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A Soul of Ash and Blood by Jennifer L Armentrout


A Soul of Ash and Blood

by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Published by Blue Box Press

Book 5 in the Blood and Ash Series


Only his memories can save her…


A great primal power has risen. The Queen of Flesh and Fire has become the Primal of Blood and Bone—the true Primal of Life and Death. And the battle Casteel, Poppy, and their allies have been fighting has only just begun. Gods are awakening across Iliseeum and the mortal realm, readying for the war to come.


But when Poppy falls into stasis, Cas faces the very real possibility that the dire, unexpected consequences of what she is becoming could take her away from him. Cas is given some advice, though—something he plans to cling to as he waits to see her beautiful eyes open once more: Talk to her.


And so, he does. He reminds Poppy how their journey began, revealing things about himself that only Kieran knows in the process. But it’s anybody’s guess what she’ll wake to or exactly how much of the realm and Cas will have changed when she does.


#1 New York Times bestselling author Jennifer L. Armentrout revisits Poppy and Casteel’s epic love story in the next installment of the Blood and Ash series. But this time, Hawke gets to tell the tale.

Genre:


Triggers:

Violence, trauma from past memories of torture, confinement and rape.

 

Okay, I've decided there is no way for me to write this review without redacting half of it because of spoilers, so to save myself a lot of work in hiding certain passages, I have decided to just warn you ahead of time.

This review is full of spoilers.

If you haven't read the book, don't read my review. If you are curious about my rating for this book, but don't want to be spoiled, here it is:

Romance: 5/5 - A Soul of Ash and Blood just further cements how much Cas loves Poppy. Add in Kieran's obvious love for them both, and their love for Kieran, its just an all around love-fest.

Steaminess: 3/5 - Despite a really sexy new scene, there isn't a whole lotta new spice in this book. Other than the new one in the book - which doesn't even involve Poppy - the only other spice we get are the ones in From Blood and Ash but from Cas's POV. While still equally hot, it doesn't warrant a higher rating that my normal, run of the mill sexy times rating of 3 chili peppers.

Overall Story - 4/5 - While I loved this book, I found we spent too much time in the past with Cas. Anything new was interesting, but all the scenes where he is with Poppy were a bit boring, because I don't think we needed Cas's POV to know what he was thinking and feeling in those scenes. I also felt like this book, while it progressed the overall story, it didn't do so very much. For a thick book like this, I hoped for more.


Now seriously. Spoilers ahead.


For those who have complained about a lot of repetition in the Blood and Ash books, A Soul of Ash and Blood is the answer to your complaints, because it's nothing like the other books.

In a few different ways.

The main reason, though, is it's in Casteel's POV the entire book.

Secondly, I know a lot of people, even big fans of these books, have been getting tired of how hot Cas finds Poppy being all stabby stabby and her saying "there is something wrong with you" jokes, and all the teasing about Poppy asking Kieran questions. I love these books, and even I was starting to get bored with that. There is barely anything in this book about that, and when there is, its worded so differently, or has a little something extra to it, that it feels like new content. It was oddly refreshing.

The third reason is it flips between past and present, with a large part of the book being memories from the events of From Blood and Ash from Casteel's point of view.

I've been looking forward to this book, and not just because Jennifer is one of my favorite authors, but because Jennifer writes amazing male perspectives in her books. With the fans of this series begging Jennifer for a Cas POV, I think she made a great choice doing it this way.

It answers some questions, clears up some things, and furthers the story.

I mean, it doesn't further the story much.

But it does a bit.


One thing that is cleared up a bit is the honeydew thing!

Which I know, who cares? That is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things.

But I know there are a lot of fans and book readers - me included - that hate it when the male MC says the female tastes like *enter delicious food item here* when going down on them. Cas's obsession with Poppy tasting like honeydew down there is pointed out a lot as evidence of this. In Cas's POV, we actually learn that everyone has a scent/taste about them, and Poppy's scent/taste is honeydew. So she doesn't have magical come that is just magically delicious. She just naturally smells that way. And tastes that way everywhere (even when kissing).

Before you say that is still weird - it's fantasy. Things can be forgiven, and now that I know she just tastes and smells like honeydew all over, I forgive this.

Another thing, and I think it's just been hinted at before, is that Cas is bisexual. He has been with many women and males. Jury is still out on whether or not Kieran and him have ever had sex but they definitely have shared partners. A lot. That scene where Cas walks in to the room and Kieran is fucking a woman, and not only doesn't stop when Cas enters, but asks if he wants to join in was INSANELY hot. Cas just sitting on the couch, watching. Damnnnnnnnnnnn. Whether or not Cas's comment on Kieran needed the practice is from his observations, or from personal experience ... well, who knows? Jericho further confirms they share partners A LOT, when he says at the end of the book “If you’re getting your dick wet in the Maiden, then so is he—” ... obviously it happens so often, that its unusual for them NOT to share a partner.

Very interesting indeed.


One thing that I haven't seen mentioned by other fans yet, is that we learn Tawny and Kieran both believe the Blood Forest is haunted. Now, it doesn't surprise me that Kieran believes this. Kieran is a wolven, but he also "knows" things. Tawny is interesting. We know she is something, and that the wolven say she smells wrong, but before any of that happens, and she was seemingly just a mortal ... was she something other? If she is, which I suspect, did she know, or no? Or is it just a coincidence that her and Kieran felt the same way about the Blood Forest?


My thoughts on the past POV's ... they were interesting. We do get to see what Cas was up to when he wasn't around Poppy, and I enjoyed that. Casteel switching between himself and his Hawke role was fun to read, but I really liked seeing Casteel in his element when he was not on Poppy duty. Mostly, I appreciated seeing the difference between Casteel, the prince willing to do anything to get his brother back, and fights the demons from his trauma every day, to the Casteel Poppy brings out of him, which Kieran and Cas describe as the real Casteel.

