Kieran’s smile could only be described as wolfish.
“I’m going to bathe.”
“Shut up,” I snapped, gathering up the new clothing and hurrying into the bathing room. I closed the door behind me, annoyed when I saw there was no lock.
Cursing under my breath, I looked around and found several hooks on the wall. I hung the tunic and breeches there. I quickly stripped and stepped into the bath, ignoring the twinge of pain in a very private area as I sank into the lavender-scented water. I didn’t allow myself to think about anything as I got down to scrubbing off my blood and…and his. My stomach turned over as I used the bar of soap to wash my hair. When suds ran down the back of my neck, I dipped under the water and held myself there.
I stayed until my lungs and throat burned, and white spots sparked behind my closed eyes. Only then did I break the surface, gasping for air.
What was I going to do about him? About everything?
A strangled, hoarse-sounding laugh escaped me. I didn’t know where to even begin to start figuring out this mess. I’d just learned that the kingdom of Atlantia still existed, and that seemed like the least crazy thing to have discovered. Gods, I still didn’t even understand how I’d gone from learning who he truly was, stabbing him in the heart, to then willingly falling into his arms.
Squeezing my eyes shut, I dragged my hands down my face. I couldn’t blame the bite, even though it had some kind of arousing effect, just like his blood had. And who, by the way, would’ve ever thought that would feel good?
But damn, it had…
I shivered as a tight curling motion bloomed low in my stomach.
That was the last thing I needed to think about right now if I had any hope of figuring out what I needed to do.
And I needed to come up with some kind of plan and quickly because even though he didn’t seem to hold my attempt to kill him against me, I wasn’t safe here. I wouldn’t be safe anywhere with his people. They hated me, and if half of what he and Kieran claimed about the Ascended and what they’d done was true, I couldn’t blame them, even though I’d done nothing to them. It was what I represented.
Still, it was too much to believe that the Atlantians were the innocent party, and the Ascended were the violent tyranny that had somehow managed to turn an entire kingdom away from the truth.
But I’d never seen any of the third and fourth sons and daughters who were given to the gods during the Rite.
I could never understand how those like Duke Teerman and Lord Mazeen had received a Blessing from the gods.
But never once had I seen an Ascended lift a single finger to fight the Craven, the one thing the people of Solis feared more than death itself.
The one thing they’d do anything and believe anything to remain safe from.
He had claimed that the Royals used the Craven to keep the people in check, and if that were true, it worked. They gave up their own children to keep the beasts at bay.
It had to be true.
Worse yet, others must be involved in this. The Priests and Priestesses. Close friends of the Court, who hadn’t Ascended. My parents?
Gods, I couldn’t lie to myself any longer.
What had happened with him was proof enough. His blood had healed me, not turned me. His kisses had never cursed me. And so far, neither had his bite.
The Ascended were vamprys—they were the curse that had plagued this land. They used fear to control the masses, and they were the evil hidden in plain sight, feeding off those they had sworn to the gods to protect.
And my brother was now one of them.
Pulling my knees to my chest, I wrapped my arms around my legs. I closed my eyes against the burn of tears, resting my cheek against my knee. He couldn’t be like the Duke. The Duchess wasn’t too bad. Neither was the Queen, but—
But if they were feeding on children, almost draining innocent people and creating Craven, they were no better than the Duke.
I pressed my lips together, fighting back tears that wanted to break free. I’d cried enough today, but Ian… Gods, Ian couldn’t be like them. He was kind and gentle. I just couldn’t believe that he would do those things. I couldn’t.
And then there was me. If it was all a lie, then I would never be given to the gods. What had they planned for me? Why did they make me the Chosen and link all these Ascensions to me? Was it my abilities? I thought about what he had said after I’d taken his pain. He knew something.
Something he needed to tell me.
I wasn’t safe here, and I surely wasn’t safe among the Ascended. If I did manage to escape, how could I go back to them, knowing what I knew now? How could I stay and allow him to take me to Atlantia when I would represent a kingdom who had slaughtered untold numbers of their people, who had enslaved their Prince to use him to make more vamprys?
How could I stay with him?
No matter what I felt for him, I could never trust him, and what I felt for him was also something I could no longer pretend didn’t exist. I loved him.
I was in love with him.
