesh gave way, spraying rotting blood over my stomach and chest. Bone split open with a wet-sounding crack. The Craven went limp. I knew it wouldn’t stay down, but it bought me some time.

Lungs burning, I unwound the chain and kicked the creature away from me. It landed by the archway in a tangled mess of limbs as I relaxed my muscles. The band around my neck was slow to loosen, eventually allowing air into my burning lungs.

I stared at the Craven’s body. At any other time, I would’ve kicked the bastard into the hall like usual, but I was weakening.

I was losing too much blood. Already.

Not a good sign.

Breathing heavily, I looked down. Just below the shadowstone bands, shallow slices ran up the insides of my arms, past both elbows and over the veins. I counted them. Again. Just to be sure.

Thirteen.

Thirteen days had passed since the first time the Handmaidens swarmed this cell, dressed in black and as quiet as a tomb. They came once a day to cut into my flesh, siphoning my blood as if I were a damn barrel of fine wine.

A tight, savage smile twisted my mouth. I’d managed to take out three of them in the beginning. Ripped their throats out when they got too close, which was why they’d shortened the chain between my wrists. Only one of them actually stayed dead, though. The damn throats of the other two had stitched themselves closed within minutes—impressive and also infuriating to witness.

Learned something valuable, though.

Not all of the Blood Queen’s Handmaidens were Revenants.

I wasn’t sure how I could use that information yet, but I guessed they were using my blood to make brand-spanking-new Revs. Or using it as a dessert for the lucky.

Tipping back my head against the wall, I tried not to breathe too deeply. If the stench of the downed Craven didn’t choke me, the damn shadowstone around my throat would.

I closed my eyes. There had been more days before the Handmaidens showed the first time.

How many? I wasn’t exactly sure. Two days? A week? Or—?

I stopped myself there. Shut it the fuck down.

I couldn’t go down that road. I wouldn’t. I’d done that the last time, trying to clock the days and weeks until there came a point when time simply ceased to move. Hours became days. Weeks became years. And my mind became as rotten as the blood seeping from the Craven’s ruined head.

But things were different in the here and now.

The cell was larger, with no barred entrance. Not that there needed to be one with the shadowstone and the chains. They were a mix of iron and deity bone, connected to a hook in the wall and then to a pulley system to lengthen or shorten them. I could sit up and move a little, but that was about it. However, the cell was windowless like before, and the dank, musty smell told me they once again held me underground. The freely roaming Craven were also a new addition.

My eyes opened to thin slits. The fuck by the archway had to be the sixth or seventh one that had found its way into the cell, drawn by the scent of blood. Their appearance made me think there was one hell of a Craven problem aboveground.

I’d heard of Craven attacks inside the Rise surrounding Carsodonia before. Something the Blood Crown blamed on Atlantia and angry gods. I’d always assumed it was due to an Ascended getting greedy and leaving mortals they’d fed on to turn. Now, I was beginning to think the Craven were possibly being kept down here. Wherever here was. And if that were the case, and they could get out and get aboveground, so could I.

If only I could get these damn chains to loosen. I’d spent an ungodly amount of time pulling on the hook. In all those attempts, it may have slipped a half-inch from the wall—if that.

But that wasn’t the only thing different about this time. Other than the Craven, I’d only seen the Handmaidens. I didn’t know what to think about that. I’d figured it’d be like the last time. Too-frequent visits from the Blood Crown and their cronies, where they spent their time taunting and inflicting pain, feeding, and doing whatever they wanted.

Of course, my last go-around with this captivity bullshit hadn’t started that way. The Blood Queen had tried to open my eyes first, coax me to her side. Turn me against my family and my kingdom. When that hadn’t worked, the real fun had begun.

Was that what had happened to Malik? Did he refuse to play along, so they broke him like they had been so very close to doing with me? I swallowed dryly. I didn’t know. I hadn’t seen my brother, either, but they must have done something to him. They’d had him for far longer, and I knew what they were capable of. I knew what the desperation and hopelessness was like. What it felt like to breathe and taste the knowledge that you had no control. No sense of self. Even if they never laid a hand on him, being kept like this, as a captive and mostly in isolation, preyed on the mind after a while. And a while was a shorter span of time than one might believe. Made you think things. Believe things.

Drawing my throbbing leg up as far as I could, I looked down at my hands resting in my lap.

In the darkness, I almost couldn’t see the shimmer of the golden swirl across my left palm.

Poppy.

I closed my fingers over the imprint, squeezing my hand tight as if I could somehow conjure up anything but the sound of her screams. Erase the image of her beautiful face contorted in pain. I didn’t want to see that. I wanted to see her as she’d been on the ship, face flushed, and those stunning green eyes with their faint silver glow behind the pupils eager and wanting. I wanted memories of cheeks pink with either lust or annoyance, the latter usually occurring when she was silently—or very loudly—debating whether stabbing me would be considered inappropriate. I wanted to see her lush lips parted, and her skin shining as she touched my flesh and healed me in ways she would never know or understand. My eyes closed once more. And damn it, all I saw was blood seeping from her ears, her nose, as her body writhed in my arms.

Gods, I was going to rip that bitch Queen into pieces when I got free. And I would.

One way or another, I would get free and make sure she felt everything she had ever

inflicted upon Poppy. Tenfold.

My eyes snapped open at the faint sound of footsteps. Muscles tensed in my neck as I slowly eased my leg straight. This wasn’t normal. Only a few hours could’ve passed since the last time the Handmaidens had done the whole bloodletting thing. Unless I was already beginning to lose track of time.

An unsteadiness rose in my chest as I concentrated on the sound of the footfalls. There were many, but one was heavier. Boots. My jaw locked as I lifted my gaze to the entryway.

A Handmaiden entered first, nearly blending in with the darkness. She said nothing as her skirts glided past the fallen Craven. With a strike of steel against flint, a flame caught the wick on the candle on the wall, where the other had burned out. Four more Handmaidens entered as the first lit several more candles, the females’ features obscured behind winged, black paint.

I wondered the same thing I did every time I saw them. What the fuck was up with the facial paint?

I’d asked a dozen times. Never got an answer.

They stood on either side of the archway, joined by the first, and I knew in my gut who was coming. My stare fixed on the opening between them. The scent of rose and vanilla reached me. Rage, hot and unending, poured into my chest.

Then she walked in, appearing as the utter opposite of her Handmaidens.

White. The monster wore a skintight gown that was a pristine, nearly transparent white and left very little to the imagination. Disgust curled my lip. Other than the reddish-brown hair reaching a cinched, narrow waist, she looked nothing like Poppy.

At least, that’s what I kept telling myself.

That there was no hint of familiarity in the set of her features—the shape of her eyes, the straight line of her ruby-pierced nose, or the full, expressive mouth.

It didn’t fucking matter. Poppy was nothing like her.

The Blood Queen. Ileana. Isbeth. Better known as one soon-to-be-dead bitch.

She drew closer, and I still had no idea how I hadn’t realized that she wasn’t Ascended. Those eyes were dark and bottomless but not as opaque as a vampry’s. Her touch…hell, it had blended with the others over the years. But while it had been cold, it hadn’t been icy and bloodless. Then again, why would I or anyone else ever consider the possibility that she was something other than what she claimed?

Anyone but my parents.

They must have known the truth about the Blood Queen—about who she really was. And they hadn’t told us. Hadn’t warned us.

Biting, stinging anger gnawed. The knowledge might not have changed this outcome, but it would’ve affected every aspect of how we approached dealing with her. Gods, we would’ve been better prepared, knowing that centuries-old revenge drove the Blood Queen’s special brand of madness. It would’ve given us pause. We would’ve realized that she was truly capable of anything.

But nothing could be done about any of that right now, not when they had me chained to a damn wall, and Poppy was out there, dealing with the fact that this woman was her mother.

She has Kieran, I reminded myself. She’s not alone.

The false Queen wasn’t alone either. A tall male entered behind her, looking like a walking lit candle. He was one golden motherfucker, from the hair to the winged facial paint across his face. His eyes were a blue so pale they appeared nearly leached of all color. Eyes like some of the Handmaidens. Another Rev, I bet. But one of the Handmaidens whose throat hadn’t stayed torn open had had brown eyes. Not all Revs had the light irises.

He lingered by the entryway, his weapons not as hidden as the Handmaidens’. I saw a black dagger strapped across his chest and two swords secured to his back, the curved handles visible above his hips. Fuck him. My attention shifted to the Blood Queen.

Candlelight glittered off the diamond spires in the ruby crown as Isbeth glanced down at the Craven.

“I don’t know if you realize this or not,” I said casually, “but you have a pest problem.”

A single dark brow rose as she snapped her red-painted fingers twice. Two Handmaidens moved as a unit, picking up what was left of the Craven. They carried the creature out as Isbeth’s gaze flicked to me. “You look like shit.”

“Yeah, but I can clean up. You?” I smiled, noting the tightening in the skin around her mouth. “You can’t wash off that stench or feed that away. That shit is inside you.”

Isbeth’s laugh sounded like tinkling glass, grating on every single one of my nerves. “Oh, my dear Casteel, I forgot how charming you could be. No wonder my daughter appears to be so taken with you.”

“Don’t call her that,” I snarled.

Both brows rose as she toyed with a ring on her pointer finger. A golden band with a pink diamond. That gold was lustrous, shining even in the dim light—gleaming in a way that only Atlantian gold could. “Please don’t tell me that you doubt I’m her mother. I know I’m not a paradigm of honesty, but I spoke nothing but the truth when it came to her.”

“I don’t give a fuck if you carried her in your womb for nine months and delivered her with your own hands.” My hands closed into fists. “You are nothing to her.”