Cas killing Duke Teerman was insanely enjoyable. Jennifer brought her A+ game there. It was definitely on the same level as Sera killing her step-brother in the Flesh and Fire series. Also, Casteel removing Jericho's hand after he hurt Poppy - delicious.

I did find that when reading the past POV scenes when Cas was with Poppy, I was a little bored. His thoughts and feelings weren't anything I didn't already know or expect them to be.


As for the present, and the progression of the story, there isn't a whole lot to unpack there. This was the group recollecting themselves after the fight of their lives, but so much happens that will impact the story going forward. Poppy will wake fully "powered up" and things will start moving again. After all, considering Poppy will be the most powerful being to exist when she wakes, the story can't really move along without her.


I was a little worried after the disgusting online attacks Jennifer endured after the joining, that she would backtrack a bit, and downplay the bond between these three, but she didn't.

And good for her!

If anything, she gave all those jerks the big middle finger, and showed us that these three are connected by more than just friendship. Casteel and Kieran have shared women before. Casteel is her heartmate, but Kieran adores Poppy. Loves her (and Cas thinks to himself in this book that he knows there are other people out there that love just as deeply as Poppy and him and are not heartmates. Being Heartmates just makes their bond with one another more). Kieran is deeply attracted to her (and has been from the start, judging by his comment about her killing the craven being "hot", and admitting to Cas that he stared at her when she was in the bath). Casteel has no problem with this, and encourages it.

I. LOVE. THIS.

I don't care which direction their relationship goes. Whether it's a throuple, a reverse harem type of relationship where Kieran and Cas remain friends and both love Poppy, or if Kieran finds love with someone and its just Poppy and Cas. I feel like no matter how it turns out, there is so much love between these three that I can't help but be happy for them.


Another thing I enjoyed was seeing the dynamic between Cas and Kieran before Poppy, and after Poppy. Before, you can see how Kieran is constantly watching Cas, in fear he will tip over the edge. You can tell there is a genuine fear there. After Poppy, Kieran and Cas are more relaxed around one another. Kieran still watches, but not because he is scared. He is protective, but he knows Casteel isn't going to go off the deep end now. Poppy is his tether.

Then there is Kieran's bond with Poppy, and the evidence we see of it.

It's not just because he is bonded with her because of the Joining, or because he is wolven.

He was protective of her before he really knew her.

It didn't take him long to see that Poppy had feelings for Casteel, or that Cas returned those feelings. Despite Cas being his prince, Kieran was clear with Cas to not go further with Poppy. Not to hurt her that way. While one could say that Kieran would have told Cas not to have sex with someone they were planning to kidnap and ransom, and he would have, I don't think he would have been as adamant, or as angry, as Kieran was, when he found out Cas did sleep with her, if he didn't already feel so protective of her. He already felt that bond with her. He didn't want her hurt more than she already would be when she found out the truth. And he didn't want his best friend to hurt more than he would - or go further down a path he couldn't return from.

And guys - that tidbit about Kieran telling Poppy his horse was named Pulus, the name of the lesser god that served under Penellaphe and was known for asking a lot of questions - that made me laugh. A little inside joke between Cas and Kieran.


When talking of friendships, I can't help but bring up Delano. Despite all the wolven being bonded to Poppy, Delano is incredibly more protective of her. I loved that, while Cas and Kieran were the ones laying side by side with Poppy in bed, Delano was usually there as well, protecting her. The contrast between Cas and Kieran (in his human form) and Delano (in his wolven form) is an easy way to differentiate the relationship dynamics, and what Cas is, and isn't comfortable with when it comes to Poppy.

ie, Kieran is allowed to be in bed with Poppy in his human form. Cas would not be okay with any other man laying with her though. Hell, I don't think he would be okay with just any wolven laying in bed with her in their wolven form. He trusts Delano's bond with Poppy, but wouldn't like him in her bed in him human form. In his wolven form though ... he is okay with it. Delano seems to know and respect those boundaries, by staying near her feet, etc. ...


I loved Kieran piping in during the present tense scenes, adding his perspective on what Cas just told Poppy. Like when he suspected Cas developed feelings for Poppy. It makes sense that Kieran knew even before Cas really did. Not just because he knows things, but because he knows Casteel as well as he knows himself. But hell .... is anyone else curious as to what Cas did to Shay? I mean, we know he killed her ... but how the fuck did he do it if its so secretive?


One of the hardest parts of this book to read was Cas's memories and his struggles with the trauma from his capture and imprisonment with the Queen. It doesn't get too detailed. Just more confirmation of what he has said in the other books, or hinted at. It's the trauma, and how easily it's triggered for him, that is hard. And even with Poppy in the mix, he still deals with that trauma. It's easier now, but those ghosts are always there, and will forever be with him.


Before I continue to talking about what I believe this book is setting up for, can I just point out that this book answered SO MANY QUESTIONS I was left with after From Blood and Ash. Specifically, why Casteel, who obviously had feelings for Poppy, treated her the way he did when she found out the truth. Why did he act that way in the barn? Have her imprisoned? It all makes sense now, and honestly, the way Jennifer wrote it, makes me forgive everything he did.


This book isn't just setting up for the next book, though.

This is setting up other books.

Casteel finally talking to his brother Malik helped bring them a bit closer, understand each others perspectives, but also set up his book(s?) with him and Millicent. Confirmation that Milli and him are in fact, heartmates, and that SHE DOESN'T KNOW! And she apparently hates him, and he says he deserves it?!?! There is a lot to unpack there. Not sure if they are getting one book or multiple yet, but I am so here for it. A book for them IS confirmed at least. I think (this is my hope/thoughts, and NOT confirmed) Jennifer could be setting up for a separate book for Nektas and Reaver searching for Jadis? A romance between Reaver and Jadis, with Reaver fighting his feelings out of respect for Nektas, who is like a father figure to him, would be GREAT to read!

