I nodded. “That makes sense.”
“And as you know, the Ascended nor the people of Solis expect females to be as skilled as men when it comes to battle,” he continued. “That’s something so inherently ingrained in them that even those who have heard of the Guardians’ fighting skills still won’t view them as a threat.”
I should’ve realized that. “They’d be sadly mistaken to hold that belief.”
“And that is a mistake we intend to exploit,” Nova stated, and I hoped the Guardian no longer viewed me as a possible distraction to Casteel or a weakness.
“Thank you for explaining,” I said, filing the information away.
Casteel nodded. “You ready?”
Drawing in a shallow breath, I nodded, even though I wasn’t—because I had to be. “Yes.”
“Your promise.” He stepped closer to me, lowering his chin. “Don’t forget it.”
“I haven’t,” I whispered, the wolven dagger strapped to my thigh suddenly becoming a heavy weight. It would be nearly impossible to walk away from Ian if he’d become what I feared, not knowing when I’d get the chance again.
“You can do this,” he told me. Kissing the center of my forehead, he then took my hand and turned to the men at the gate. With a nod, the heavy doors opened with a groan of stone against stone.
Torches had been lit on both sides of the road, casting an eerie glow over the crimson, windowless carriage that waited, the side embossed with a circle with an arrow piercing the center. The Royal Crest.
Ian traveled in a carriage used by the Blood Crown. Nausea rose in my throat.
Two guards in black armor with matching mantles swept over their shoulders stood beside the carriage’s horses. Another two stood by the closed door, their grips on their swords firm. These knights had a new piece of attire. Their helmets were adorned with combs made of horsehair and shone red in the moonlight. Red-painted masks with slits for eyes fitted tightly to the upper parts of the knights’ faces and hid their identities. It reminded me of the masks worn during the Rite.
“The masks,” Vonetta murmured from behind us. “Are an interesting choice.”
“The Ascended are dramatic in all things,” Casteel said, and he was right.
My heart thumped crazy-fast as Casteel threaded his fingers through mine, and we walked forward, joined by Kieran and Delano and flanked by Vonetta and Nova.
I sensed nothing from the Royal Knights as pebbles crunched under our boots. We stopped several feet from the carriage. Having taken a vow of silence, the knights didn’t speak. At least, these didn’t. The ones who’d come to New Haven had had a lot to say.
“You called,” Casteel spoke first, an air of nonchalance oozing from his tone. “We answered.”
A beat of silence passed, and then a soft rap came from inside the carriage. My breath seized as one of the knights reached forward, opening the door.
Time seemed to slow as one cloak-covered arm extended from the carriage, and a pale hand clasped the door. My heart seemed to stop as a long, lean body unfolded from the interior, stepping out onto the road. The black cloak settled around legs wrapped in dark breeches. A white shirt peeked out from the folds of the cloak. I ceased to breathe as the body turned to where I stood, and I lifted my gaze. Hair a reddish brown in the firelight. A handsome, oval-shaped face and smooth jaw. Full lips not tilted up in a boyish smile like I remembered but settled in a flat line.
Oh, gods, it was my brother. But as my gaze continued tracking up to settle on his face, I saw the eyes that’d often shifted from brown to green depending on the light were now a fathomless, pitch-black.
The eyes of an Ascended.
He said nothing as he stared at me, his expression utterly unreadable, and the strained silence stretched between us like a widening gulf.
I felt a crack widening in my chest. My fingers went limp, but Casteel’s hold on my hand didn’t falter. His grip tightened, reminding me that I wasn’t alone, that he believed I could handle this because I could. I forced air into my lungs.
I can do this.
Lifting my chin, I heard myself speak. “Ian.”
There was a twitch of movement around his mouth that could have almost been a flinch as he blinked. “Poppy,” he said. And there went another tear in my heart. His voice was soft and light as air. It was his voice. The corners of his lips tipped up in an almost familiar smile. “I have been so worried.”
Had he? Truly? “I am fine,” I said, surprised by how level my voice sounded. “But you? You’re not.”
His head cocked to the side. “I am more than well, Poppy. It is not I who has been taken by the Dark One and held hostage—”
“I am not a hostage,” I interrupted as a red-hot arrow of anger pierced me. I latched on to it, as it was far better than the rising grief. “I am here with my husband, Prince Casteel.”
“Husband?” Ian’s voice roughened, but the inflection was forced. It had to be. The Ascended may be prone to extreme emotion like anger or lust, but concern? Sympathy? No. He stepped forward. “If this is a farce, I—”
A rumble of warning came from my right as Kieran inched forward. Ian halted, his eyes widening on the fawn-colored wolven. “Good gods,” he exclaimed, and he really did sound surprised…maybe even awed. “They really are huge.”
Kieran’s lips peeled back in a snarl as his body tensed. I focused on him, opening that cord—our connection. It’s okay.
I feared Kieran couldn’t hear me and would launch himself at Ian, but the growling faded.
“My wife is here of her own free will,” Casteel spoke then, his tone losing its hint of boredom. “And while I entertained this meeting, I will not tolerate insinuations regarding the legitimacy of our marriage.”
“Of course, not.” Ian’s dark stare slid its way to the Prince. There was a hardness to his features that had never been there before. “What does Atlantia truly hope to gain by taking my sister?”
A wave of awareness curled down my spine as the knight to Ian’s left turned his head toward him. I was surprised that he didn’t refer to me as all the Ascended did. As the Maiden. A tiny spark of hope returned.
“Atlantia has many things to gain from it,” Casteel responded. “But I have gained everything from the union.”
Ian stared at him, his brows knitted. He then looked at me, tentatively taking several steps forward. The wolven allowed it. “Am I supposed to believe you willingly married the monster responsible for our parents’ deaths?”
“I happily married the Prince, who you and I both know had nothing to do with our parents’ deaths.”
Ian shook his head, his brows raised. “I can only imagine what you have been told that led you to stand beside the enemy—those responsible for such terror and pain. I will not hold it against you,” he said. “Neither will the Crown. The Queen and King are so very worried about you, and we had so much hope that we would free you in the Wastelands.”
“I do not need to be freed.” Wrapping myself around the anger I felt, I smirked. “I’m sure they’re very concerned to have lost their blood bag.”
“Poppy, that’s not—”