Isbeth went unnaturally still and quiet. Seconds ticked by, and then she said, “I was a mother to her. She would have no memory of it as she was just a tiny babe then, perfect and lovely in every way. I slept and woke with her beside me every day until I knew I could no longer take that risk.” The edges of her gown dragged through the pool of Craven blood as she stepped forward. “And I was a mother to her when she thought I was only her Queen, tending to her wounds when she was so gravely injured. I would’ve given anything to have prevented that.” Her voice thinned, and I could almost believe she spoke the truth. “I would’ve done anything to stop her from experiencing even one second of pain. Of having a reminder of that nightmare every time she looked upon herself.”

“When she looks upon herself, she sees nothing but beauty and bravery,” I snapped. Her chin lifted. “You really believe that?”

“I know that.”

“As a child, she often cried when she saw her reflection,” she told me, and my chest seized. “She often begged me to fix her.”

“She doesn’t need fixing,” I seethed, hating—absolutely loathing—that Poppy had ever felt that way, even as a child.

Isbeth was quiet for a moment. “Still, I would’ve done anything to prevent what happened to her.”

“And you think you played no role in that?” I challenged.

“It was not I who left the safety of the capital and Wayfair. It was not I who stole her away.” Her jaw clenched, jutting out in a godsdamn familiar way. “If Coralena hadn’t betrayed me— betrayed her—Penellaphe never would’ve known that kind of pain.”

Disbelief battled with disgust. “And yet you still betrayed her, sending her to Masadonia?

To Duke Teerman, who—”

“Don’t.” She stiffened once more.

She didn’t want to hear this? Too bad. “Teerman routinely abused her. He let others do the same. Made quite a sport of it.”

Isbeth flinched.

She actually flinched.

My lips peeled back over my fangs. “That is on you. You don’t get to blame anyone else for that and relieve yourself of guilt. Each time he touched her, he hurt her. That’s on you.”

She drew in a deep breath, straightening. “I didn’t know. If I had, I would’ve cut his stomach open and fed him his own entrails until he choked on them.”

Now that, I didn’t doubt.

Because I’d seen her do it to a mortal before.

Her tightly sealed lips trembled as she stared down at me. “You killed him?” A savage rush of satisfaction hit me. “Yeah, I did.”

“Did you make it hurt?” “What do you think?”

“You did.” She turned away, drifting toward the wall as the two Handmaidens returned, silently taking up their posts by the door. “Good.”

A dry laugh left me. “And I’ll do the same to you.”

She sent me a small smile over her shoulder. “I’ve always been impressed by your resilience, Casteel. I imagine you got that from your mother.”

Acid pooled in my mouth. “You would know, wouldn’t you?”

“Just so you know…” she said with a shrug. A moment passed before she continued. “I didn’t hate your mother at first. She loved Malec, but he loved me. I didn’t envy her. I pitied her.”

“I’m sure she’ll be glad to hear that.”

“Doubtful,” she murmured, righting a candle that had tilted. Her fingers drifted through the flame, causing it to ripple wildly. “I do hate her now, though.”

I couldn’t care less.

“With every fiber of my being.” Smoke wafted from the flame she’d touched, turning a dark, thick black that brushed against the damp stone, staining it.

That wasn’t even remotely normal. “What in the hell are you?”

“I am nothing more than a myth. A cautionary tale once told to Atlantian children to make sure they didn’t steal what they didn’t deserve,” she said, looking over her shoulder at me.

“Are you a lamaea?”

Isbeth laughed. “Cute response, but I thought you were smarter than that.” She drifted to another candle, straightening it, as well. “I may be no god by your standards and beliefs, but I am no less powerful than one. So, how am I not just that? A god?”

Something tugged at my memories—something I was sure Kieran’s father had once said when we were younger. When the wolven Kieran loved was dying, and he’d prayed to gods he knew were sleeping to save her. When he prayed to anything that could be listening. Jasper had warned him that…something that wasn’t a god could answer.

That a false god could reply.

“Demis,” I whispered hoarsely, my eyes widening. “You’re a demis. A false god.”

One side of Isbeth’s lips curled up, but it was the golden Rev who spoke. “Well, apparently, he is rather clever.”

“At times,” she said with a shrug.

Holy shit. I’d believed that the demis were as much a myth as the lamaea. “Is that what you’ve always been? A poor imitation of the real thing, hell-bent on destroying the lives of the desperate?”

“That’s a rather offensive assumption. But, no. A demis is not born but made when a god commits the forbidden act of Ascending a mortal who was not Chosen.”

I had no idea what she meant by a mortal that was Chosen, and I didn’t get a chance to question that because she asked, “What do you know about Malec?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the golden Rev’s head tilt. “Where is my brother?” I demanded instead.

“Around.” Isbeth faced me, clasping her hands together. They were free of jewels except for the Atlantian ring.

“I want to see him.”

A faint grin appeared. “I don’t think that would be wise.” “Why?”

She inched toward me. “You haven’t earned it, Casteel.”

The acid spread, hitting my veins. “Hate to disappoint you, but we’re not playing that game again.”

Isbeth pouted. “But I loved that game. So did Malik. Admittedly, he was much better at it than you ever were.”

Fury pounded through every inch of my body. I launched off the floor as the rage was given sound. I didn’t make it very far. The bonds at my throat jerked my head back as the shackles on my ankles and wrists clamped down, yanking me against the wall. The Handmaidens stepped forward.

Isbeth held up a hand, waving them back. “Did that make you feel better?”

“Why don’t you get close?” I growled, chest rising and falling as the band at my throat slowly loosened. “That will make me feel better.”

“I’m sure it would, but you see, I have plans which require me to keep my throat intact and my head still on my shoulders,” she replied, smoothing a hand over the chest of her gown.

“Plans can always change.”

Isbeth smirked. “But this plan also requires you to remain alive.” She watched me. “You don’t believe that, do you? If I wanted you dead, you’d already be that.”

My eyes narrowed on her as she tipped her chin in a curt nod. The golden Rev stepped out into the hall, returning quickly with a burlap sack. The stench of death and decay immediately hit me. Every part of my being focused on the bag the Rev carried. I didn’t know what was in there, but I knew it was something that used to be alive. My heart started pounding.

“It appears that my once amicable and charming daughter has grown quite the…violent streak with a knack for showmanship,” Isbeth remarked as the Rev knelt, untying the sack. “Penellaphe sent me a message.”

My lips parted as the golden Rev carefully tipped the sack, and a…godsdamn head rolled out. I immediately recognized the blond hair and square jaw.

King Jalara.

Holy fuck.

“As you can see, it was a very interesting message,” Isbeth stated blandly.

I couldn’t believe I was staring at the Blood King’s head. A slow smile spread across my face. I laughed—deep and hard. Gods, Poppy was…damn, she was vicious in the most magnificent way, and I could not wait to show her just how much I approved of it. “That’s…gods, that’s my Queen.”

Surprise widened the golden Rev’s eyes, but I laughed until my empty stomach cramped.

Until tears stung my eyes.

“I’m glad you find this entertaining,” Isbeth remarked coolly.

Shoulders shaking, I tipped my head back against the wall. “That is the best godsdamn thing I’ve seen in a long time, to be honest.”

“I would suggest you need to get out more, but…” She waved dismissively at the chains. “That was only a part of the message she sent.”

“There was more?”

Isbeth nodded. “There were quite a few threats included with it.”

“I’m sure.” I chuckled, wishing I’d been there to see it. There wasn’t a single part of me that doubted it had been Poppy’s hand who’d ended Jalara’s life.

The Blood Queen’s nostrils flared. “But there was one warning in particular that interested me.” She knelt in a slow slide that reminded me of the cold-blooded serpents found in the foothills of the Mountains of Nyktos. The orange and red, two-headed snakes were just as venomous as the viper in front of me. “Unlike you and my daughter, Malec and I were never granted the privilege of the marriage imprint—proof that either of us lived or died. And you know that not even the bond shared between heartmates can alert the other of death. I have spent the last several hundred years believing that Malec was dead.”

Every ounce of humor vanished.

“But it appears I have been mistaken. Penellaphe claims that not only is Malec alive, but that she knows where he is.” The Rev’s head cocked again as he focused on her. Isbeth appeared unaware. “She said she would kill him, and the moment Penellaphe starts believing in her power, she very easily could.” Her dark eyes fixed on mine. “Is it true? Does he live?”

Damn, Poppy really wasn’t messing around. “It’s true,” I said softly. “He lives. For now.”

Her slender body practically hummed. “Where is he, Casteel?”

“Come on, Isbitch,” I whispered, leaning forward as far as I could. “You should know there is literally nothing you can do that will make me tell you that. Not even if you brought my brother in here and started cutting off pieces of his skin.”

Isbeth eyed me quietly for several long moments. “You speak the truth.”

I smiled broadly. I did speak the truth. Isbeth thought she could control Poppy through me, but my stunning, vicious wife had checkmated her ass, and there was no way in hell I would jeopardize that. Not even for Malik.

“I remember a time when you would’ve done anything for your family,” Isbeth said. “That was a different time.”

“Now you will do anything for Penellaphe?” “Anything,” I promised.

“Because of the opportunity of what she represents?” Isbeth suggested. “Is that what truly consumes you? After all, through my daughter, you usurped your brother and your parents. You are now a King. And because of her bloodline, she is the Queen. That would make you the King.”

I shook my head, unsurprised. Of course, she would think that what I felt had everything to do with power.

“You plotted for how long to claim her?” she continued. “Perhaps you never planned to use her to free Malik. Maybe you don’t even really love her.”