Jennifer ... write that.

I will gives you all my monies.

Because I don't know if you noticed, but I certainly did - we got NO REAVER in this book. I NEED REAVER!


Predictions for the next book:

  • Poppy will finally meet her grandmother - Sera. She has already met Nyktos, after all. And she will actually get to spend some time with her father, who seems to want to know her. And while I believe they will embrace Poppy as family, they will also warn her of what is to come, and what her power means to the world.

  • Poppy, Cas, Kieran and Reaver will go with Nektas to find Jadis. We know she is imprisoned, but I have this feeling that Kolis is with her. Kolis would see it as a big "fuck you" to Nyktos, Sera, and Nektas, I'm sure.

  • A better written threesome. HAHA! While I am open to anything, this book further confirms to me that Cas, Poppy and Kieran are together. From all the revelations about them sharing partners (to the point where everyone just knows), and how Cas considered Kieran "one of them" when he was in his shifted form, and everyone else was not safe.

  • Poppy isn't going to defeat Kolis. It's not going to be as easy as that. While we know the next book is the last Poppy and Casteel book, it's not the last book in the series. We are getting at least one book with Malik and Millicent. Nothing else confirmed past that, but we know there are more books. So while I think there will be books dedicated to other characters/couples, it will all come to head in the end. Maybe with a book with multiple POV's from both the Blood and Ash series and Flesh and Fire series. And that is the one Kolis will be defeated in.

  • Millicent and Poppy will become best friends.

  • Perhaps we will hear from Malek? I'm sure Nyktos, and Sera definitely want to talk to him ... if he hasn't gone mad of course. Will he be angry about Isbeth, or will he understand?

  • The Ascended that tried to kill Poppy and Cas fought called Casteel a "false Primal". I'm going to assume that this is further explained in the next book, but I'm guessing because of the Joining, Cas and Kieran will end up being able to do some of the things Poppy can do. The fact that Cas can now shift into a cave cat, like Poppy's father, is proof of that, but I wonder how far it will go.

  • Speaking of Cas shifting, do we think he shifting into the cave cat is because of Poppy's lineage, or because of Kieran can shift, or both? Can Poppy shift? I think she will, and we will get her form in the next book. When she was killing Isbeth, she has what looked like the shadow of wings on her back, but didn't shift. I don't think she will shift into a cave cat, because no wings. I don't think it will be a draken either, because that is too simple. A large part of me thinks she might shift into a Phoenix, because she is the Primal of Life and Death, and a phoenix is all about rising out of the ashes (which is also a play on the word 'From blood and ash, we will rise"), but another part of me thinks that will be too simple of an answer to. Perhaps a whole new creature?

  • We will finally learn what Cas did to Shay. Gotta say, all this build up makes me super fucking curious to how he killed her. It's got to be bad if he wants to wait till she is awake to tell her.

As for Kolis ... I am not sure what to think about him. I can't predict anything, because I don't have enough information yet. After the next Flesh and Fire book, then yes, I can probably predict some things, but until then ... who knows.


A Soul of Ash and Blood was enjoyable. It's definitely not my favorite in the series, but it clears up some things fans have wondered since From Blood and Ash released, and sets up future plotlines. One thing for sure, I can't wait for the next book.





Poppy: “The Ascended didn’t attack us."

Casteel: "It was running at us.”

I went to where the dagger lay and picked it up.

Poppy: “Or running from us,”

Casteel: “That’s one way to look at it.” Poppy: “Okay. Why does everyone keep looking at me?”

she demanded, propping her hands on her hips as she lifted her chin.

Poppy: “Has something changed about me that I’m unaware of?”

Casteel: “Other than your adorable fangs?”

I offered. Her eyes narrowed on me, but I grinned as I saw the skin around her mouth move as she ran her tongue over her top teeth. Then she winced, likely nicking her tongue yet again.

Poppy: “Other than that.” Slowly, the ancient draken turned his head to me. Our stares locked. His vertical pupils constricted until they were thin strips of black against vibrant blue.

Nektas: “Interesting.”

I arched a brow.

Casteel: “What is?”

Nektas: “You,”

Delano’s ears flattened in the tense silence that followed the word.

Nektas: “You stepped in front of her as if you believe she needs your protection.”

I was completely unaware that I had. So had Kieran and Delano.

Casteel: “And?”

Poppy sighed from behind us.

Nektas: “That is wise of you. Even the most powerful of beings need protection at times. But this is not one of them.” Poppy: “Penellaphe,”

she gasped, her head darting between Kieran and me.

Poppy: “Remember? You said the goddess Penellaphe sleeps beneath the city’s Atheneum!”

She shoved Kieran in the arm, causing him to stumble back a step.

Poppy: “Oops. Sorry.”

Kieran: “It’s okay.”

Kieran caught himself, grinning.

Kieran: “And, yes, I did say that.”

She spun toward Nektas.

Poppy: “Can we see her? I mean after we’ve freed my father and located Jadis. You see, I was named—”

Nektas: “After the goddess who spoke of you so very long before you were born,”

Nektas finished.

Nektas: “Who was the first to call you the Harbinger and the Bringer of Death. A prophecy you have fulfilled.”

Her arms slowly lowered to her sides.

Poppy: “Well, when you put it like that…”

She pressed her lips together.

Poppy: “I think I’ve changed my mind.” Nektas: “By the way,”

he said, glancing at Kieran and me as we started down the hall once more.

Nektas: “You two are…adorable.”

Kieran’s forehead scrunched as he brushed dust from his shoulder.

Kieran: “I don’t think I’ve ever been referred to as adorable before, but thanks.”

He paused.

Kieran: “I think.”

The draken chuckled once more.

Nektas: “All three of you raced to shield her.”

