So that was what I did.
I let him lead me out of the room, and I wasn’t even surprised when I found Kieran waiting for us. Based on the hint of amusement in his features, he must have heard at least half of our argument.
Kieran opened his mouth.
“Don’t test me,” he warned.
Chuckling under his breath, Kieran said nothing as he fell into step behind us. We took the same stairs we’d sped down hours earlier, and I tried not to think about my mad dash in the woods. What had happened when he caught me.
But a heatwave hit my veins nonetheless.
He glanced down at me, a questioning look in his gaze that I ignored while praying he couldn’t sense where my thoughts had gone.
As soon as we entered the common area, Kieran slowed his pace so he walked directly behind me. I knew that was no unconscious act. Descenters lined the walls, their faces pale as they whispered to one another, their eyes following us. I recognized some of them who’d stood in audience outside the cell. I saw Magda. There was no pity in her eyes now. Just…speculation.
I lifted my chin and straightened my spine. The Ascended might very well be evil incarnate, and an untold number of people in Solis may be complicit, but what they did to me proved that they were no better.
We rounded the corner, and my gaze lifted—
“Oh, my gods,” I whispered, I stumbled back as my free hand flew to my mouth. I bumped into Kieran.
His hand landed on my shoulder, steadying me as I stared at the walls of the hall. I couldn’t move. I could barely breathe as horror choked me.
Now I understood the pale faces in the common area. Bodies lined the walls, arms outstretched, and spikes of bloodstone nailed through their hands. Some had received a reddish-brown stake through the center of their chests, others through the head. Some of them were mortal. Some were Atlantian. A half a dozen of them on either side. I saw Rolf and the man I had rendered unconscious, and I saw…
I saw Mr. Tulis.
My knees weakened as I stared up at him. He was dead, face a ghastly gray color. He was mortal, but a stake protruded from his still chest nonetheless.
All he’d wanted was to save his last child. He’d been given an opportunity to do so. He’d escaped, and now…now he was here.
Not all of them were dead.
One still breathed.
I locked down my senses before I could reach out and see what kind of pain he was in. His shaggy head hung as his chest rose in ragged, uneven breaths. Bloodstone pierced his palms, but the final fatal spike was thrust through his throat. Crimson colored the front of his bare chest, his pants, and pooled on the floor below him.
“I promised you they’d pay for what they did.” He didn’t sound or look smug. He didn’t sound proud. “And now the others know what will happen if they disobey me and seek to harm you.”
Bile crept up my throat. “He’s…he’s still alive,” I whispered, staring up at the wolven.
“Only until I am ready to end his life,” he commented, dropping my hand. He strode forward without another look back. Two men opened the large wooden doors to the Great Room, and he entered, stalking toward the center table where several covered dishes waited.
I thought I might be sick.
Kieran’s hand squeezed my shoulder. “They deserved no less.”
Even Mr. Tulis, who’d most likely delivered the fatal blow to me.
“Go.” He urged with his hand. Somehow, I got my feet moving as I walked past the bodies pinned to the wall like butterflies.
In a daze, I didn’t realize that I was seated to the right of him at the table, typically a place of honor. Kieran took the chair next to me. Numbly, I sat there as servants unveiled the platters of food while the rest of his entourage followed suit, seating themselves at the table. I recognized Delano and Naill, oddly relieved to see that they were okay. They had defended me, and I didn’t want to think about the reasons behind it.
Laid out before us was a feast. Stewed beef. Roasted duck. Cold meats and cheese. Baked potatoes. All of it smelled wonderful.
But my stomach churned as I sat there, unable to move. Kieran offered me some of the beef, and I must’ve agreed because it ended up on my plate. Then came the duck and potato. He was the one who broke off a hunk of cheese and placed it on my plate as he reached for his glass, seeming to remember that it was one of my weaknesses.
I stared down at my plate. I didn’t see the food. I saw the bodies outside the room as conversation was slow to start but soon picked up and became a steady hum. Glasses and plates clinked. Laughter sounded.
And there were bodies nailed to the walls outside the Great Room.
Blinking, I looked up at him. His golden eyes had cooled, but his jaw was hard enough to cut glass.
“Eat,” he ordered in a low voice.
I reached for a fork, picking it up and spearing a piece of meat. I took a bite, chewing slowly. It tasted as good as it smelled, but it settled too heavily in my stomach. I scooped up some of the potatoes.