I held her stare. “Whether she ruled over all the lands and seas or was the Queen of nothing but a pile of ashes and bones, she would—will—always be my Queen. Love is too weak an emotion to describe how she consumes me and what I feel for her. She is my everything.”

Isbeth was silent for several long moments. “My daughter deserves to have someone care for her as fiercely as she cares for them.” A hint of faint silver glimmered in the center of Isbeth’s eyes, though not as vivid as what I saw in Poppy’s. Her gaze dipped to the band around my throat. “I never wanted this—this war with my daughter.”

“Really?” I laughed dryly. “What did you expect? For her to go along with your plans?” “And marry your brother?” The light in her eyes intensified as I snarled. “Goodness, the

mere idea of that gets to you, doesn’t it? If I had killed you when I had you the last time, then he would’ve aided her Ascension.”

It took everything in me not to react—not to attempt to rip her heart from her chest. “You still wouldn’t have what you wanted. Poppy would’ve figured out the truth about you—about the Ascended. She already was, even before I came into her life. She never would’ve let you take Atlantia.”

Isbeth’s smile returned, though tight-lipped. “Do you think that all I want is Atlantia? As if that is all my daughter was destined for? Her purpose is far greater. As was Malik’s. As is yours now. We are now a part of the greater plan, and all of us, together, will restore the realm to what it was always meant to be. It has already begun.”

I stilled. “What in the hell are you talking about?”

“You’ll see in time.” She rose. “If my daughter truly loves you, this will pain me in ways I doubt you’ll ever believe.” She turned her head slightly. “Callum?”

The golden Rev stepped around Jalara’s head, careful not to brush against it.

My gaze snapped to him. “I don’t know you, but I’m going to kill you, too, one way or another. Just thought I should let you know that.”

He hesitated, his head cocking to the side. “If you only knew how many times I’ve heard that,” he said, a slight smile forming as he withdrew a slender shadowstone blade from the strap across his chest. “But you’re the first I think might actually succeed.”

The Rev snapped forward then, and my world exploded in pain.

 

CHAPTER 2

Poppy

 

Through the maze of the pines outside the walled city of Massene, I caught sight of a silver and white wolven pacing ahead.

Arden kept low to the thick bushes cluttering the forest floor and soundlessly moved as he neared the edges of the Pinelands. The long and wide region of swampy woods bordered both Massene and Oak Ambler and stretched all the way to the coast of the Kingdom of Solis.

The land was full of insects that smelled of decay and fed from any visible patch of skin with the hunger of a Craven. There were things to be found slithering along the mossy ground if one looked long and hard enough. And in the trees, crude circles made of sticks or bones, vaguely resembling the Royal Crest of the Blood Crown, except that the line was at a slant— diagonal—as it pierced the center of the circle.

Massene sat nestled against what was known as the Dead Bones Clan territory.

We hadn’t seen any sign of the mysterious group of people who’d once lived where the Blood Forest now stood and apparently preferred to feed on the flesh of anything living— including mortals and wolven—but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. From the moment we’d entered the Pinelands, it’d felt like a hundred pairs of eyes tracked us.

For all those reasons, I was not a fan of the Pinelands. Although, I wasn’t sure if it was the cannibals or the snakes I disliked the most.

But if we were to seize Oak Ambler, the largest port city this far east, we would have to take Massene first. And we’d have to do it with only the wolven and a small battalion. They had arrived ahead of the larger armies led by…his father, the former King of Atlantia, Valyn Da’Neer. All but one draken traveled with those armies. But I hadn’t summoned the draken, awakening them from their slumber, only for them to burn through cities and people.

General Aylard, who led the newly arrived battalion, had been most displeased to have learned that and our plans for Massene. But I was the Queen, and two things were paramount to all.

Free our King.

And not make war like before, upending lives and leaving cities to become nothing more than mass burial sites. That wasn’t what he would want. That wasn’t what I wanted.

Massene was larger than both New Haven and Whitebridge, but smaller than Oak Ambler— and not as well guarded as the port city. But they weren’t helpless.

Still, we couldn’t wait any longer for Valyn and the other generals to arrive. The Ascended who lived behind those walls had been leading mortals into the woods, feeding from them, and leaving them to turn. The Craven attacks were becoming more frequent, and each group larger than the one before. Worse yet, according to our scouts, the city had gone quiet during the day.

But at night…

There were screams.

Then they had killed three of our wolven patrolling these woods the day before, leaving only their heads on spikes at the Pompay border. I knew their names—would never forget them.

Roald. Krieg. Kyley.

And I could no longer wait.

Twenty-three days had passed since he’d given himself over to a monster who’d made him feel like a thing. Since I’d last seen him. Saw his golden eyes heat. Witnessed the dimple form first in his right cheek and then his left. Felt the touch of his flesh against mine or heard his voice. Twenty-three days.

The armored plates on my chest and shoulders tightened as I leaned forward on Setti, gaining Naill’s attention as the Atlantian rode to my left. I kept my grip on the warhorse’s reins firm, just as…he had taught me. I opened my senses, connecting with Arden.

A tangy, almost bitter taste filled my mouth. Anguish. And something acidic—anger. “What is it?”

“I’m not sure.” I glanced to my right. Shadows had gathered across Kieran Contou’s beige- brown features, the once-bonded wolven and now Advisor to the Crown. “But he’s upset.”

Arden stopped the restless patrol as we approached, his vibrant blue gaze swinging to me. He whined softly, the sound tearing at my heart. Arden’s unique imprint reminded me of the salty sea, but I didn’t try to speak to him through the Primal notam since the wolven wasn’t yet comfortable communicating that way. “What’s wrong?”

He nodded his large silver-and-white-streaked head toward the Rise of Massene and then turned, prowling through the trees.

Kieran held up a closed fist, halting those behind us as he and Naill moved ahead, navigating the heavily clustered pines. I waited, reaching for the pouch secured to my hip. The small wooden horse Malik had carved for…his sixth birthday pressed against the marriage imprint on my palm.

Malik.

The once-heir to the Atlantian throne. He had been taken captive in the process of freeing his brother. And both of them had been betrayed by the wolven he’d once loved.

The sadness I’d felt at learning that Shea had done such a thing was now overshadowed by the grief and anger that Malik had done the same. I tried not to let the anger grow. Malik had been held captive for a century. Only the gods knew what had been done to him or what he’d had to do to survive. That didn’t excuse his betrayal, though. Didn’t lessen the blow it dealt. But he was also a victim.

Make his death as quick and painless as possible.

What Valyn Da’Neer had asked of me before I left Atlantia sat heavily on my heart. It was a weight I would bear. A father shouldn’t have to strike down his own son. I hoped it didn’t come to that, but I also couldn’t see how it wouldn’t.

Kieran stopped, his emotions sudden and intense, slamming into me in bitter waves of…horror.

Rattled by his reaction, my stomach knotted with dread. “What is it?” I asked, seeing that Arden had stopped once more.

“Dear gods,” Naill uttered, jerking back on his saddle at whatever he saw, his deep brown skin taking on a grayish pallor. His horror was so potent it scratched against my shields like bitter claws.

When there was no answer, trepidation grew, encompassing my entire being. I eased Setti forward between Kieran and Naill, to where the Massene Rise gates were visible through the pines.

At first, I couldn’t make sense of what I saw—the cross-like shapes hanging from the massive gates.

Dozens of them.

My breathing turned ragged. Eather thrummed in my tightening chest. Bile crept up my throat. I jerked back. Before I lost my balance and toppled from the saddle, Naill’s arm snapped out, catching my shoulder.

Those shapes were… Bodies.

Men and women stripped bare, impaled at the wrists and feet to Massene’s iron and limestone gates, their bodies displayed for any to look upon—

Their faces…

Dizziness rushed me. Their faces weren’t bare. They were all shrouded in the same veil I had been forced to wear, held in place by gold chains gleaming dully in the moonlight.

A storm of rage replaced the disbelief as Setti’s reins slipped from my fingers. Eather, the Primal essence of the gods that flowed through all the many different bloodlines, throbbed in my chest. Far stronger in me because what was inside me came from Nyktos, the King of Gods. The essence merged with icy-hot fury as I stared at the bodies, my chest heaving with too-shallow, too-quick breaths. A thin metallic taste coated the inside of my mouth as I looked behind the horror on the gate, to the tops of the distant spiral towers, each a stained ivory against the rapidly darkening sky.

Above, the pines began trembling, showering us with thin needles. And that anger, the horror at what I saw, built and built until the corners of my vision turned silver.

My gaze shifted to those who walked the battlements of the Rise, on either side of the gate where the bodies of fellow mortals were so cruelly displayed, and what filled my mouth, clogged my throat, came from within me. It was shadowy and smoky and a little sweet, rolling across my tongue, and it came from a place deep inside me. This cold, aching hollowness that had woken in the last twenty-three days.

It tasted like the promise of retribution. Of wrath.

And death.

I tasted death as I watched the Rise Guards stop mere feet from the bodies to speak to one another, laughing at something that was said. My gaze narrowed on them as the essence pulsed in my chest, and my will rose. A sharp gust of wind, colder than a winter’s morning, rolled across the Rise, lifting the hems of the veils and whipping around the guards on the wall, sending several sliding back toward the edge.

They stopped laughing then, and I knew the smiles I couldn’t see faded.

Poppy.” Kieran leaned from his saddle, clasping the nape of my neck beneath the thick braid. “Calm. You need to find calm. If you do something now before we know exactly how many are on the Rise, it will alert them to our presence. We must wait.”

I wasn’t sure I wanted to calm, but Kieran was right. If we wanted to take Massene with minimal loss of life—those innocents who lived inside the walls and were routinely turned into Craven and hung from the gates—I needed to get control of my emotions and abilities.

And I could.

If I wanted to.