He nodded at Delano, who trotted beside Poppy as she led us down another hall, this one narrower. A column had toppled here, leaning against another.

Nektas: “The one person who would survive the collapse of a building.”

I hadn’t even thought of that. Poppy grinned.

Poppy: “It was kind of adorable.” Casteel: “Emil?”

I twisted at the waist, looking him over and actually paying attention. I saw him standing there, but I couldn’t get the image of seeing him speared through the chest out of my mind.

Casteel: “How are you feeling?”

Emil: “I’m…”

Emil looked down at the jagged tears in his armor. He swallowed, then looked past me to Poppy.

Emil: “I’m glad to be alive. Tell her she has my everlasting devotion and utter, complete adoration when she wakes.”

My eyes narrowed. Emil winked and then turned to leave.

Casteel: “Fucker,”

I muttered, turning to Poppy. I wasn’t telling her shit. Lieutenant Smyth: “Just so you know,”

he bit out, lifting his pointed chin,

Lieutenant Smyth: “I’ve got my eye on you, Flynn.”

Casteel: “Most do,”

I replied, then winked. Kieran: “By the way, exactly how are you going to earn the trust of someone you haven’t even spoken to?”

Casteel: “Besides using my irresistible charm?”

Kieran: “Besides that,”

he replied dryly. Casteel: “Have you been kissed before?”

Poppy: “I have!”

One side of my lips kicked up.

Casteel: “Do you always lie?”

Poppy: “No!”

Casteel: “Liar,”

I teased, unable to help myself. Casteel: “Death is like an old friend who pays a visit, sometimes when it’s least expected and other times when you’re waiting for her. It’s neither the first nor the last time she’ll pay a visit, but that doesn’t make any death less harsh or unforgiving.” Casteel: “You know, the older you get, the more of a mother hen you become.”

Kieran snorted behind me.

Kieran: “Someone has to make sure you don’t descend into madness.”

He paused.

Kieran: “More so than normal, that is.” Kieran: “Bad vibes,”

Kieran murmured, turning his stare to the still lake. Emil raised his brows at me. I shook my head.

Casteel: “Kieran believes these woods are haunted.”

Kieran: “I don’t believe. I know.”

Emil: “Well, then, we really need to hurry.”

Emil began rolling up the sleeve of his coat.

Emil: “Because if I see even one ghost, you will never see an Atlantian run faster.”

Kieran smirked.

Kieran: “You can’t outrun the dead.”

Fingers halting around the sleeve, Emil turned his head to the wolven.

Emil: “That was an…exceptionally creepy statement.”

He shrugged.

Kieran: “Just the truth.”

Emil frowned.

Emil: “That didn’t help.” Kieran: “I know you want to do something irresponsible and reckless, but you can’t kill him,”

There was no greeting. No need to ask questions. He knew why I was here.

Casteel: “I’m not going to kill him. I’m only going to murder him.”

Kieran sidestepped, blocking me.

Kieran: “That’s the same thing.”

Casteel: “No, it’s not. Killing someone implies it could’ve been an accident. What I’m about to do will be completely intentional.” Kieran: “You know damn well I can’t stand the jackass, but it’s not about me. It’s not about you,”

Casteel: “Then educate me on what this is about because, right now, the world is my fucking playground.”

Kieran: “You level?”

I nodded.

Casteel: “Thank you.”

Kieran: “I didn’t do anything you should thank me for,”

Casteel: “Not true.”

I met his stare.

Casteel: “You did everything. Like always.” He’d stopped, his arms crossed over his chest.

Casteel: “What? I didn’t kill him, and I poured him a drink.”

Kieran’s lips twitched. Kieran shook his head as he turned his stare to the moon.

Kieran: “A Maiden with a wolven-bone dagger and, at the very least, no fear when it comes to using it?”

One side of his lips tipped up.

Kieran: “Why do I have a feeling we may have underestimated her?”

I let out a short, low laugh.

Casteel: “Because I think we did.” I should’ve cut off his fucking head, but that would’ve been irresponsible and reckless, at least according to Kieran. I wanted nothing more than to turn and snap his neck. It wasn’t morality that stopped me, even though that should’ve been why. Killing people because they were annoying likely wasn’t considered a good enough reason. He lived only because murdering him in front of hundreds of people would cause a bit of unnecessary drama. Tawny: “You’ve watched him train in the yard—”

Poppy: “I have not!”

The Maiden’s voice rose. Such a little liar. She totally had been. Kieran: “I’m pleased to introduce you to Lord Hale Devries,”

Kieran announced, following my gaze.

Kieran: “He was arriving from Pensdurth,”

he said, referencing the nearby port city.

Kieran: “But he is from Carsodonia, and according to all who had to listen to his insufferable boasting during the trip here, he is well connected to the Blood Crown.”

I smiled as I eyed the unconscious vampry. He was dark-haired and appeared somewhere in his second or third decade of life, but I’d bet he was a few decades older.

Casteel: “Gods, how I love a boaster.” Casteel: “Fuck the Crown.” Kieran: “Let me cut in here since it’s fucking cold and it stinks. You’re going to threaten us. We’re going to laugh. You’re going to swear you won’t answer our questions, but we’ll make you.”

The Lord’s head swiveled in the wolven’s direction.

Kieran: “And right now, you think there’s no point in cooperating since you know you’re not walking out of here. But what hasn’t sunk in yet is that there is a difference between dying and a very long, drawn-out, and painful death.”

Devries’ nostrils flared as his gaze darted between us.

Kieran: “And if I have to stay down here longer than necessary? I can promise you will beg for death,” Devries: “You’re a…”

He gasped, clutching his mangled shoulder.

Devries: “Wolven.”

Kieran: “You can call me that.”

Kieran inhaled deeply, reining himself back in. His skin filled out, his hand returning to its normal size. Blood and tissue dripped from his fingertips.

