My heart twisted. “But that didn’t happen?”
“No.” Jansen briefly closed his eyes. “I underestimated how much potion a young wolven needed to remain asleep. He woke when I entered his room.” He leaned back, scrubbing a hand down his face. “What happened was unfortunate.”
Bile crept up my throat. “You killed him?”
“It had to be done.”
Disbelief stole my breath as I stared at the changeling. “He was just a kid!”
“I know.” He lowered his hand. “It wasn’t something any of us enjoyed, but it had to be done.”
“It didn’t have to be done.” Tears crowded my eyes. “He was a kid, and he was innocent.”
“Innocents die all the time. You spent the entirety of your life in Solis. You know that to be true.”
“And that makes it okay to harm another?”
“No. But the end justified the means. The people of Atlantia will understand that,” Jansen countered. I couldn’t fathom how anyone could understand the murder of a child. “And why do you even care? You stood by and witnessed people being starved, abused, and given over to the Rite. You did nothing.”
“I didn’t know the truth then,” I spat, blinking back tears.
“And does that make it okay?”
“No. It doesn’t,” I said, and his eyes widened slightly. “But I didn’t always stand by and do nothing. I did what I could.”
“It wasn’t enough.”
“I didn’t say it was.” I drew in a ragged breath. “Why are you doing this?”
“It is my duty to stop any and all threats to Atlantia.”
A hoarse laugh of disbelief left me. “You know me. You’ve known me for years. You know I’m not a threat. I wouldn’t have done anything in that Temple if I hadn’t been threatened.”
“That is what you say now. One day, that will change,” he said. “Strange how small the world is, though. The whole purpose of assuming the role I did was to ensure an open pathway between Casteel and you. I spent years living a lie, all so he could capture the Maiden and use her to free his brother and gain back some of our stolen land. I had no idea what you were or even why you were the Maiden.”
“And him marrying me felt like a betrayal to you?” I surmised.
“Actually, no,” he replied, surprising me. “He could still accomplish what he intended. Probably would’ve been even better positioned to do so with you as his wife and not his captive.”
“Then why? Because I’m…because I have a drop of god’s blood in me?”
“A drop?” Jansen laughed. “Girl, I know what you did in that Temple. You need to give yourself more credit.”
My temper spiked, and I welcomed it, holding onto the rage. It was far better company than the welling grief. “I haven’t been a girl in years, so do not call me one.”
“My apologies.” He bowed his head. “I would be willing to bet you have far more than a drop. Your bloodline must’ve remained very clean for you to exhibit those kinds of godly abilities.” He moved suddenly, grasping my chin. I tried to pull free, but he held me in place. His dark eyes swept over my face as if he were searching for something. “Strange that I never saw it before. I should have.”
I reached up, gripping his forearm. The manacle on my wrist tightened in warning. “Remove your hand from me.”
“Or what, Maiden?” His smile kicked up a notch as my anger flared hotly. “There is nothing you can do to me that will not result in you harming yourself. I just said you were always clever. Don’t make a liar out of me.”
Helpless anger prodded at the deeply rooted desperation I felt at not being able to defend myself. “Let go of me!”
Jansen released his grip and rose suddenly. He glanced over at the pile of bones beside me as I dragged in deep breaths. My heart pounded way too fast. “I knew it wouldn’t be wise for me to linger in Masadonia,” he said. “So, I left shortly after you did. I met up with Alastir on the road to Spessa’s End. It was then that I learned what you were.”
My fingernails pressed into my palms. “So, Alastir knew what I was?”
“Not when he first saw you.” He nudged something with his toe, kicking it across the dusty floor. It was the dismembered hand. My stomach roiled. “I remained hidden until it was time and then assumed Beckett’s identity.”
“You stood by when we were nearly overtaken by the Ascended armies. People died, and you just stood by?” Scorn dripped from my tone.
His gaze snapped back to mine. “I’m not a coward.”
“You said it.” My smile was thin. “Not me.”
He didn’t move for a long moment. “Watching those armies descend on Spessa’s End wasn’t easy. Staying hidden was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But unlike those false Guardians, I am a Protector of Atlantia, a true Guardian of the realm. I knew my purpose was far greater than the potential fall of Spessa’s End or even the death of our Prince.”
“True Guardian?” I thought of the women who had descended from a long line of warriors—women who had leapt from the Rise surrounding Spessa’s End and wielded swords more fearlessly than I’d ever seen the commander do. I laughed harshly. “You’re pale and pathetic compared to the Guardians.”
Pain erupting across the side of my cheek and face was the only warning that he’d moved—that he’d lashed out. A metallic taste filled my mouth.
“I understand that things must be very confusing and stressful for you,” he said, his tone heavy with false sympathy as he rose and took a step back. “But if you insult me one more time, I will not be responsible for my actions.”
An icy-hot feeling flowed over my skin. My cheek throbbed as I turned my head back to him and met his gaze. “You will die,” I promised, smiling at the red blush of anger staining his cheeks. “It will be by my hand, and it will be a death befitting a coward like you.”
He shot toward me. This time, darkness came with the biting pain, one I couldn’t escape no matter how hard I tried.
Gritting my teeth against the pressure of the bindings around my wrist, I slowly inched my hand to the left as I stared at the spear on the skeleton’s chest. Fresh blood dripped onto the stone, and I stopped, breathing raggedly.
I waited, having learned that with each inch gained, the bindings loosened a little. Gaining that knowledge had been a painstakingly slow process.
Focusing on deep, steady breaths, I rested the side of my head against the wall as my entire arm throbbed. I had no idea how much time had passed since I’d lost consciousness. It had to be hours. Maybe longer as my pangs of hunger had gone from sporadic waves to a low, steady gnawing ache in my gut. And I was cold—every part of my body felt chilled.
My gaze crept over the stone coffins. Why had they been given the honor of a proper resting place while the ones against the walls hadn’t? That was only one of the many questions I had. Granted, it wasn’t nearly the most important one, but I’d rather think about that than wonder why I was still alive.
Jansen had claimed that I was a threat. And maybe whatever had awakened in me at the Temple was. Perhaps I was a threat. But why keep me alive? Or was this what they’d planned all along? To just shove me into this crypt and leave me here until I died of hunger or starvation, becoming nothing but another dusty pile of bones against the wall.