That everything truly had been a lie.
I reacted without thought, slamming my fist into his chest. I hit him. My palm stung from the slap I delivered upon his cheek, and he let me. He took it as I shoved at his shoulders. I screamed at him as tears blurred my vision. I hit again and again—
“Stop it.” He caught me by the shoulders, pulling me to his chest and folding his arms around me, trapping mine to my sides. “Stop it, Poppy.”
“Let me go,” I demanded, my throat burning.
My heart clenched with the kind of anguish I was used to feeling from others. I almost reached out to him to see if it had radiated from him, or had erupted from deep inside me, but I stopped.
I will use you.
The pain…the pain was mine. He hadn’t saved me because he cared for me. He hadn’t promised that no more harm would come to me because he cared for me. How did I keep forgetting this? Hawke—
That wasn’t even his name. It was Casteel.
And he had an agenda. All of our conversations, every time he had kissed me, touched me, and told me I was brave and strong, that I intrigued him and was like no one he’d ever met. He did those things not just under a false persona but also under a false name, to gain my trust. To make me lower my guard around him, all so I would walk out of Masadonia with him willingly and right into a pit of vipers who either wanted to use me because I was the Maiden, the Chosen—the Queen’s favorite—or wanted me dead for the very same reasons.
I squeezed my eyes shut.
He was worse than Jericho and the others who wanted me dead. At least there were no pretenses with any of them. Everything about Haw—everything about Casteel, from his name to the first night at the Red Pearl, had been a lie designed to garner my trust.
He’d succeeded, but at what cost?
Rylan was dead.
Phillips and Airrick and all the guards and Huntsmen were now dead.
Vikter was dead.
My parents were dead.
He took from me everyone I cared about, either by his hand or by his orders, through separation or death. All so he could be reunited with his brother, another Prince, something that even I could understand, could sympathize with. But he also took my heart.
And made me fall in love with the Dark One.
That was who he was, even if everything else he claimed actually appeared to be true. Even if the history I’d been taught was all a lie. Even if the Ascended were vamprys who were responsible for the Craven, for what had happened to my parents and to me. Even if my brother was now one of them.
Eyes burning, I rolled onto my side. I needed space. I needed to get away from here—from him. I wasn’t safe, not from anyone here, and definitely not from him.
Because the longer he kept me here with him, the harder it would be for me to remember the truth. The more I would desperately want to believe that I was special to him because I just wanted to be special to someone. Anyone. To be something other than a pawn. The longer I was with him, the more likely I would be to forget about all that blood that was on his hands.
And that he had already broken my heart twice now because that was happening all over again. Even after the first betrayal, I still cared for him. Even though I wanted to hate him. I needed to hate him, but I couldn’t. I knew that now because I felt like I was dying another death. How could I be so stupid?
I couldn’t let him do it again. I couldn’t forget that.
Panic poured into me, forcing my eyes open. My wild gaze bounced around the room. “Let me go.”
“Poppy,” he repeated my name, placing his fingers at my neck. I tensed before realizing that he was checking my pulse. “Your heart is racing too fast.”
I didn’t care. I didn’t care if my heart exploded out of my chest. “Let me go!” I shouted.
His hold loosened enough for me to pull away, to sit up. His arm was still at my waist. I placed my hand on the floor to leverage my weight, but my palm glanced off the dagger—
The dagger Mr. Tulis had stabbed me with. It was bloodstone.
Heart dropping, I looked down at the blade. Grief swelled, closing off my throat. I couldn’t breathe around it, around the knowledge that I…I loved the man who’d had a hand in the deaths of so many.
Who had left me here with these people, his people, who wanted me dead.
Who lied to me about everything, including who he truly was.
My heart cracked wide open, pouring icy slush into my chest. I would always be cold, from here until the end.
I twisted in his arms, moving on instinct. I didn’t feel the cool hilt in my hand, but I felt the blade sink into his chest. I felt his warm blood splash against my fist as the hilt of the dagger became flush with his skin.
Slowly, I lifted my gaze to his.
His amber-colored eyes widened in surprise as he held my gaze for a moment and then looked down.
To where the dagger protruded from his chest.
From his heart.
Hands trembling, I let go of the dagger and fell out of his lap. I scuttled backward, unable to look away from the glaze of shock settling over his features.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, and I wasn’t sure why I even apologized. I wasn’t sure why my cheeks felt damp. Was it blood? His blood?