Kieran: “Or you can call me death. Whichever you’d prefer.”

I glanced at him.

Casteel: “Bet you’ve been waiting all day to say that.”

Kieran lifted a bloody middle finger. Casteel: “That was when it began to change—how I thought of you. Saw you. You were no longer the Maiden. You were becoming… You were becoming Poppy.” I lost the fight then and smiled.

Casteel: “Whatever you need to tell yourself, Princess.”

Poppy: “Don’t call me that!”

She stomped her foot. My brow rose. That was…adorable. Her foot stomping. Especially because I suspected she’d prefer my face under that foot.

Casteel: “Did that make you feel good?”

Poppy: “Yes! Because the only other option is to kick you.”

I’d been right. I chuckled, thoroughly enjoying this side of her.

Casteel: “So violent.” She raised an eyebrow.

Poppy: “That is all you have to say about me being on the Rise?”

Casteel: “I ask only one thing of you.”

I rose. Casteel: “The next time you go out, wear better shoes and thicker clothing. Those slippers are likely to be the death of you.”

I glanced at the too-thin gown and almost groaned.

Casteel: “And that dress…the death of me.” Casteel: “Come on now, Vikter.”

I chuckled, shaking my head.

Casteel: “You think I don’t know who trained her to fight and use a bow? You did one hell of a job. She almost knocked me on my ass.”

Vikter: “Obviously, not a good enough job. If so, you would’ve been on your ass.” Casteel: “Correct me if I’m wrong, though I’m pretty sure I’m not. However, I do believe you said that you didn’t need to know what I was thinking for either of us to carry out our duties.”

I watched the muscle throbbing in his jaw. Smiling, I returned to staring at the door.

Vikter: “You weren’t wrong,”

Vikter admitted after a moment.

Casteel: “I know. I rarely am.”

I heard footsteps nearing from the other side, thank the gods.

Vikter: “Hawke?”

Casteel: “Yeah?”

Vikter: “You can be right.”

He moved in front of me as the door finally opened.

Vikter: “And still be wrong.” Poppy: “Bloodletting is a gentle description of what they actually did. They bit people.”

I would like to bite her right about now. Casteel: “I really hope you don’t remember much of that last part when you wake,”

I said, tracing the tendons of her hand.

Kieran: “Out of everything you’ve told her, Britta in your bedchamber will be the one thing she’ll definitely remember,”

Kieran said with a laugh.

Kieran: “She’ll probably want to do some damage to that cock you keep speaking of.” Casteel: “She did it out of kindness—something she didn’t have to show me, especially when I was striving to be an utter irritation to her.”

Kieran: “Yeah, but I think she liked that kind of irritation even then.”

A smile surfaced as I nodded.

Casteel: “She couldn’t resist my charm.”

Kieran snorted. My fantasies decided to put her on that bed between Kieran and me, and man, just imagining that packed a sensual punch. Casteel: “Did you enjoy yourself?”

Kieran: “What do you think?”

I grinned, opening my eyes.

Kieran: “Actually, I’m glad you had company tonight. You could use the practice.” Kieran snorted as he dipped a cloth into a basin of water. Kieran: “Have I told you what a bad idea this whole plan of yours is?”

A grin tugged at my lips.

Casteel: “You have. Many times.”

Kieran: “Have I told you that I think it’s a colossal mistake, then?”

Casteel: “You’ve said it’s an enormous mistake. I also believe you’ve called it gargantuan in the past. Mammoth another time,”

I reminded him. The expression etched into his face was something I’d seen a million times. It was the one that warned he was on the verge of a lecture that would make his father proud.

Casteel: “At this point, you’ve got to be running out of adjectives.” Casteel: “I’m glad you took the diary. You know how much I fucking love that book.” Teerman: “You,”

he snarled. I folded my hand around the end of the cane.

Casteel: “Me?”

Teerman’s lip peeled back. His chin dropped as a low growl rumbled from him.

Teerman: “The Dark One.”

Casteel: “So they say.”

I gave him a tight-lipped smile.

Casteel: “But I’d prefer if you addressed me properly. It’s Prince Casteel Da’Neer.”

Teerman: “And here I thought it would be traitorous bastard.”

I laughed softly.

Casteel: “That works, too, but you forgot a part of that title. It’s traitorous, murderous bastard.”

His throat worked on a swallow.

Teerman: “Is that so?”

I nodded.

Teerman: “Do you plan to commit an act of murder?”

Casteel: “Always,”

I murmured. Casteel: “You know what I find fascinating about the trees that grow in the Blood Forest?”

I interrupted, drawing my palm down the smooth side of the reddish-brown cane, enjoying the rumble of his anger.

Casteel: “Besides the fact that you clearly treat these canes as if they are an extension of your withered cock?”

Air hissed between his clenched teeth. I chuckled.

Casteel: “While bloodstone leaves nothing left of an Ascended, the wood of a Blood Forest tree simply kills a vampry. Slowly. Painfully.”

One side of my lips curved up as I met his stare.

Casteel: “Leaving the remains to rot and decay, just like any other body.”

Teerman swallowed.

Teerman: “And what does it do to an Atlantian?”

Casteel: “Not much.”

I smirked.

Casteel: “I bet that gets to you. The Ascended want so badly to pretend they’re Blessed by the gods. You and I both know that is a load of shit. You’re nothing special. You never have been. None of you are. You’re just a poor imitation of us, desperately clinging to the last vestiges of your waning power and privilege.”

Teerman: “And do you think you’re any better than us?”

Casteel: “Most of us are. Me? No. I’m not that much better. Hell, perhaps I’m even worse than some of the Ascended. But you?”

I pointed the cane at him.

Casteel: “You’re not even horse shit compared to me.”

Teerman: “You insolent—”

Casteel: “Traitorous, murderous bastard. I know.”