And even if by some small chance I’d been able to move past the fact that he had come to Masadonia with the intention of taking and using me as a bargaining tool, I could never get over the blood that had been spilled because of him. I could never forget that Rylan and Vikter, Loren and Dafina, and so many others were dead, either by his hand, by his command, or by what he represented. I could never trust what he claimed when it came to us.
What had he claimed about us, though?
He had led me to believe that he had feelings for me. That I was anything but someone he needed to protect as Hawke, and needed to use for his own means as a Prince of Atlantia. He’d been intrigued from the start because I wasn’t who he expected me to be, which apparently, was an immoral, spoiled supporter of the Ascended. He’d been kind and interested because he needed to discover all he could about me, and maybe because he was drawn to me. But what did that truly mean?
What happened in the woods may have proven that he was attracted to me, and that wasn’t a farce, but lust was not love, it was not loyalty, and it was not long lasting.
Neither as Hawke nor as Casteel had he claimed anything regarding us.
The reality was jarring, and it hurt. It sliced deep because he’d made me feel warm, but it was reality, and it had to be dealt with.
I mulled over the options in my head. Escape. Find my brother because I had to know if he was the same and then…what? Disappear? But first, I needed to figure out how to escape.
The wolven could track me, and he…
Escaping him would be nearly impossible.
But I had to try, and there had to be a way. Maybe when my head didn’t feel as if it were full of cobwebs, I would know what to do. Weary, I let my thoughts drift. I must’ve dozed off somehow, still curled up against the tub, because the next thing I heard was my name being called.
Jerking my head up, I blinked rapidly as Kieran’s face came into view. What the…?
“Good.” He was kneeling on the other side of the tub—the tub that I was completely naked in! “I was worried you were dead.”
“What?” I threw a hand over my chest and pressed my legs together as much as I possibly could. I didn’t even want to think about what he could see beneath the line of water. “What are you doing in here?”
“I called out your name, and you didn’t answer,” he replied, tone as flat as a board. “You’ve been in here for a while. I thought I should make sure you were alive.”
“Of course, I’m alive. Why wouldn’t I be?”
One eyebrow rose. “You are surrounded by people who tried to murder you, in case you’ve forgotten.”
“I haven’t forgotten. I doubt any of them are hiding in the bathwater!”
“One can never be too sure.” He made no attempt to stand and leave.
I stared at him. “You shouldn’t be in here, and I shouldn’t have to explain that.”
“You have nothing to fear from me.”
“Why? Because of him?” I spat.
“Because of Cas?” he said, and I blinked, hearing the nickname for the first time from someone other than him. “He would be annoyed to find me in here.”
I wasn’t sure if I should feel good to hear that or more annoyed.
A ghost of a smile appeared. “And then he’d be…intrigued.”
My mouth opened, but my mind took that and leapt with it. I had nothing to say. Absolutely nothing, but I thought about what I had read about the wolven and the Atlantians. There was a bond between some of them, and while not much was known about what that bond entailed, I was confident that a Prince was of the class that wolven would be bonded to. I wanted to ask, but considering I was in a tub and naked, now wasn’t the time.
Kieran’s gaze dropped, moving down my arms to the curve of my stomach and thigh. “Among my people, scars are revered. They are never hidden.”
The only scar he could see was the one along the side of my waist. At least, I hoped. “Among my people, it’s not polite to stare at a naked woman in a bathtub.”
“Your people sound incredibly boring.”
“Get out!” I shrieked.
Chuckling, Kieran rose with nearly the same grace and fluidity that he moved with. “The Prince wouldn’t want you sitting in cold, dirty water. You should probably finish up your bath.”
My nails were digging into the skin of my legs. “I don’t care what he wants.”
“You should,” he replied, and I gritted my teeth. “Because he wants you even though he knows better, even though he knows it will end in yet another tragedy.”
After quickly drying off and changing into clean, dry clothing, I did everything in my power to forget that the brief conversation in the bathing chamber with Kieran had happened.
The breeches were a little tight, causing me to wonder if they had belonged to a child, but they were clean and soft, and I wasn’t complaining. The long-sleeve tunic was made of heavy wool and reached my knees. The slits in the sides ended at the hips and would’ve made for easy access to my dagger.