A few moments passed, and he said, “You don’t agree with what I did to them?”
I looked over at him, unsure of how to even answer the question—if it was even a question at all.
He sat back, glass in hand. “Or are you so shocked, you’re actually speechless?”
Swallowing the last bit of food, I slowly placed the fork on the table. “I wasn’t expecting that.”
“Can’t imagine you were.” He smirked as he lifted the glass to his lips.
“How…how long will you leave them there?”
“Until I feel like it.”
My chest twisted. “And Jericho?”
“Until I know for sure no one will dare to lift a hand against you again.”
Becoming aware that several of the men around us had stopped talking and were listening, I chose my next words carefully. “I don’t know your people very well, but I would think that they have learned a lesson.”
He took a drink. “What I did disturbs you.”
I knew that wasn’t a question. My gaze shifted back to my plate. Did it disturb me? Yes. I think it would unsettle most. Or at least, I hoped so. The blatancy of the kind of violence he was capable of was shocking if not entirely surprising, further separating him from the guard I knew as Hawke.
“Eat,” he said again, lowering his cup. “I know you need to eat more than that.”
I bit back the urge to tell him I was capable of determining how much food I needed to consume. Instead, I opened my senses to him. The anguish there was different, tasting…tangy and almost bitter. The urge to reach out to him hit hard, causing me to curl one hand in my lap. Had what happened between us caused this? Was it what he’d done to his own supporters? It could possibly be both. I reached for my drink, closing my eyes, and when I reopened them, I found him watching me through thick lashes.
I could tell him that it did bother me. I could say nothing at all. I imagined that perhaps he expected one of those two things from me. But I told him the truth. Not because I felt like I owed it to him, but because I owed it to myself.
“When I saw them, it horrified me. That was shocking, especially Mr. Tulis. What you did was surprising, but what disturbs me the most is that I—” I drew in a deep breath. “I don’t feel all that bad.”
Those heavy lids lifted, and his stare was piercing.
“Those people laughed when Jericho talked about cutting my hand off. Cheered when I bled and screamed and offered other options for pieces for Jericho to carve and keep,” I said, and the silence around us was almost unbearable. “I’d never even met most of them before, and they were happy to see me ripped apart. So, I don’t feel sympathy.”
“They don’t deserve it,” he stated quietly.
“Agreed,” Kieran murmured.
I lifted my chin. “But they’re still mortal—or Atlantian. They still deserve dignity in death.”
“They didn’t believe you deserved any dignity,” he stated.
“They were wrong, but that doesn’t make this right,” I said.
His gaze drifted over my face. The muscle had stopped ticking. “Eat,” he repeated.
“You’re obsessed with ensuring that I eat,” I told him.
One side of his lips kicked up. “Eat, and I’ll tell you our plans.”
That got several other people’s attention. Hoping my stomach didn’t revolt, I started eating instead of picking at my food. I didn’t dare look at Kieran, because if I did, I would be looking outside the Great Room to the hall.
“We’re leaving in the morning,” he stated, and I almost choked on the chunk of cheese I’d taken a bite of. None of those around me seemed at all surprised.
“Tomorrow?” I squeaked, torn between panic and hope. I would have a better chance of escaping out on the road than I would here.
He nodded. “As I said, we’ll be going home.”
I took a healthy drink from my glass. “But Atlantia is not my home.”
“But it is. At least, partly.”
“What does that mean?” Across from me, Delano spoke for the first time.
“It means it’s something I should’ve figured out sooner. So many things now make sense when they didn’t before. Why they made you the Maiden, how you survived a Craven attack. Your gifts,” he said, lowering his voice on the last part so only I and those immediately around us could hear him. “You’re not mortal, Poppy. At least, not completely.”
I opened my mouth and then closed it, not quite sure I heard him correctly. For a moment, I thought something was lodged in my throat. I took a drink, but the sensation was still there.
Delano’s jewel blue eyes sharpened. “Are you suggesting that she’s…”
“Part Atlantian?” he finished for him. “Yes.”
My hand trembled, sloshing liquid onto my fingers. “That’s impossible,” I whispered.
“Are you sure?” Delano asked him, and when I looked at him, I could see the shock in his eyes as his gaze moved over me, stopping and lingering on my neck.