I sighed. Turning from the Duke, I stopped. I thought of what was to come tonight and the opportunity for a bit of dramatic flair I was now presented with.

Casteel: “Well, Your Grace,”

—facing him, my smile returned—

Casteel: “I do believe you will make a fine centerpiece for the Rite.” The garden was her place, and I wanted her to see it one last time. I wanted that smile from her. And if I were being honest with myself, getting her out in the garden now wasn’t just about my plans. It also had to do with the fact that something happened when I spent time with her. Something damn near magical.

I was…I was just me. Cas. Kieran: “By the way, I had my suspicions even then.”

He threw an almond, and I caught it.

Kieran: “I knew something was up.”

Casteel: “Because of the Duke?”

I tossed the nut into my mouth. Kieran chuckled, shaking his head as he offered Delano a handful of almonds.

Kieran: “Before that.”

I arched a brow as Delano took the nuts, somehow managing not to bite Kieran’s hand off in the process.

Kieran: “After the Red Pearl, when you didn’t want to talk about her. I knew then.”

Kieran leaned down, placing the bowl on the floor.

Kieran: “You were already protective of her.”

I had been, and it seemed a little ridiculous even now, but that was the thing about heartmates. It didn’t mean that any other love was less than. Fuck, I knew others who loved each other just as strongly as Poppy and I loved one another. Heartmates were just a whole other breed. An emotion that was stronger and more secure, creating an undeniable pull. It hadn’t mattered that I didn’t know Poppy then. We were two pieces that fit together, and our souls had recognized that, even if neither of us had. Casteel: “But what I know? What I’ve learned? The line between right and wrong is a thin one that is often crossed without intention or knowledge. Most of us live with one foot planted on each side." Casteel: “Fuck, that felt good,”

Smyth: “Bastard,”

Smyth rasped, falling back against the wall.

Casteel: “Yeah, well, you’re fucking annoying.”

I watched him slide to the floor, the light going out of his eyes.

Casteel: “And now you’re dead. Whatever.” Casteel: “I see I will have to bar that door in your chamber.”

She let out a growl of frustration.

Casteel: “That was adorable.”

I sheathed the dagger.

Casteel: “It reminded me of a small, angry creature. A fluffy one.” Casteel: “She sort of lost it after that. Killed an Ascended.”

Kieran: “That, I hadn’t been told.”

His brows rose.

Kieran: “Why did she do that?”

Casteel: “The bastard laughed at Vikter’s death. She hacked him to pieces.”

A brief smile tugged at my lips.

Casteel: “And I fucking mean pieces.”

Kieran: “Shit,”


Kieran: “You think I haven’t noticed what’s been going on?”

His voice dropped to just above a whisper.

Kieran: “Really? That I’ve forgotten what we just spoke about? Her having feelings for you isn’t the only thing I’m worried about, Hawke.”

Irritation flared. Sensing it, Kieran gave me a tight smile.

Kieran: “Remember what your task is.”

We’d wanted to knock each other on our asses many times in our lives, but I’d never wanted it more than I did right now.

Kieran: “Remember your task,”

Casteel: “I haven’t forgotten for one second.”

My tone hardened.

Casteel: “Not one.” Casteel: “Princess,”

I called out, rising.

Casteel: “Got a better weapon for you.”

I tossed her the sword. Poppy caught it, quickly sheathing her dagger.

Poppy: “Thanks.”

She spun, cutting down a Craven. Godsdamn, she was… Relief nearly took the air out of my lungs. She was good. More than good as she pulled the sword free and prowled forward, the edges of her cloak billowing around her, scattering more of the thinning mist. She brought her foot down on a wounded Craven’s back, driving it to the ground. With a quick jab, she ended its shrieking with a savage smile.

Casteel: “Gods,”

I muttered, my blood heating despite the death and decay all around us.

Casteel: “Did you see that?”

Kieran: “I did.”

Kieran dragged the back of his sleeve across his cheek, wiping away spots of blood. One side of my lips kicked up.

Casteel: “It was hot.”

Kieran smirked.

Kieran: “It was.” Kieran: “What’s going on in your head?”

Kieran asked, drawing my attention back to him.

Kieran: “I can practically see the wheels of something really bad turning.” Kieran stepped in close, keeping his voice low, even though the other guards weren’t within earshot.

Kieran: “Okay, I’ll be more blunt. She is still a maiden, yes?”

Everything went quiet in me as I locked eyes with Kieran.

Kieran: “I know you said you were willing to do anything to gain her trust. Clearly, you’ve gotten it.”

I gritted my teeth as I looked away. This was not the conversation I wanted to have with him. Not now. Not when I even thought about the trust I’d gained but didn’t deserve. Kieran saw it and kept going.

Kieran: “So, there is no reason for you to do anything—to do that to her. Especially if what you’ve told me about her is true. She doesn’t deserve how that will fuck with her.”

My head whipped in his direction.

Casteel: “You think I don’t know that?”

I seethed.

Casteel: “You think I haven’t thought about that?” Kieran: “Here.”

Kieran reached inside his saddlebag as we rode through the northern valley, pulling out a chunk of cheese wrapped in wax paper. Poppy eyed his offering.

Poppy: “You sure?”

Kieran nodded. She hesitated.

Poppy: “But won’t you be hungry later?”

Kieran: “We’ll be arriving in New Haven in a few hours. I’ll eat then.”

Poppy: “I can eat then, too.”

Staring at Phillips’ and Bryant’s backs, I grinned.

Kieran: “But you ate all your cheese,”

Casteel: “And mine,”

I added. Her head whipped to the side.

Poppy: “You said you didn’t want it.”

Casteel: “I didn’t.”

I glanced down at her.

Casteel: “You know you want his cheese.”

Poppy’s chin rose stubbornly.

Poppy: “I’m not going to eat his food.”