In the past weeks, I’d spent a lot of time on the Primal notam, working with the wolven to see how much distance we could put between us and still be able to communicate. Other than Kieran, I’d had the most success with Delano, whom I could reach deep within the Wastelands through the notam. But I’d also focused on harnessing the eather so that what I pictured in my mind became my will and was carried out by the energy instantaneously.

So I could fight like a god.

Fisting my hands, I willed the eather away. It took every part of my being to stop myself from allowing the promise of death to flow out from me.

“You okay?” Kieran asked.

“No.” I swallowed. “But I’m in control.” I looked at Naill. “Are you okay?”

The Atlantian shook his head. “I can’t understand how anyone is capable of doing such a thing.”

“Neither can I.” Kieran looked past me to Naill as Arden backed away from the tree line. “I think it’s good that we can’t.”

I forced my attention to the battlements along the top of the wall. I couldn’t look too long at the bodies. I couldn’t allow myself to really think about them. Just like I couldn’t allow myself to think about what he was going through—what was being done to him.

A featherlight brush against my thoughts came, followed by the springy-fresh imprint of Delano’s mind. The wolven was scouting the length of the Rise to gain information on exactly how many were guarding it. Meyaah Liessa?

I swallowed a sigh at the old Atlantian phrase that roughly translated to my Queen. The wolven knew they didn’t have to refer to me as such, but many still did. However, where Delano did it out of what he felt was a show of respect, Kieran often called me that to simply annoy me.

I followed the imprint back to Delano. Yes?

There are twenty at the northern gates. A beat of silence passed. And… His grief tainted the bond. I briefly closed my eyes. Mortals on the gate. Yes.

The essence throbbed. How many?

Two dozen, he answered, and violent energy pressed against my skin. Emil is confident he can take them out quickly, he said, referencing the often-irreverent Elemental Atlantian.

My eyes opened. Massene only had two gates—one to the north, and this one, which faced the east. “Delano says there are twenty on the northern gates,” I shared. “Emil believes he can take them.”

“He can,” Kieran confirmed. “He’s as good with a crossbow as you are.” I met his stare. “Then it’s time.”

Holding my gaze, he nodded. The three of us lifted the hoods on our cloaks, hiding the armor Naill and I wore.

“I really wish you had some sort of armor,” I told Kieran.

“Armor would make it more difficult for me if I need to shift,” he stated. “And at the end of the day, no armor is a hundred percent effective. There are weak spots—places those men on the Rise know to exploit.”

“Thanks for reminding me,” Naill muttered as we quietly rode toward the edge of the pines. Kieran smirked. “That’s what I’m here for.”

I shook my head as I searched for Delano’s imprint, not allowing myself to think of the lives that my order would soon end. Take them out.

Delano quickly responded. Gladly, meyaah Liessa. We will soon join you at the east gate.

“Be ready,” I said out loud as I turned my focus to those on the Rise before us.

I lifted my stare to the moonlight-drenched battlement. Three dozen individuals who probably had no choice but to join the Rise Guard stood there. There was little opportunity for most in Solis, especially if they weren’t born into families steeped in the power and privilege given by the Ascended. Those who lived so far from the capital. Much like most eastern locales, with the exception of Oak Ambler, Massene wasn’t a glittering and wealthy city, mainly consisting of farmers who tended crops that fed most of Solis.

But those who laughed and chatted as if those impaled to that gate did not affect them? That was a whole different breed of apathy and just as cold and empty as an Ascended.

Just like with Delano, I didn’t think of the lives about to be cut short by my will. I couldn’t.

Vikter had taught me that ages ago. That you could never consider the life of another when they held a sword pointed at your throat.

There was no sword at my throat now, but there were things much worse held to the throats of those inside the Rise.

I summoned the eather, and it responded at once, rushing to the surface of my skin. Silver tinted my vision as Kieran and Naill lifted crossbows, each outfitted with three arrows.

“I’ll take those farther down the Rise,” Kieran said. “I’ll get those to the left,” Naill confirmed.

Which left the dozen by the gates. The eather swirled inside me, pouring into my blood, somehow hot and icy at the same time. It flooded that hollow place inside me as every ounce of my being focused on those by the gate.

By the poor, veiled mortals.

My will left me at the exact moment the image of what I wanted filled my mind. The snap of their necks, one after another in quick succession, joined the snap of released arrows. There was no time for any of them to scream, to alert those who may be near. Kieran and Naill quickly reloaded, taking out the others before the ones whose necks I’d broken even began to fall.

But they joined those struck by arrows, falling forward into the nothingness. I flinched at the sound of their bodies hitting the ground.

We rode out, crossing the clearing as another cloaked figure joined me on horseback, coming from the left of the Rise. A snow-white wolven followed Emil, keeping close to the wall as I quickly dismounted.

“Those sons of bitches,” Emil growled, head tilted back as he looked up at the gates. “The utter disrespect.”

“I know.” Kieran followed me as I went to the chain securing the gate. Anger brimmed from Emil as I clasped the cool chains.

Arden stirred restlessly near the horses’ hooves as Emil quickly dismounted, joining me. Naill pulled them forward as Delano brushed against my legs. I took them in my hand and closed my eyes. I’d discovered that the eather could be used in the same manner as draken fire. While it would not kill a Revenant—or have any effect on them, really—it could melt iron. Not in large quantities, but enough.

“We need to hurry,” Kieran said quietly. “Dawn is approaching.”

I nodded as a silvery aura flared around my hands, rippling over the chain while Emil peered in through the gate, searching for signs of other guards. I frowned as the glow pulsed, and pieces of the metal appeared to darken—thicken almost as if it were tendrils of shadow. Blinking, the wisps disappeared. Or were never there. The light was not the greatest, and even though I was a god, my eyesight and hearing remained annoyingly mortal.

The chain fell apart.

“Nifty talent,” Naill remarked.

I sent him a brief smile as he and Emil quickly and quietly moved the gate forward.

The Pinelands came alive as the gate opened, twigs snapping as the wolven prowled forward in a sleek wave of several dozen, led by Kieran’s sister.

Vonetta was the same fawn color as Kieran, not nearly as large as him when in wolven form, but no less fierce. Our gazes briefly met as I found her imprint—white oak and vanilla. Be safe, I told her.

Always, came the quick reply as someone closed the gates behind us.

Turning from her, I fixed my gaze on the silent, stone, one-story barracks several yards back from the Rise. Beyond them and the fields of crops, the outline of small, squat buildings could be seen against Cauldra Manor and the looming horizon that was already becoming a lighter blue.

Opting for the short sword instead of the wolven dagger, I withdrew it from where it was secured to my back, handle tilted downward, as we raced forward under the darkness of the pines lining the wide, cobblestone road. We halted before the barracks, the wolven crouching low to the ground.

I pressed into the scratchy bark of a pine as I peered into the windows of the gas-lamp-lit barracks. A few people moved about inside. It was only a matter of time before they took note of the fact that no one was on the Rise.

Kieran joined me, his hand landing on the tree above mine. “We probably have around twenty minutes before dawn arrives,” he said. “The Ascended should already be retiring for the night.”

I nodded. There were no Temples in Massene, or a Radiant Row like in Masadonia, where the wealthy mortals lived side by side with the Ascended. In Massene, all the vamprys lived within Cauldra Manor.

“Remember,” I said, tightening my grip on the sword. “We harm no mortal who lowers their weapon. We harm no Ascended who surrenders.”

There were murmurs and soft snarls of agreement. Kieran turned to Naill and nodded. The Atlantian slipped forward and then moved with blinding speed, reaching the side of the barracks. He dragged the edge of his sword along the building, creating an ear-aching grinding sound against the stone.

“Well,” Emil drawled. “That’s one way of doing it.”

A door flung open, and a guard stepped out, blade in hand. His head whipped from side to side, but Naill had already disappeared into the pines.

“Who goes there?” the guard demanded as several more spilled out from the barracks. The man squinted into the darkness. “Who’s out here?”

I pulled away from the pine.

“Does it really have to be you?” Kieran questioned in a low voice. “Yes.”

“The actual answer is no.” “No, it’s not.” I eased past him.

Kieran sighed but made no move to stop me. “One of these days, you will realize you’re a Queen,” he hissed.

“Not likely,” Emil remarked.

I walked out of the pines, my senses open. The men turned to me, not having realized yet that no one was on the Rise.

“Who I am is not important,” I said, feeling the ripple of surprise that came with their realization that a female stood before them. “What is, is that your city has been breached, and you’re surrounded. We are not here to take from you. We’re here to end the Blood Crown. Lay down your weapons, and you will not be harmed.”

“And if we don’t lay down our swords to some Atlantian bitch?” the man demanded, and tart unease and anxiety radiated from a few of the men behind him. “What then?”

My brows rose. These guards were aware that a small portion of the Atlantian armies had been camped out at the edges of Pompay. They weren’t, however, aware that a draken was among us.

Or that the Atlantian Queen was also with the encampment and currently the bitch they were speaking to.

The words burned to say, but I spoke them. “You die.”

“Is that so?” The man laughed, and I stifled the rising disappointment, reminding myself that many mortals had no idea who they served. Who the real enemy was. “Am I or my men supposed to be afraid of a pitiful army that sends overgrown dogs and bitches to fight their battles?” He looked over his shoulder. “Looks like we’ll have another head to put on the pike.” He faced me. “But first, we’ll make real good use of that mouth and whatever is under that cloak, won’t we, boys?”

There were a few rough laughs, but that tartness increased from others.

I tilted my head. “This is your last chance. Lay down your swords and surrender.”

The silly mortal swaggered forward. “How about you lay down on your back and spread them legs?”

