“I’m sorry,” Vonetta whispered.
The back of my throat burned as I closed my eyes. Images of Ian and me flashed rapidly behind my lids—us collecting shells along the glistening beaches of the Stroud Sea, him older and sitting with me in my bare room in Masadonia, telling me stories of tiny creatures with gossamer wings who lived in the trees. Ian hugging me goodbye before he left for the capital—
And all of that was gone now? Replaced by something that preyed upon others?
Anger and grief rushed through me like a river swelling over its banks. Off in the distance, I heard a wolven’s mournful howl—
Vonetta dropped my hands as another keening wail tore through the air, closer this time. The anger inside me grew. My skin began to hum. That cellular need from earlier, when I realized what could have been done to my birth parents, returned. I wanted to utterly and completely destroy something. I wanted to see those armies that Queen Eloana had spoken of unleashed. I wanted to watch them crest the Skotos Mountains and descend upon Solis, sweeping across the lands, burning everything down. I wanted to be there, beside them—
“Poppy.” Kieran’s voice sounded wrong, scratchy and full of rocks as he touched my arm and then my cheek.
Casteel’s arm tightened around me as he pressed his front to my back. “It’s okay.” He folded his other arm around my waist. “It’s all right. Just take a deep breath,” he ordered quietly. “You’re calling the wolven.” A pause. “And you’re starting to glow.”
It took a moment for Casteel’s voice to reach me, for his words to make sense. The wolven…they were reacting to me—to the rage seeping into my every pore. My heart tripped over itself as the need for retribution gnawed at my insides. That feeling—that power it invoked…it terrified me.
I did what Casteel had ordered, forcing myself to take a deep breath and breathe through the way it scalded my throat and lungs. I didn’t want that, to see anything burn. I just wanted my brother, and I wanted the Ascended unable to do this to another person.
The deep breaths cleared the blood-drenched fog from my thoughts. As clarity arrived, so did the realization that there was still a chance that Ian wasn’t completely lost. He was likely only two years into his Ascension, and they trusted him to travel from Carsodonia to Spessa’s End? That had to mean something. That who he was before the Ascension hadn’t been completely erased. The Ascended could control their bloodlust. They could also refuse to feed from those who were unwilling. Ian could be one of them. He could’ve maintained control. There was still hope.
I latched on to that. I had to because it was the only thing that tamped down the rage—the ugly want and need that nearly boiled over inside me. When I opened my eyes to see Vonetta staring at me, her mouth pressed into a thin, tight line, some semblance of calm returned. “I...I didn’t hurt you?” I glanced at Kieran, seeing that he, too, was paler than usual. I didn’t hear the wolven, but I saw Lyra and the other three wolven crouched behind Casteel’s parents as if they were waiting for a command. My gaze swept back to Vonetta. “Did I?”
She shook her head. “No. No. I just…” She let out a ragged breath. “That was wild.”
The tense lines of Kieran’s features eased. “You were very angry.”
“You could feel that?” Casteel asked over the top of my head. “What she was feeling?”
The brother and sister nodded. “Yeah,” Vonetta said, and my stomach flipped. I knew the wolven could sense my emotions, that it could call them, but it had seemed like Lyra and the other wolven were waiting to act. Luckily, I didn’t think Casteel’s parents had been aware of what was happening. “I felt that a couple of days ago. All of us wolven in Spessa’s End did.” Vonetta’s gaze flicked over us while I looked at Lyra. She and the other wolven had relaxed. “I have a lot of questions.”
“Great,” Kieran muttered, and Vonetta shot her brother a dark look.
Casteel lowered his chin to my cheek. “You doing okay?”
I nodded, even though I wasn’t right then. But I would have to be. I placed a hand on his forearm. “I didn’t mean to do that—call to the wolven.” My gaze found Casteel’s parents. Both stood unnaturally still, and at that moment, I couldn’t bring myself to even wonder what they were feeling or thinking. I refocused on Vonetta. “My brother is there? Waiting?”
She nodded. “Him and a group of soldiers.”
“How many?” Casteel’s arms eased from around me, but he kept a hand on my shoulder.
“About a hundred,” she answered. “There were also Royal Knights among them.”
Meaning there were Ascended trained to fight among the mortal soldiers. That also meant that Ian was well protected in case any in Spessa’s End decided to act. I hated the relief I felt. It was wrong, but I couldn’t help it.
“He said he had a message from the Blood Crown,” Vonetta told us. “But that he would only speak with his sister.”
My breath caught.
“Did he say anything else?” King Valyn asked.
“He swore that they weren’t there to create more bloodshed,” she explained. “That doing so would start a war that he had come to prevent.”
“That is highly unlikely,” Casteel’s father growled, even as a spark of hope blossomed in me—a tiny, overly optimistic spark of hope.
But I turned to Casteel. “We have to go to Spessa’s End.”
“Wait,” Eloana said, stepping forward. “This needs to be thought over.”
I shook my head. “There is nothing to think about.”
Her gaze found mine. “But there is a lot to think about, Penellaphe.”
I didn’t know if she was talking about the kingdom, the Unseen, or even Casteel and me. It didn’t matter. “No. There is not,” I told her. “My brother is there. I need to see him, and we need to know whatever message the Blood Crown may have for us.”
“I understand your need to see your brother. I do,” she said, and I could feel the truth behind those words—and the empathy that fueled them. “But this isn’t just about you and your needs anymore—”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Casteel cut in, his eyes hardening to chips of amber. “It is about her needs, and they come first.”
“Son,” his father began, “I can respect your desire to care for your wife’s needs, but the kingdom always comes first whether you’re the Prince or the King.”
“It’s a damn shame if you really believe that,” Casteel replied, looking over his shoulder at his father. “Because to me, attending to each other’s needs ensures that the kingdom’s needs can be met. One cannot happen without the other.”
I stared at Casteel. He…gods, there were times I couldn’t believe I’d actually stabbed him in the heart.
This was one of them.
“Spoken like a man in love and not someone who has ever ruled a kingdom,” his father retorted. “Who has very little experience—”
“None of that matters,” his mother interrupted, her irritation nearly as strong as her grief. “This is likely a trap designed to lure not only one but both of you out.”