Casteel: “If he was planning on eating it, he wouldn’t have offered it.”

Kieran: “He speaks the truth,”

Kieran said, arm still extended, cheese lifted between his steed and Setti.

Casteel: “Take it, Princess. If not, you’ll hurt his feelings.”

Kieran sent me a droll look. I ignored it.

Casteel: “He’s very sensitive, you see. He will take it personally.”

Kieran: “I will not take it personally.”

Dipping my head, I whispered,

Casteel: “He most definitely will.”

Poppy: “Fine,”

Poppy relented, the corners of her mouth curling upward. She took the cheese.

Poppy: “Thank you.”

Kieran: “More like thank the gods,” My grin went up a notch as I raised my brows at him. When Kieran first started riding beside us, Poppy had stayed quiet as she stole glances at him. She was nervous at first, seemingly unsure what to think of him, and then she’d started peppering him with questions, much to his rising discomfort.

Where was he from? How long had he been a guard? Had he lived in Masadonia long? Did his horse have a name? That was my favorite question, because it was the first time Kieran had looked genuinely amused by the litany of questions Poppy came up with.

Kieran: “Name’s Pulus,”

he’d answered, which was amusing to me for two reasons. That wasn’t the horse’s name. I wasn’t even sure Kieran knew what the steed was called. And Pulus was also the name of a lesser god, one who had served under the goddess Penellaphe and was known in our histories for asking a lot of questions. Poppy: “I mean, I would choose to be out here.”

She looked up at the graying sky.

Poppy: “Just out here.”

Kieran looked over at her, the skin furrowing between his brows.

Poppy: “I know that doesn’t make much sense.”

Poppy laughed self-consciously.

Poppy: “It’s just that I’ve never been here before. I’ve never been anywhere, really. That I can remember much of, that is. And I don’t know what…”

She trailed off, squirming a little.

Poppy: “Anyway, I would choose this, but with more cheese.”

I had a feeling I knew what she had been about to say. That she didn’t know what was out there to even choose something different than this. And, fuck, that was…it was tragic. I could tell Kieran had sensed what she was trying to say, too. I saw it in the tension of his shoulders.

Casteel: “You’re making sense,”

I told her, well aware of Kieran’s attention shifting to me. My arm tightened around Poppy, drawing her back against my chest.

Casteel: “I would choose the same.” Millicent walked in, the hem of her tightly fitting tunic snapping at the knees of her black tights. She drew up short, pale blue eyes narrowing.

Millicent: “Please don’t. I would really appreciate not having to do the whole dying and coming back to life thing at the moment.”

Her attention shifted to the growling wolven before her and then the one on the bed.

Millicent: “Or having to regrow limbs. That shit sucks. Growing skin and bone isn’t fun. It’s painful, in case anyone is wondering.” Millicent: “Besides the fact that I can’t do shit to a Primal, I have no desire to harm her.”

Casteel: “She killed your mother.”

Millicent: “Mother?”

Millicent laughed, the sound high-pitched and maybe a little crazed, causing Delano to tense.

Millicent: “Yeah.”

Her laughter faded as she clasped her hands together.

Millicent: “That was our mother, but if you think I’m going to seek revenge, you must think I’m an idiot.”

Casteel: “Well…”

I drew out the word, smirking as Malik growled.

Casteel: “I wouldn’t say an idiot, but a little off balance? Yes.”

Millicent: “I would be offended if that wasn’t true,”

she remarked, her fingers beginning to twist together. Kieran rose from the bed and quickly shifted. His eyes locked with mine.

Kieran: “I’ll stay with them.”

Millicent: “Are you going to put some clothing on?”

Kieran: “Do I need to?”

Millicent: “I mean, it’s your dick hanging out, not mine.” Casteel: “Maybe you’re right,”

I spat, and fuck, maybe he was.

Casteel: “But there had to be other options, Malik. You could’ve said anything, starting with the truth—”

Malik: “I didn’t want you coming after me!”

Malik shouted, shoving me.

Malik: “I didn’t want you anywhere near the capital—”

Casteel: “But I already was!”

I yelled, pushing him right back.

Casteel: “Not saying anything sure as fuck didn’t prevent it.”

Malik: “I know that. Gods, do I fucking know. But I was fucked, Cas. Damned if I did, damned if I didn’t,” Elijah: “Speaking of bloodied hands,”

Elijah began, his feet back on the desk,

Elijah: “I see Jericho is missing one.”

My gaze flicked to the half-Atlantian.

Casteel: “He earned that.” Then Poppy let the robe slip from her shoulders and fall to the floor. I wanted to be a good man who would walk away from what he knew he wasn’t worthy or deserving of. The kind Kieran believed I was. The type I had been raised to be. But I wasn’t a good man. I was just hers. My gaze lifted to hers, and it felt like the entire keep shifted beneath and all around us. There was a skipping motion in my chest. The nape of my neck tingled as we looked at each other. My heart sped up. This moment…it felt like it had always been coming. As if every choice I’d made—that we’d made—had led to this. It was a crazy feeling, completely senseless, and yet…

Casteel: “This changes everything.” Poppy: “You are so—”

Casteel: “Wonderfully wicked and devastatingly charming?”

Poppy laughed again, and damn, she truly didn’t do that enough.

Poppy: “Incorrigible.”

Casteel: “I would’ve suggested incomparable,” Delano: “Oh, no. He’s got that look.”

Orion frowned as he glanced at the blond-haired wolven.

Elijah: “Yep.”

Elijah nodded.

Elijah: “He does.”

Delano leaned forward.

Elijah: “Do you know what that look means?”

He gestured with his chin in my direction. My tight smile remained. The Atlantian shook his head as he looked me over.

Orion: “No, I don’t.”

Delano: “I’ve seen it, well, a time or a hundred,”

Delano went on.

Delano: “That smile you see? It’s always a warning.”