Hot anger pressed against my back as I turned my gaze to him. “No, thank you.” “Wasn’t really asking.” He took one more step. That was as far as he made it.

Vonetta sprang out of the darkness, landing on the guard. His shout ended with a vicious clamp of her jaws on his throat as she took him down.

Another charged forward, raising his sword at Vonetta as she dragged the foul-mouthed man across the ground. I shot forward, catching his arm as I thrust my blade deep into his belly. Blue eyes set in a far-too-young face widened as I yanked the sword back out.

“Sorry,” I murmured, shoving him away.

Several of the guards lurched toward Vonetta and me, only to realize that we were not who they should be worried about—a moment too late.

The wolven came out of the pines, swarming the guards in a matter of seconds. The crunch of bone and sharp, too-short screams echoed in my head as Kieran drew his blade across a guard’s throat.

“When will mortals stop referring to us as overgrown dogs?” he asked, pushing the fallen guard aside. “Do they not know the difference between a dog and a wolf?”

“I’m going to say no.” Emil stalked past the one who’d gone at Vonetta, spitting on the dead man. He looked up at me. “What? He was going to knife Netta in the back. I’m not about that.”

I couldn’t really argue against that as I turned to the soldiers near the back, the ones I’d felt the unease from. Five of them. Their swords lay at their feet. The sickly bitterness of fear coated my skin as Delano stalked forward, blood-streaked teeth bared. The stench of urine hit the air.

“W-we surrender,” one chattered, shaking.

“Delano,” I called softly, and the wolven halted, growling at the men. “How many Ascended are here?”

“There are t-ten,” the man answered, his skin as pale as the waning moonlight.

“Would they be returning to Cauldra Manor?” Kieran asked, coming to stand beside me. “They should already be there,” another said. “They’ll be under guard. They have been since the Duke became aware of your encampment.”

I glanced at Naill, who led Setti and the other horses forward. “Did all of them take part in what was done to those on the gates?”

The third one—an older man than most on the Rise, in his third or fourth decade of life— said, “None of them resisted Duke Silvan when he gave the orders.”

“Who were those they chose to kill?” Kieran asked.

Another wave of disappointment swelled, weighing heavily on my chest. I wanted to—no, I needed to—believe that there were other Ascended like…like Ian, my brother, even if we shared no blood. There had to be.

“They did it at will,” the first guard, the one who’d spoken his surrender, shared. He looked close to vomiting. “They just picked people out. Young. Old. Didn’t matter. Ain’t no one who was causing trouble. No one causes trouble.”

“The same with the others,” another younger guard said. “Those, they led out beyond the Rise.”

Kieran focused on the mortal, his jaw clenched. “You know what was done to them?”

“I do,” the eldest of them said after the others spoke. “They led them out there. Fed from them. Left them to turn. No one believed me when I said that was what happened.” He jerked his chin at the ones beside him. “They said I was crazy, but I know what I saw. I just didn’t think…” His gaze went to the gates. “I thought maybe I was crazy.”

He just hadn’t considered what all the Ascended were capable of.

“You were right,” Kieran replied. “If it brings you any relief to know that.”

Sensing that the knowledge did very little, I turned to Naill, sheathing my sword. “Make sure they remain in the barracks. Unharmed.” I gestured at Arden. “Stay with Naill.”

Naill nodded as he handed Setti’s reins to me. Gripping the straps on the saddle, I hoisted myself up. The others followed suit.

“Did you speak the truth?” the eldest asked, stopping as we guided the horses out from the barracks. “That you’re not here to take from us?”

“I did.” My grip firmed on Setti’s reins. “We’re not here to take. We’re here to end the Blood Crown.”

Dipping under a guard’s outstretched arm, the edges of the cloak fluttered around my legs as I spun, thrusting the sword deep into the man’s back. I twisted sharply, ducking as someone threw a knife in my general direction. Delano leapt over me, digging into the guard with his claws and teeth as I popped up.

None of the guards outside of Cauldra surrendered.

The pinkish rays of dawn streaked across the sky as I whirled, grunting and kicking out, pushing a guard back. He fell into Vonetta’s path. Stalking toward the barred doors, I brought the sword down, clanging off another as Emil came up behind him, dragging his blade across the man’s throat. Hot blood sprayed the air. Kieran jabbed out with a dagger up under the chin of another guard, clearing the path before me.

There was so much death here. Bodies scattered about the bare courtyard as blood pooled on the dull ivory steps and splattered the exterior walls of the manor. Summoning the Primal essence as I lifted a hand, bright silvery light funneled down my arm and sparked from my fingers. The eather arced across the space, slamming into the doors. Wood splintered and gave way, exploding into fine shards.

The receiving hall, adorned with crimson banners and bearing the Blood Crown’s crest instead of the white-and-gold that hung in Masadonia, was empty.

“Underground,” Kieran said, stalking to our right. Blood dotted his cheeks. “They would’ve gone underground.”

“And you know how to get there?” I caught up to him, reaching out with my senses to ensure that he wasn’t hurt.

“Cauldra appears like New Haven.” He dragged his hand over his face, wiping away the blood that wasn’t his. “They’ll have chambers underground, near the cells.”

It was almost impossible not to think of the cells under New Haven that I’d spent time in.

But Kieran was right as he found the entrance along the hall on the right.

He kicked in the door, revealing a narrow, torch-lit stairwell. He sent me a wild grin that caused my breath to catch because it reminded me of…of him. “What did I say?”

My brows pinched as Delano and Vonetta streaked past us, joined by a blackish-gray wolven I recognized as Sage. They entered the stairwell before us. “Why do they do that?”

“Because you’re the Queen.” Kieran entered.

“You keep telling her that.” Emil fell into step behind me. “And you keep reminding her…”

I rolled my eyes as we hurried down the musty-scented stairs that stroked a memory that refused to wiggle free. “I may be the Queen, but I’m also a god, and therefore harder to kill than any of you. I should go first,” I told him. To be honest, none of us had any idea what would kill me, but we did know that I was basically immortal.

I felt a skip in my chest. I would outlive everyone in this manor, some who had become people I cared about. Those I called friends. I would outlive Tawny—who would eventually wake from the injury the shadowstone blade had caused. I couldn’t allow myself to believe anything else, even though I knew, deep down, that it couldn’t be good for someone to sleep that long.

I would outlive Kieran and…and even him.

Gods, why was I even thinking about that right now? Don’t borrow tomorrow’s problems.

That was what he’d said once.

I really needed to learn how to follow that advice.

“Harder to kill doesn’t mean impossible to kill,” Kieran shot over his shoulder. “Says the one not in armor,” I snapped back.

He let out a rough laugh, but the sound was lost in the sudden, shrill shriek that caused tiny bumps to spread across my skin.

“Craven,” I whispered as we rounded the curve in the stairwell, and Kieran stepped into a faintly lit hall. He stopped directly in front of me, and I bounced off him.

Kieran stared.

So did I.

“Good gods,” Emil murmured.

The cells were full of Craven. They pressed against the bars, arms outstretched, and lips peeled back, revealing their four jagged fangs. Some were fresh, their skin only now taking on the ghastly shade of death. Others were older, those with sunken cheeks, torn lips, and sagging skin.

“Why in the hell would they have Craven in here?” Emil asked over the pained, hungry howling.

“They probably let them out from time to time to terrorize the people,” I said numbly. “The Ascended would blame the Atlantians. Saying they turned the Craven. But they’d also blame the people, claiming they angered the gods somehow and this was their punishment. That the gods let the Atlantians do this. Then the Ascended would say they spoke to the gods on their behalf, assuaging their anger.”

“People believed that?” Emil eased past several of the bloodstained hands.

“It’s all they’ve ever been allowed to believe,” I told him, looking away from the Craven.

The sounds of pawing and scratching led us past the cells—beyond what we’d have to deal with later—and down another hall, through crates of wine and ale. We found the wolven just as they tore through the double wooden doors at the end.

A vampry came flying out of the chamber, a stream of sable hair and fangs bared—Delano took her down, latching onto the vampry’s throat as he dug into her chest with his front paws, tearing through clothing and skin.

I turned away, but there was nowhere to look as the two female wolven did the same with two more that attacked. And then there were only pieces left.

“That looks like it would give them an upset stomach,” I said.

“I’m trying not to think about that,” Emil murmured, fixing his stare on the Ascended who stood within the chamber, frozen with their weapons all but forgotten in their hands. “I bet they’re trying not to think of that either.”

“Any of you want to meet the same fate?” Kieran asked, extending his sword to the chunks on the floor.

There was no answer from within, but as more wolven filled the hall behind us, the Ascended dropped their weapons.

“We surrender,” a male bit out, the last to throw his sword aside.

“Nice of you to do that,” Kieran drawled as he kicked the swords out of their reach.

And it was. Nice of them. But it was also too late. There would be no second chances given to any Ascended who’d taken part in what had been done to those on their gates and what was happening in this city.

I did my level best not to step on what remained of the Ascended on the floor as I entered the chamber, flanked closely by Vonetta and Delano. I sheathed the sword and lowered my hood.

“Congratulations,” the same male spoke. “You took Massene. But you will not take Solis.” The moment he opened his mouth, I knew this had to be Duke Silvan. It was the air of self-assured superiority. He was an icy blond, tall and well-formed in his fine satin shirt and breeches. He was attractive. After all, very few things in Solis were valued higher than beauty. When he looked upon me, he saw the scars, and that was all he saw.

And all I saw was the blood that stained their expensive clothing. It marked each tailored shirt and bodice.

