That couldn’t be true. The Ascended chose not to go in the sun.
“They also need to feed, and by feed, I am talking about blood. They need to do so frequently to live, to prevent whatever mortal wounds or illnesses they suffered before they Ascended from returning. They cannot procreate, not after the Ascension, and many experience bloodlust when they feed, often killing mortals in the process.”
He dabbed the cloth along the wound, careful not to exert too much pressure as he soaked up the settled liquid. “Atlantians do not feed on mortals—”
“Whatever,” I snapped. “You expect me to truly believe that?”
His gaze lifted to mine. “Mortal blood offers us nothing of any real value because we were never mortal, Princess. Wolven don’t need to feed, but we do. We feed when we need to, on other Atlantians.”
I shook my head. How could he honestly expect me to believe that? Their treatment of mortals, how they virtually used them as cattle, is what drove the gods to abandon them, and for the mortal populace to revolt.
“We can use our blood to heal a mortal without turning them, something a vampry cannot do, but the most important difference is the creation of the Craven. An Atlantian has never created one. The vamprys have. And in case you haven’t been following along, the vamprys are what you know as the Ascended.”
“That’s a lie.” My hands balled uselessly at my sides.
“It is the truth.” Brows lowered in concentration as he peered down at the wound, he glanced up at me only when he laid the cloth aside. “A vampry cannot make another vampry. They cannot complete the Ascension. When they drain a mortal, they create a Craven.”
“What you’re saying makes no sense.”
“How does it not?”
“Because if any part of what you’re saying is true, then the Ascended are vamprys, and they cannot do the Ascension.” Anger burned through my chest, worse than the liquid he’d used to clean out my wound. “If that’s true, then how have they made other Ascended? Like my brother?”
His jaw hardened, eyes turning glacial. “Because it is not the Ascended who are giving the gift of life. They are using an Atlantian to do so.”
I coughed out a harsh laugh. “The Ascended would never work with an Atlantian.”
“Did I misspeak? I don’t believe I did. I said they are using an Atlantian. Not working with one.” He picked up a jar, screwing off the lid. “When King Malec’s peers discovered what he’d done, he lifted the laws that forbade the act of Ascending. As more vamprys were created, many were unable to control their bloodlust. They drained many of their victims, creating the pestilence known as the Craven, who swept across the kingdom like a plague. The Queen of Atlantia, Queen Eloana, tried to stop it. She made the act of Ascension forbidden once more and ordered all vamprys destroyed in an act to protect mankind.”
I watched as he dipped his hand into the jar and then set it aside. A thick, milky-white substance covered his long fingers. I recognized the smell. It was the same salve that had been used on me before. “Yarrow?”
He nodded. “Among other things that will help speed up your healing.”
“I can—” I jerked as the chilled ointment touched my skin. Hawke spread the mixture over my stomach, warming the balm and my flesh.
And then me.
My knuckles began to ache as an unwanted shiver of awareness skated over my skin. He betrayed you, I reminded myself. He played you. I hated him. I did. The knot in my throat expanded even as a heady flush swept through me.
Hawke seemed to be entirely focused on what he was doing, and that was a blessing. I didn’t want him to see how his touch affected me. “The vamprys revolted,” he said after scooping out more of the ointment. “That is what triggered the War of Two Kings. It was not mortals fighting back against cruel, inhuman Atlantians, but vamprys fighting back.”
My gaze flew from his hand to his face. Some of what he said felt familiar, but it was a twisted, darker version of what I knew to be true.
“The death toll from the war was not exaggerated. In fact, many people believe the numbers were far higher. We weren’t defeated, Princess. King Malec was overthrown, divorced, and exiled. Queen Eloana remarried, and the new King, Da’Neer, pulled their forces back, called their people home, and ended a war that was destroying this world.”
“And what happened to Malec and Isbeth?” I asked, even though I didn’t believe much of what he’d said.
“Your records say that Malec was defeated in battle, but the truth is, no one knows. He and his Mistress simply disappeared,” Hawke claimed, returning the lid to the jar. “The vamprys gained control of the remaining lands, anointing their own King and Queen, Jalara and Ileana, and renamed it the Kingdom of Solis. They called themselves the Ascended, used our gods, who’d long since gone to sleep, as a reason for why they became the way they did. In the hundreds of years that have passed since, they’ve managed to scrub the truth from history, that the vast majority of mortals actually fought alongside the Atlantians against the common threat of vamprys.”