Orion’s inhale was swift as his gaze darted between us.

Delano: “It usually comes right before a lot of blood is spilled,”

Elijah: “A lot,” Orion shoved his cloak aside, placing a hand on his waist.

Orion: “He plans to send a message to the Blood Crown.”

Everything in me slowed, but the rage… I could taste its hot bitterness.

Casteel: “And the message is?”

Orion: “The Maiden. He will return her to them. Her head, that is. Then, our armies—”

I struck, punching my hand into Orion’s chest. Bone and cartilage cracked and gave way.

Delano: “Welp,”

Hot blood spurted as Orion’s eyes went wide. His mouth dropped open as my fist snapped his ribs. He spasmed as my fingers dug into his heart. Smiling, I jerked my hand back.

Casteel: “Perhaps I will send this back to my father in place of you.”

Slowly, Orion’s chin lowered as he looked down at the gaping wound in his chest. A bloody, wordless breath escaped him as he dropped to his knees and then fell forward.

Casteel: “But I won’t do that.”

I turned, tossing the Atlantian’s heart into the fire. Flames crackled and whirled, spitting embers.

Casteel: “I have more class than that.” Kieran: “Wise idea. He’s a problem.”

Kieran paused.

Kieran: “So is this.”

A dry laugh left me as I reached for the exit.

Casteel: “Don’t I fucking know it?” Impatience grew as I moved toward her. There was no way I could do this with her standing.

Casteel: “Would you rather I get on my knees?”

Poppy held my stare as her lips started to curve up—

Casteel: “I don’t mind.”

I drew my lower lip between my teeth.

Casteel: “Doing so would put me at the perfect height for something I know you’d enjoy. After all, I’m always craving honeydew.” Poppy: “Stop calling me that!”

She wiggled, shifting slightly. Her ass rubbed against my cock.

Casteel: “And you should stop doing that,”

I bit out, unsure if I really wanted her to stop.

Casteel: “Then again. Please continue. It’s the perfect kind of torture.” Casteel: “I want you to say my real name.”

Her lips parted on a sharp inhale. I stilled inside her, heart pounding.

Casteel: “That’s all I ask.”

My voice dropped as I toyed with her nipple.

Casteel: “It’s acknowledgment. It’s you admitting you are fully aware of who is inside you, who you want so badly, even though you know you shouldn’t. Even though you want nothing more than to not feel what you do. I want to hear you say my real name.” Kieran stiffened.

Kieran: “Cas.”

Casteel: “Don’t worry. I have a plan.”

Kieran: “But that does worry me.” Jericho: “You…you think you can just will people…into forgetting what she is?”

I sighed.

Jericho: “She’ll never be…safe here!”

he shouted, spitting blood as it coursed down his chest.

Casteel: “Oh, yes, she will be.”

I drove the final spike through his remaining hand as the others backed off.

Jericho: “You’re out…of your mind,”

he swore, breathing labored.

Jericho: “If you…really think that.”

Casteel: “I know it.”

I caught his jaw, forcing his head back against the wall as I leaned in close and whispered the truth about Poppy and what I’d planned.

And Jericho? That motherfucker finally shut his mouth. Kieran: “She’s likely asleep again.”

Casteel: “Again?”

Kieran: “She fell asleep while bathing,”

Casteel: “You woke her from a bath?”

My eyes narrowed.

Kieran: “She was in there for quite some time. I called out to her more than once. When she didn’t answer, I figured I should check on her.”

Casteel: “How did she handle your intrusion?”

A small smile appeared.

Kieran: “She said that among her people, it was impolite to stare.”

I faced him.

Casteel: “And were you staring?”

His smile kicked up a notch. That was…interesting.

Kieran: “A little.” And I knew that what I was about to do would stoke the fire in her to a violent inferno. My lips started to curve up in anticipation, and yes, there was definitely something very wrong with me. I lifted our joined hands and spoke loud enough for the entire dining hall to hear.

Casteel: “We go home to marry, my Princess.” Casteel: “It wasn’t any of those moments. I never pretended when it came to my want of you. From the first time in the Red Pearl to this moment, what I felt was real. It was always real because I…I’d fallen in love with you long before I realized it. I was on the edge before we even left Masadonia, and I began falling when we arrived in New Haven. By the time we made it to Spessa’s End, I knew I was in love with you.” Casteel: “Can we skip this cliché-as-hell conversation and just get to the point where I make you wish you could die?” Casteel: “I always wanted to know how a Rev regrew a head. Guess I’m going to find out because I’m going to rip yours fucking off.” I eased down to the foot of the bed, my claws scratching the polished wood. He was not us. He was a risk.

Kieran: “No, he’s not,”

the male said.

Kieran: “Emil is annoying as fuck.”

The one called Emil frowned.

Kieran: “But he is not a risk. He is one of us.”

He was not one of us. He was not mine. He was nothing but meat and blood. A meal.

Kieran: “Meat and blood—oh, fuck,” Kieran glanced to where she slept.

Kieran: “And that is—”

Mine. One side of Kieran’s lips tipped up.

Kieran: “Yeah, she’s yours, but depending on her mood, she may not be all that thrilled to hear you continuously snarling that.” I looked up at Kieran.

Casteel: “I think I was about to eat Emil.”

The skin crinkled at the corners of his eyes as he laughed again.

Kieran: “Yeah, you were definitely thinking that.”

Fucking Emil. Casteel: “She’s survived some horrible shit and has the scars and strength to prove it. She’s brave, Kieran. Passionate. Hungry for life and experience.”

My jaw worked.

Casteel: “She’s fierce, even a little vicious when provoked.”

I paused.

Casteel: “Or a lot vicious. You were right when you said we’d underestimated her. She’s nothing like we expected.”

Kieran: “Sounds like I’ll like her.”

Casteel: “You will.”

I smiled at that.

 


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