I stopped in front of the Duke, staring into pitch-black eyes that reminded me of her. The Blood Queen. My mother. Hers weren’t this dark, pitiless, empty, and cold. But she had the same eerie spark of light—though much deeper—that didn’t require light to hit their faces at the right angle to see. It wasn’t until that very moment that I realized the trace of light in their eyes was a glimmer of eather.

It made sense for them to carry a trace. The blood of an Atlantian was used to Ascend them, and all Atlantians carried eather in their blood. It was how the Ascended achieved their near immortality and strength. Their speed and ability to heal.

“Do any Ascended remain?”

Duke Silvan’s sneer was a work of art. “Fuck off.”

Beside me, Kieran’s sigh was so impressive, I would’ve thought it rattled the walls.

“I’ll ask one more time,” I said, counting quickly. There were ten. Or parts of ten, anyway, but I wanted to be sure that was all of them. “Are there any more?”

A long moment passed, and then the Duke said, “You will still kill us, no matter how I answer.”

“I would’ve given you a chance.”

The Duke’s eyes narrowed. “For what?”

“To live without taking from mortals,” I said. “To live among Atlantians.”

He stared at me for a moment and then laughed. “You really think that’s possible?” Another laugh parted his pale lips. “I know who you are. I’d recognize that face anywhere.”

Kieran stepped forward.

I held up a hand, stopping him.

The Duke smirked. “You haven’t been gone long enough to forget how mortals are, Maiden. How they are so damn gullible. How much they fear. What they will do to protect their families. What they will believe to protect themselves. You really think they will simply accept the Atlantians?”

I said nothing.

Emboldened, he stepped closer. “And you think the Ascended will do…what? Trust that you will allow us to live if we do whatever it is you want?”

“You trusted the Blood Queen,” I said. “And her name isn’t even Ileana. Nor is she an Ascended.”

Several sharp inhales sounded, but the Duke showed no sign that what I’d said was news to him.

“So,” I continued, “I imagine anything is possible. But as I said, I would’ve given you another chance. You sealed your fate when you ordered those people to be impaled on your gates.”

His nostrils flared. “The veils were a lovely touch, weren’t they?” “Very lovely,” I replied as Delano emitted a low growl.

“We didn’t—” one of the other Ascended started, a male with deep brown hair. “Shut up,” the Duke hissed. “You will die. I will die. All of us will.” “Correct.”

His head jerked back to me.

“What matters is how you die,” I stated. “I don’t know if bloodstone is a painful death. I’ve seen it up close and personal, and it appears to be so. I’m thinking if I sever the spine, there would only be a second of pain.”

The Duke swallowed as his smirk faded.

“But what was far more painful was how the ones in pieces died.” I paused, watching the corners of his mouth tighten. “Answer my question, and your death will be quick. Don’t? I will make sure you feel as if it lasts a lifetime. That’s up to you.”

He stared, and I practically saw the wheels turning in his mind, searching for a way out of this.

“It’s a terrible thing, isn’t it?” I stepped closer to him, and the essence pulsed in my chest.

“To know that death is finally coming for you. To see it right before you. To be in the same chamber with it, for seconds, minutes, longer, and know that you can do nothing to prevent it.” My voice lowered, became softer and colder…and smoky. “Not a single thing. It’s horrifying, the inevitability of it. The knowledge that if you still have a soul, it is surely bound for only one place. Deep down, you must be so afraid.”

A small, visible shudder coursed through him.

“Just like those mortals you led outside the Rise, tore into, fed off, and left to turn. Just like those in the cells and those on the gates.” I searched his pale features. “They must have been so terrified to learn that death had come for them at the hands of those they believed protected them.”

He swallowed once more. “There are no more Ascended. There never has been. No one wants to rule at the edge of the realm.” His chest rose with a deep breath. “I know who you are. I know what you are. It’s why you’re still standing, alive to this day. It’s not because you’re a god,” he said, his lip curling. “It’s because of the blood that courses through your veins.”

My spine stiffened. “If you say it’s because of who my mother is, I will not make your death quick.”

The Duke laughed, but the sound was as cold and harsh as that space inside me. “You think you’re a great liberator, don’t you? Come to free the mortals from the Blood Crown. Free your precious husband.”

Everything in me stilled.

“Kill the Queen—your mother—and take these lands in the name of Atlantia?” The spark of eather was in his eyes then. The corner of his lips curved up. “You will do no such thing. You will win no war. All you will accomplish is terror. All you will do is spill so much blood that the streets flood with it, and the kingdoms will drown in rivers of crimson. All you will liberate is death. All that you and those who follow will find here is death. And if your love is lucky enough, he will be dead before he sees what’s become of—”

Unsheathing my bloodstone dagger, I thrust it into his chest, piercing his heart and stopping the poisonous words before they could penetrate too deeply. And he felt it—the first splintering of his being, the first tearing of his skin and bone. And I, for one, was grateful for that.

His soulless eyes widened in surprise as fine lines appeared in the pale skin of his cheeks. The cracks deepened into a web of fractures that spread down his throat and under the collar of the tailored satin shirt he wore. I held his stare as the tiny ember of eather went out of his black eyes.

And, only then, for the first time in twenty-three days, did I feel nothing at all.

 

CHAPTER 3

 

Twenty-eight days.

Nearly a month had passed, and the constant ache throbbed so intensely it hurt. I clamped my jaw shut against the scream birthed from the cavern that had become my heart, one of frustration and ever-present helplessness and guilt. Because if I had controlled myself, if I hadn’t lashed out…

There were so many ifs. So many ways I could’ve handled things differently. But I hadn’t, and that was one of the reasons he wasn’t here.

The fluffy and buttery mound of eggs and strips of fried meat before me lost their appeal as the scream built in my throat, pressing against my sealed lips. A bone-deep sense of desperation rose and swiftly gave way to potent fury. The center of my chest hummed, the ancient power pulsing with barely leashed rage.

The fork I held trembled. Pressure seized my chest, closing off my throat as eather pulsed and swelled, pushing against my skin. If I screamed, if I gave in to all the pain and rage, the sound of desperation and anguish would become wrath and fury. The scream choking me, the power building inside me, tasted of death.

And a small part of me wanted to let it out.

Fingers several shades deeper than mine closed over my hand, stilling the tremor. The touch, something that had once been so forbidden, jolted me from the dark path, as did the faint charge of energy that passed between us. Slowly, my left hand was turned so the shimmery golden swirl of the marriage imprint was visible.

Proof that he and I were still together, even if separated. Proof that he still lived.

My gaze rose, colliding with the striking winter-blue eyes of a wolven.

Concern was evident in the sharp angles of Kieran’s handsome face and the tension bracketing his mouth. He looked tired, and he had to be. He hadn’t been sleeping well because I had hardly been sleeping.

The fork trembled again—no, it wasn’t just the fork or my arm that shook. The dishes vibrated, as did the table. Down the hall, the hanging white-and-gold Atlantian banners that had replaced the ones belonging to the Blood Crown shuddered.

Kieran’s gaze flicked past the empty chairs in the Cauldra banquet hall, to where the light- haired Atlantian, General Aylard, stood guard at the pillared opening.

I sensed the same thing now as I had when he first introduced himself. Distrust brimmed beneath his impassive features, tasting of vinegar. It wasn’t a surprising emotion. Many of the older Atlantians were cautious of me, either because I had been raised by their enemies, the Ascended, or because I was many things they hadn’t expected.

A scarred Maiden.

A hostage.

An unwanted Princess who’d become their Queen. A god.

I couldn’t exactly hold their wariness against any of them, especially when I made the entire manor tremble.

“You’re starting to glow,” Kieran warned in a whisper that I could barely hear, sliding his hand away.

I looked down at my palm. A faint silver sheen emanated from my skin. Well, that explained why the general now stared.

Lowering the fork to the plate, I steadied my breathing. I forced my mind past the suffocating burst of pain that always accompanied thoughts of him as I slipped my hand under the table to the small pouch secured to my hip and reached for the glass of mulled wine with the other. I washed away the sour taste with spice as Aylard turned slowly, his gloved grip remaining on his sheathed sword. The white mantle draped over his shoulders settled, drawing my gaze to the gold-embossed Atlantian Crest. The same crest now lining the walls of Cauldra—a sun and its rays, a sword and arrow at the center, crossed diagonally so both lengths were equal. Briefly closing my eyes, I finished off the wine.

“Is that all you’re going to eat?” Kieran asked after a few moments.

I placed the empty glass on the table as I glanced at the open window. Broken pieces of a foundation jutted up from bushy yellow wildflowers. Massene was not well kept. “I ate.”

“You need to eat more.” He rested his elbows on the table.

My eyes narrowed on him. “And you don’t need to be concerned about what I’m eating.”

“I wouldn’t have to be if you didn’t leave bacon untouched on your plate—something I never thought I’d see.”

I lifted my brows. “It sounds like you’re suggesting I ate too much bacon before.”

“Nice try at deflecting. But, ultimately, a failure,” Kieran replied. “I’m doing what you and Cas asked of me. I’m advising you.”

His name.

The breath I took stung. His name hurt. I didn’t like to think it, let alone say it. “I’m confident that my daily food intake was not what either of us was thinking when we asked you to be our advisor.”

“Neither was I. But here we are.” Kieran leaned in so only a handful of inches separated us. “You’re barely eating. You’re barely sleeping. And what just occurred? The glowing? The making the entire building shake? You seemed completely unaware of it, and it’s happening more often, Poppy.”

There wasn’t an ounce of censure in his tone, only concern, but I still squirmed because it was true. The essence of the gods was coming to the surface when I wasn’t using it to take away pain or heal. It happened when I felt something too strongly—when the sorrow and rage made my skin feel too tight, pushing at the fragile seams that held me together.