He lifted his gaze to mine. “You’re crying.” A thin trickle of blood seeped from the corner of his mouth.
I was crying. I hadn’t cried since I’d watched Vikter die, but tears now streamed down my face as I rose on numb legs. I stepped to the side. I didn’t know what I was doing or where I was going, but I made it to the door. It was unlocked.
“I’m sorry,” I said again, shaking.
A choked, wet laugh rattled from him as he bent forward, slamming his hand down on the floor. “No,” he gasped. “No, you’re not.”
But I was.
I turned around, blindly staggering out the door into the empty pathway that connected to another door at the end. Cold, wet air drifted in through the open wall, but I barely felt it. I had no plan. No idea how to get out of the keep. I kept walking.
Halfway through the hall, it was like a switch was flicked inside of me. All the horror and the sorrow ceased, and instinct took over. Breathing heavily, I threw open the door and raced down the cramped stairwell, then out through an open doorway, into—
Into the snow.
For a moment, I was struck by the beauty of the thick flakes of snow slowly drifting down. A thin layer already blanketed the ground and coated the bare trees. It was so silent, and everything was clean and untouched.
A voice from inside the keep jarred me into action. Taking off across the snow-covered grass, I ran toward the woods. In the back of my mind, I knew I wasn’t prepared to make an escape. The clothing I was wearing was too thin, even if it wasn’t also torn nearly to shreds. I had no idea exactly where I was or where to go from here. There could be Craven in these woods. There would definitely be Descenters. There could also be wolven, who would surely be able to track my moves, but still, I ran, the thin soles of my boots slipping on the dusted ground of the forest floor. I ran because…
I stabbed him.
I stabbed him in the heart.
He would be dead by now.
I’d killed him.
A ragged sob left me as blowing snow mingled with my tears. Oh, gods, I had to do it. Everything about him, about us was a lie. Everything. I had to do it. I had to—
There was no warning—no sound, nothing.
An arm circled my waist, catching me mid-run. I shrieked as my feet slipped out from under me, but I didn’t go down. I was hauled back and slammed into a hard, warm chest. My feet dangled nearly a foot from the ground.
Shock stole the very breath from my lungs. I knew who it was before he even spoke. It was his scent of lush spice and pine. It was the burst of rage-laced anguish and disbelief that mirrored mine, coming through my senses that I hadn’t closed down. For the first time since I’d met him, his emotions overwhelmed him and, therefore, me.
This was not the Hawke I’d fallen for so quickly that held me against him.
It was not the guard who’d sworn on his life to keep me safe, who now wrapped his fist in my hair and jerked my head back and to the side.
It was not Hawke’s hot breath that caressed my exposed throat.
It was him.
Prince Casteel Da’Neer of Atlantia.
The Dark One.
“An Atlantian, unlike a wolven or an Ascended, can’t be killed by a stab to the heart,” he growled, yanking my head farther back. “If you wanted to kill me, you should’ve aimed for the head, Princess. But worse yet, you forgot.”
“That it was real.”
Then he struck.
Two twin bursts of fiery pain lanced my neck, causing my entire body to jerk. The burn traveled all the way through my body, stunning me in its intensity. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even scream around the pain.
His arm around my waist was like an iron vise as he drew long and hard from the wound his fangs had created. I shook, eyes peeled wide as my hands fell to his arm. My nails dug in. The burn, the deep, staggering pull against my throat as my blood flowed freely from me into him shorted out my entire system. The building scream clawed its way around the pain—
And then, within mere seconds of when he’d sunk his fangs into me, everything changed.
The intense hurting became something else, something overwhelming in a wholly different way. A new ache erupted inside me, heating my blood until it felt like every part of me was filling with molten lava.
My wide eyes were unseeing as the heat filled my chest, my stomach, and pooled in the space between my thighs. His mouth tugged on my throat once more, and this time, that pull went straight to my very core. My body jerked with a flood of pounding arousal.
He groaned, his arm tightening around me, and I felt him, hard and thick against my rear. I gripped his arm as tension coiled inside me—
Without warning, he ripped his mouth from my neck. He let go, and I stumbled forward, nearly falling. Trembling with confusion and the desire still sparking inside of me, I turned to him.