I sat on the edge of the chair, slowly toeing off my boots. “That makes sense.” And because it did, it made me feel a little ill. “And what if Ian…if he is as I remember?”
“Even then, we don’t want to give them any information they do not already know.” He quieted for a moment as he unstrapped the sword on his left side and then the one on his right, lying them upon an old wooden chest. “I hope that he is as you remember, but even if he is, you need to keep in mind that he is here on behalf of the Blood Crown.”
“It’s not like I’m going to forget that.” I tugged off my socks, leaving them in a ball beside my shoes while Casteel had draped his over his boots.
He eyed me for a few seconds. “My mother and father could be right. Tonight may be a trap.”
I rose, beginning to pace in front of the terrace doors. “I know that, but that doesn’t change that my brother is here.”
“It should, Poppy,” he countered. “The Ascended want you, and they know exactly how to draw you out.”
“Do I really need to repeat myself?” I snapped as I walked past him into the sitting room. He followed. “I know that this could be a trap, but as I said, my brother is here.” I pivoted, prowling back toward the bedchamber. “He has a message from the Blood Crown. We are going to see him. And if you’re trying to stop me now, after we came all this way, you’re going to be very disappointed.”
“I’m not trying to stop you.”
“Then what are you getting at?” I demanded.
“Are you going to look at me and listen?”
My head shot in his direction. “I’m looking at you right now. What?”
His eyes burned a fiery gold. “But are you listening?”
“Unfortunately,” I retorted.
“That was rude, but I’m going to ignore that.” A muscle ticked along his jaw as he tilted his head. “You know that what we’re doing is a risk.”
“Of course, I know that. I’m not foolish.”
His brows rose “You’re not?”
My eyes narrowed. “I understand the risks, Casteel. Just like you understood them when you decided to masquerade as a mortal guard.”
“Really? Seriously? At any moment, you could’ve been discovered and captured. Then what?” I shot back. “But you did it nonetheless because you were doing it for your brother.”
“Okay. You’re right.” He stepped into me, eyes churning with flecks of heated amber. “I was willing to take those risks with my life—”
“I swear to the gods if you say you’re not willing to allow me to take those same risks, I’m going to hurt you,” I warned.
One side of his lips kicked up. “If that’s a threat, it’s my favorite kind.”
“It will not be in a way you like.” I glanced pointedly below his waist. “Trust me.” I turned from him and took a step. Without warning, he was suddenly in front of me. I jerked back. “Damn it. I hate when you do that!”
“You know I will never stop you from defending yourself—from picking up a sword or bow and fighting,” he said, coming forward. I held my ground. “But I also won’t let you walk right into a trap, arms open.”
“And if it is a trap, do you think I will just give up and say ‘You got me?’” I challenged. “You said it yourself. I can defend myself. I will not let anyone take you or me, and based on what I can do, I’m confident I can ensure that.”
“You were really hesitant about using your power not that long ago,” he reminded me. “You changed your mind?”
“Yes!” And I had, without a doubt. “I would use everything in me to make sure that I and those I love aren’t taken again by the Ascended.”
“That is a relief to hear,” he said.
“Well, I’m glad you’re relieved. If you’re not trying to stop me, then why are we even having this discussion?”
“All I am trying to suggest is that you hold back until we make sure it’s safe for you—”
“No.” I waved a hand, cutting him off. “Not going to happen. I’m not staying back. Would you if this were your brother?” I demanded. “Would those risks outweigh your need to go to him, and would you stand back?”
He dropped his head back, inhaling sharply. A long moment passed. “No, those risks would not outweigh my need.”
“Then why are you trying to stop me?” I honestly didn’t know why he was being like this. “You of all people should understand.”
“I do.” He reached out, curving his hands around my shoulders. A static charge of energy passed from his skin to mine. “I told you that I believed Ian had Ascended, but deep down, you hadn’t accepted that, and I understood why. You needed to believe that there was still a chance that he was mortal or like you.”
The air I breathed stung. I couldn’t deny anything he’d said. “What does that have to do with this?”
“Because when you learned he was an Ascended, you got so upset, you lost control of your emotions. You began to glow and call the wolven to you,” he said, lowering his chin so we were at eye-level. “They felt your anger, and I don’t know if you noticed or not, but I’m pretty sure if you had commanded them to attack, they would’ve done so without hesitation.”
I had noticed that.
“And while I have to admit that is a rather impressive ability, I also fear what will happen when you see Ian, and you no longer recognize him,” he said, and my heart seized. “And I don’t fear your anger or what you do with that wealth of power in you. I don’t fear that at all. I fear what it will do to you—the knowledge that your brother is truly gone.”
I sucked in a shuddering breath as I briefly squeezed my eyes shut. His concern warmed me. It came from such a beautiful place.
“Are you truly ready for that?” he asked, moving his hands to my cheeks. “Are you really ready to do what you believe is necessary if you find that he has become something unrecognizable?”
The air I breathed continued to hurt as I placed my hands on his chest, feeling his heart beat strongly under my palm. I looked up at him, seeing the flecks of amber. “You know I hope to find a part of him still inside there, but I know I have to be ready for what I find. I have to be ready if nothing of Ian remains.”
Casteel smoothed his thumbs over my skin. “And if you’re not ready when it comes to releasing him from this curse?”
“I am willing to shoulder whatever pain comes from giving my brother peace,” I told him.
A fine tremor coursed through him. “I have to see my brother.”
“I know, and I swear, I’m not going to hold you back. That isn’t what this is about. Yes, I am worried about this being a trap. Like I said, they know exactly how to draw you out. But not for one second do I want to prevent you from going to see Ian. I just—I want to stop you from feeling that kind of pain if I can. I was hoping…” He shook his head. “I don’t know. That you wouldn’t have to deal with that on top of everything else,” he said. “But I should’ve known better. Life doesn’t wait to hand you a new puzzle until you’ve figured out the last one.”