I needed to keep it together. I needed control. I couldn’t lose it. Not when the Kingdoms of Atlantia and Solis were counting on me. Not when he needed me. “I’ll try harder to control it,” I promised.

“This isn’t about you controlling your abilities.” Kieran’s brows knitted. “It’s about letting yourself not be okay. You’re strong, Poppy. We—”

“I know.” I stopped him as memories of nearly the same words whispered through me, spoken from other lips that had blazed a heated path along every inch of my skin.

You don’t have to always be strong with me.

I snapped forward, picking up a slice of bacon. I shoved half of it into my mouth, nearly choking myself. “Happy?” I asked, a piece plopping to the plate.

Kieran stared. “Not exactly.”

“Sounds like that’s your problem.” I chewed, barely tasting the crispy meat.

A huff that sounded like a laugh drew my attention to the large, purplish-black draken resting near the pillared entryway of the banquet hall. Smooth, black horns started in the middle of the flattened bridge of his nose and ran up over the center of his diamond-shaped head. The first couple of horns were small so as not to obstruct his vision, but as they traveled up his head, they lengthened into sharpened points that jutted out from thick frills.

Every time I looked at Reaver, it was a shock. I didn’t think I’d ever get used to seeing such a magnificent, frightful, and beautiful being.

Twenty-three draken had awakened. The youngest, three in total, remained at Spessa’s End to stand guard there, as decided by the draken. Out of the twenty that traveled with the armies, none were as large as Reaver. Instead, they were about the size of Setti, their scales not nearly as thick as Reaver’s and more susceptible to the sharp edge of an arrow. But they would still make quick work of any army.

The draken watched us, and I wondered what he was thinking and feeling. Whenever I attempted to get a read on him or any of the others while around them, I felt nothing. It wasn’t like the cold hollowness of an Ascended. Either Reaver and the other draken were shielding their emotions from me, or I simply couldn’t read them.

“Would you like some?” I offered to Reaver, lifting the plate. I hadn’t seen him eat, which drummed up a wee bit of concern over exactly what he was eating when he took flight, disappearing from view.

I really hoped it wasn’t people…or cute animals.

But I had no way of knowing. Only Aurelia, one of only two female draken who had awakened, had been in her mortal form long enough for me to learn the names of about half of the two-dozen draken who had left Iliseeum. She’d said that my will was theirs before we left Atlantia and parted ways.

The whole, my-will-was-theirs thing hadn’t exactly been helpful, but I’d learned that it was somewhat like the Primal notam. Reaver seemed to inherently know what I wanted. Like when we left to take Massene, and he’d already hunkered down to sleep for the night. I guessed it was more like the Primal essence in terms of how it responded to what I willed.

Reaver shook his spiked head at my offer of bacon.

“How did he even get in here without bringing the entire building down?” The skin between Kieran’s brows creased.

“Carefully,” I said as the draken’s attention drifted to the wolven. The vertical pupils constricted as his blue eyes narrowed once more. I suspected that the draken would take another swipe at Kieran the next chance he got.

“Shouldn’t Vonetta and the others be returning today?” I asked, directing Kieran’s attention from the draken.

“Any minute now.” Picking up his glass, he added dryly, “As you already know.”

I did, but he was no longer engaged in an epic stare-down with Reaver, which would surely escalate. However, anxiety suddenly took flight like a large silver hawk, and it had nothing to do with the probability of Kieran and Reaver maiming or murdering each other.

It had everything to do with the plans regarding Oak Ambler and Solis. Things I would need to convince the Atlantian generals to support, even though I hadn’t handled the most intricate part of those plans myself.

“I have this feeling,” Kieran began, “that you’re still annoyed I advised you against going with Vonetta.”

I frowned. “Sometimes, I do wonder if you can read minds.”

His full mouth twisted into a smirk as he tapped one finger off his temple. “I just have a knack for knowing things.”

“Uh-huh.” So did his father, Jasper, but Kieran also frequently seemed to know where my thoughts went. Which, admittedly, was as annoying to me as me reading his emotions was to him. “I wasn’t actively annoyed by you advising me against going into Oak Ambler, but I am now.”

“Great,” he muttered.

I sent him a glare. “Why is it when a Prince or a King decides to place themselves in danger or chooses to lead armies into war, it’s not an issue? But when a Queen wishes to do the same, it suddenly becomes a thing they must be advised against? Sounds a bit…sexist.”

Kieran placed his glass down. “It’s not a thing. I tried to stop Cas from doing idiotic, incredibly dangerous acts so many times, it was practically a full-time responsibility.”

A sharp slice of pain cut through my chest. I focused on the unopened bottles of wine the Atlantian Lord who had captained the ship we’d taken to Oak Ambler had shipped in. Perry had ferried in many much-needed supplies. Most importantly, the type of wine Kieran had said Valyn favored.

What better way to get someone to agree to what you wanted than to get them liquored up? “Namely you,” Kieran continued, intruding on my thoughts. “I tried to stop him from taking you.”

“What?” My head jerked toward him.

He nodded. “When he concocted the plan to masquerade as a guard and take you hostage, I told him, more than once, that it was absolutely insane. That it carried far too many risks.”

“Did one of those risks have to do with the fact that it was wrong to kidnap an innocent person and upend her entire life?” I questioned.

His lips pursed. “Can’t say that really crossed my mind.” “Nice.”

“That was before I knew you.” “That doesn’t make it better.”

“Probably not, but I don’t think you mind how he upended your life.”

“Well…” I cleared my throat. “I suppose, in a roundabout, really messed-up way, I’m glad he didn’t listen to you.”

Kieran smirked. “I’m sure you are.”

I rolled my eyes. “Anyway, as I was saying, I don’t feel that it’s right to ask something of someone that I’m not willing to do myself.”

“Which is admirable. That will win you the respect of many of your soldiers. Too bad you’ll likely be captured or end up dead. Therefore, making what you feel irrelevant.”

“That was a bit dramatic,” I said. “Vonetta and the others are risking their lives while I sit here, listening to you complain about what I’m eating.”

“You’re sitting there listening to me complain about what you’re not eating,” Kieran corrected. “And now it’s you who’s being dramatic.”

“I think I’ve changed my mind about you being the Advisor to the Crown,” I muttered.

That was ignored. “It’s not like you’re doing nothing.”

There had barely been a moment when I wasn’t doing something, especially since we’d taken Massene. The Craven in the cells had been dealt with, but I swore I could still smell them if rain came. The manor was in basic disrepair, the second and third floors virtually uninhabitable. The only electricity served a handful of the chambers and the kitchens. The people’s homes weren’t much better, and we’d done our best to make much-needed repairs to roofs and roads in the last five days, but it would take months, if not longer, to finish it. The crops hadn’t fared much better. Especially when so many of those who tended them had been led outside the Rise.

“I just…” Drawing a thumb along the rim of the glass, I leaned back in the chair. I just needed to be occupied. If I weren’t, then my mind wandered to places it could not go. Places that had been hollowed out after the failed meeting with the Blood Queen. Cold and angry like a winter storm. And those holes inside me didn’t feel like me at all.

Or even like a mortal.

They reminded me of Isbeth.

Anger simmered in my gut. I welcomed it because it was far easier to deal with that than sorrow and helplessness. Isbeth was someone I had no problem thinking about. Not at all. She was all I could think about at times, especially in those silent, dark minutes of night when sleep evaded me.

No longer did I find it difficult to reconcile the kindness and gentleness she’d showered upon me with who she had been to him and countless others. A monster. I had come to terms with who she was. Isbeth may have conceived me through means that were most likely unconscionable, but she was no mother to me. Coralena was. Isbeth was nothing more than the Blood Queen. The enemy.

Feeling Kieran’s all-too-knowing stare upon me, I swallowed thickly. “I’m okay,” I said, before he could ask the question that often parted his lips.

Kieran said nothing as he watched me. He knew better. Just as he’d known better earlier, when that icy rage had manifested, rattling the table. However, he didn’t harp on it this time. He changed the subject. “Valyn and the other generals will be arriving any day now. He will approve of how we took Massene.”

I nodded. Valyn didn’t necessarily want war. Instead, he had seen it as something inevitable. Neither he nor any of the older Atlantians were willing to give the Ascended any more chances. Once they learned about what the Ascended here had done, it wouldn’t help change their minds regarding whether or not the vamprys could or wanted to change their ways or control their bloodlust. And it wouldn’t help if the Duke and Duchess Ravarel, those who ruled Oak Ambler, refused our demands.

Shoulders tightening, I stared into the glass of dark wine. Our demands had everything to do with going about war differently. It was why we’d taken Massene the way we had. I fully believed there were steps that could prevent unnecessary loss of life on both sides, especially since the mortals who fought for Solis most likely had no choice—unlike those who had picked up their swords and shields to defend Atlantia.

Some in cities like Massene and Oak Ambler would ultimately pay the price of a violent war, either with their livelihoods or their lives. And then there were the Ascended who were like…

I drew in a ragged breath, briefly squeezing my eyes shut before my mind could call forth an image of Ian—of how I’d last seen him. How he died replayed enough at night. I didn’t need to see it now.

But I believed there had to be Ascended who weren’t evil to their core. Who could be reasoned with.

So that was the basis of our planning. But we knew Oak Ambler wasn’t Massene.

Several days ago, we’d sent Duke and Duchess Ravarel an ultimatum: Agree to our demands or face a siege. Our demands were simple, but we weren’t counting on them to be reasonable and accept their fate.

And that was where Vonetta came in, along with Naill and Wren, the elder Rise Guard who’d witnessed what the Ascended here had been doing. Wren’s extended family—one he believed might be Descenters who supported Atlantia—lived in Oak Ambler. What they were doing, what our plans consisted of, came with huge risks.