I couldn’t even speak for what felt like an entire minute. “None of that sounds believable.”
“I imagine it is hard to believe that you belong to a society of murderous monsters, who take the third daughters and sons during the Rite to feed upon. And if they don’t drain them dry, they become—”
“What?” I gasped, my disbelief turning to anger. “You have spent this entire time telling me nothing but falsehoods, but now you’ve gone too far.”
Placing a clean bandage on the wound, he smoothed down the edges until it adhered to my skin. “I’ve told you nothing but the truth, as did the man who threw the Craven hand.”
I sat up, tugging down my shirt. “Are you claiming that those given in service to the gods are now Craven?”
“Why do you think the Temples are off-limits to anyone but the Ascended and those they control like the Priests and Priestesses?”
“Because they’re sacred places that even most Ascended don’t breach,” I argued.
“Have you seen one child that has been given over? Just one, Princess? Do you know anyone other than a Priest or Priestess or an Ascended who has claimed to have seen one? You’re smart. You know no one has,” he challenged. “That’s because most are dead before they even learn to speak.”
I opened my mouth.
“The vamprys need a food source, Princess, one that would not rouse suspicion. What better way than to convince an entire kingdom to hand over their children under the pretense of honoring the gods? They’ve created a religion around it, such that brothers will turn on brothers if any of them refuse to give away their child. They have fooled an entire kingdom, used the fear of what they have created against the people. And that’s not all. You ever think it’s strange how many young children die overnight from a mysterious blood disease? Like the Tulis family, who lost their first and second children to it? Not every Ascended can stick to a strict diet. Bloodlust for a vampry is a very real, common problem. They’re thieves in the night, stealing children, wives, and husbands.”
“Do you really think I believe any of this? That the Atlantians are innocent, and everything I’ve been taught is a lie?”
“Not particularly, but it was worth a shot. We are not innocent of all crimes—”
“Like murder and kidnapping?” I threw at him.
“That among other things. You don’t want to believe what I’m saying. Not because it sounds too foolish to believe, but because there are things you’re now questioning. Because it means your precious brother is feeding on innocents—”
“And turning them into Craven.”
“Shut up,” I growled, shooting to my feet. The sharp, sudden movement barely causing me any pain.
Rising in one fluid movement, he quickly towered over me. “You don’t want to accept what I’m saying, even as logical as it sounds because it means your brother is one of them, and the Queen who cared for you has slaughtered thousands—”
I didn’t stop to think about what I did next. I was just so furious and afraid because he was right, what he’d said had prompted questions. Like how none of the Ascended were seen during the day, or how no one but they entered the Temples. But, worse yet, it raised the question of why Hawke would make all of this up. What would be the point of concocting this elaborate lie when he had to know how hard it would be to convince me?
No, I didn’t think about any of that.
I just acted.
The chain skidded across the floor as I swung on him, my hand curled into a fist.
Hawke’s hand snapped up, catching mine before it connected with his jaw. Gods, he moved impossibly fast, twisting my arm as he spun me around. He yanked me back against the hard wall of his chest, trapping my arm between us as he grabbed my other hand. A shriek of frustration ripped from my throat as I went to lift my leg—
“Don’t.” His voice was a soft warning in my ear, one that sent a shiver down my spine.
I didn’t listen.
He grunted when the heel of my foot connected with the front of his leg. Jerking my leg up, I kicked back.
Suddenly, I found myself pressed against the wall with Hawke at my back. I struggled, but it was no use. There wasn’t an inch of space between him or the cold, damp wall.
“I said, don’t.” His warm breath drifted over my temple. “I mean it, Princess. I don’t want to hurt you.”
“You don’t? You already hur—” I cut myself off.
“What?” He moved my arm so it was no longer caught between us. He didn’t let go, though. Instead, he pressed my hand into the wall, just as he did with the other one.
Clamping my mouth shut, I refused to tell him that he’d already hurt me. Admitting that meant there was something to hurt, to be exploited, and he already had enough to use against me.