However, the impending siege of Oak Ambler and all the ways it could fail in the most spectacular ways possible weren’t our only pressing concerns.

My thoughts found their way to another risk we’d undertaken: Our past plans to enter Oak Ambler ahead of when we were to meet with the Blood Queen. Somehow, she had known, either having simply been prepared for the possibility of us attempting to trick them or because someone had betrayed us. Other than those we trusted, only the Council of Elders had known about our plans. Did we have a traitor in our midst? Either someone we trusted or someone who had reached the upper echelons of power in Atlantia? Or was the simplest explanation the answer? That the Blood Crown had simply outsmarted us, and we’d underestimated them?

I didn’t know, but there was also the issue of the Unseen—the secretive, all-male organization that had once served the deities. Believing that I was the Harbinger of Death and Destruction that the prophecy warned of, they’d resurfaced once I entered Atlantia. They’d been behind the attack at the Chambers of Nyktos and so, so much more. And the threat the Unseen posed hadn’t ended with Alastir’s and Jansen’s deaths.

I watched Aylard, standing between the pillars. The Unseen were still out there, and there was no way of knowing exactly who belonged to the group and who aided them.

“Do I want to know what you’re thinking about?” Kieran asked. “Because you look like you wish to stab someone.”

“You always think I look that way.”

“Probably because you always want to stab someone.” “I do not.” I glanced at him.

He raised his brows.

“Except for right now,” I amended. “I’m considering stabbing you.”

“Flattered.” Kieran raised his glass, eyeing Reaver. The draken slowly rapped his claws on the floor. “You often seem to want to stab those you care about.”

“That makes it sound as if I’m…twisted or something.”

“Well…” Kieran lowered his glass, narrowing his eyes at the draken. “Would you like me to pose for a painting? Then you can gaze upon me even when I’m not around.”

My brows flew up. “Can you not?” “He started it,” Kieran muttered. “How?”

“He’s staring at me.” A pause. “Again.” “So?”

“I don’t like it.” Kieran frowned. “At all.”

“You sound like a small child right now,” I informed him, and Reaver huffed out another laugh. I turned to him. “And you’re not any better.”

Reaver reared back his spiked head, blowing out a smoky breath. He looked affronted. “You’re both ridiculous.” I shook my head.

“Whatever.” Kieran’s head turned to the entryway at the same moment Reaver’s did. “Finally.”

I looked over, realizing that both had heard another’s approach. How, as a god, I hadn’t been blessed with better hearing was beyond me.

Vonetta strode past Aylard, her long legs encased in dusty breeches. She had her tight and narrow, waist-length braids swept up in a knot, highlighting her high, angular cheeks. Except for her deeper skin tone that often reminded me of lush night-blooming roses, in her mortal form, she shared similar features with her brother and looked a lot like their mother, Kirha. While Kieran favored their father, Jasper.

As Vonetta approached us, I wondered who their little sister would take after. The babe had been born only a few weeks ago, and I wished the siblings were with their family now, celebrating the newest addition. But instead, they were here with me, near lands ravaged hundreds of years ago, on the eve of yet another war.

Vonetta wasn’t alone. Emil always seemed to be wherever she was of late.

I bit down on the inside of my lip, stopping my grin. At first, I wasn’t sure that Vonetta appreciated her Emil-shaped shadow. But that was until I’d seen her coming out of his chamber in the early morning hours on the day she’d left for Oak Ambler. The soft, sated smile on her face made it utterly unnecessary to probe any deeper into her emotions.

Vonetta’s steps faltered as she entered the banquet hall, taking note of Reaver. Her brows lifted. “How in the world did you get in here?”

“See?” Kieran lifted a hand. “Valid question.”

The draken thumped his heavy tail on the floor as he huffed out a breath. I had no idea what that meant, but he made no move to approach Vonetta or Emil.

Before I could speak, Emil lowered to one knee as he extended an arm wide in an elaborate bow. “Your Highness.”

I sighed. Many had taken to using that title instead of Your Majesty since it had been used when the gods were awake.

Vonetta stopped, looking behind her. “Are you going to do that every time?” “Probably.” He rose.

“That means yes in Emil language,” Vonetta remarked as movement beyond the pillars snagged my attention.

Aylard no longer stood there now that Emil and Vonetta were present. Instead, a hunched figure I’d become familiar with the past five days shuffled past the pillars. Emil had taken to calling her the widow, even though no one knew if she had been married. I wasn’t exactly sure what she had done in the manor, as I only ever saw her walking about, sometimes in the ruins in the pines behind Cauldra, which led to Kieran being convinced that she was not flesh and blood but spirit. I’d heard that Aylard had asked her what she was doing here in the manor on the first day, and her answer was only that she was waiting.

Weird. But not important at the moment.

I turned to Vonetta. “Has everyone returned? Wren? Naill—?”

“I’m fine,” Vonetta cut in smoothly as she reached over, briefly touching my hand. A soft burst of energy passed between us. “Everyone is fine and back in the camp.”

I exhaled slowly, nodding.

“She’s been worrying this whole time, hasn’t she?” Vonetta asked her brother. “What do you think?” he replied.

I almost kicked Kieran under the table. “Of course, I was worried.”

“Understandable. I would’ve worried if it was you roaming the streets of Oak Ambler, looking for Descenters and warning others of the impending siege if the Ravarels refused our demands.” Vonetta glanced down at the plates. “Are you finished with that? I’m starving.”

“Yes. Help yourself.” I shot Kieran a look of warning when he opened his mouth. His lips smashed together in a thin, hard line as his sister snatched up a slice of bacon. I glanced at Emil and then looked back at Vonetta. “How did it go?”

“It went good. I think.” Vonetta dropped into the chair opposite Kieran, nibbling on the bacon. “We spoke to—gods. Hundreds? Maybe even more. Quite a few of them were…” She frowned slightly. “It was like they were ready to hear that someone was doing something about the Ascended. These weren’t like the ones who don’t question the Rite, believing it an honor or whatever. These were people who didn’t want to give their children over to the Rite.”

I couldn’t think of the Rite and not picture the Tulis family, begging the Teermans to speak to gods who still slumbered on their behalf—pleading to keep their last child.

And no matter what had been done for them, the entire family was now dead.

“You were right, by the way. About telling them about you,” she added between bites. “What I would’ve paid to see their reactions to that news,” Emil mused. “To learn that not only had their Maiden married the dreaded Atlantian Prince but that she was now the Queen of Atlantia and also a god.” A faint smile appeared. “I bet many dropped to their knees and started praying.”

“Some did,” Vonetta reported wryly. I winced a little. “Really?”

She nodded. “And since they believe the gods are still awake, the news that you joined with Atlantia got a lot of them thinking. Even a few said the gods may no longer support the Ascended.”

The curve of my lips matched hers.

“I suppose we should be grateful that they lied about the gods backing Solis instead of speaking the truth—that the gods had nothing to do with the war and are asleep,” Kieran noted. “With their lies, they set the expectations of the gods changing their alliances.”

I toyed with the ring on my pointer finger. “It wasn’t my idea, though. That was…that was his. He recognized that the lies the Ascended told would ultimately be their downfall.”

“Cas did know that,” Emil confirmed. “But that was before he or any of us knew you were a god. It was your idea to reveal that. Give yourself credit.”

My neck warmed, and I cleared my throat. “Do you think they’ll listen? That they will tell others?”

“I think many will.” Vonetta glanced at her brother and then back at me. “We all know that telling the mortals what we planned was a risk—one we believed was worth it, even if the Ravarels learned of our plans.”

I nodded. “Giving the mortals a chance to leave the city before we take it so they won’t be caught in the middle is worth this dangerous move.”

“Agreed,” she confirmed. “So, some didn’t believe the part about you being a god. They think the evil Atlantians somehow manipulated you,” she said, reaching for the other slice of bacon as Emil leaned in and did the same. He was faster. “Hey, that’s mine.” She shot him a glare. “What are you even doing here?”

“Actually, the bacon is—” Kieran began, and I did kick his leg under the table this time. His head jerked in my direction.

“We can share.” Emil snapped the bacon in two and handed half over to a less-than-grateful Vonetta. “And I’m here because I missed you that much.”

“Whatever,” Vonetta muttered. “Seriously, why are you here?”

Emil grinned, his amber eyes warm as he finished off his half of the slice. “I’m here because someone delivered a missive to the Rise,” he announced, wiping his hands on a napkin. “It’s from the Duke and Duchess Ravarel.”

Every part of me tensed. “And you’re just now sharing this?”

“You had questions about their time in Oak Ambler. Figured I’d let them get answered,” he reasoned. “Plus, Vonetta was hungry, and I know better than to get between a wolven and food.”

Vonetta whipped toward Emil, nearly coming out of her chair. “Are you seriously blaming your inability to prioritize on me?”

“I would never do such a thing.” Emil pulled a slip of folded parchment from the breast pocket of his tunic as he grinned at Vonetta. “And none of that changes the fact that I did miss you.”

Kieran rolled his eyes.

Vonetta opened her mouth and then closed it, sitting back in her chair, and I did what I probably shouldn’t. I opened my senses. What I tasted from Vonetta was spicy and smoky. Attraction. There was also something sweeter underneath.

“I need wine.” She started to lean forward, but Emil was, once again, quicker. As he handed the missive to me, he snagged the bottle of wine and poured her a drink. “Thank you,” she said, taking the glass and swallowing an impressive mouthful. She looked at me. “So, what does it say?”

The thin slip of folded parchment felt as if it weighed as much as a sword. I glanced at Kieran, and when he nodded, I opened it. One sentence was written in red ink—a response we all expected but that still came as a blow.

We agree to nothing.

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