“Don’t,” I interrupted him, sliding my hand free from Casteel’s. “I know the truth about the Ascended. I know how the Craven are made, and I know why they are holding Prince Malik and what they planned to use me for. So, let’s not pretend that I don’t know the truth. That you don’t. The Blood Crown is the root of the evil plaguing the people of Solis. They are the oppressors, not the heroes.”
A heartbeat passed. “The villain is always the hero in their story, aren’t they?”
“Not in this one,” I retorted.
He didn’t speak for a long moment and then said, “I would like to speak with you.” His dark eyes flicked to the storm brewing beside me. “Alone.”
“That’s not going to happen,” I said, my heart cracking a little more.
“Because you don’t trust me?” A muscle twitched near Ian’s mouth. “Or because the Dark One will not allow it?”
A midnight laugh rumbled from Casteel. “You don’t know your sister all that well if you believe anyone can stop her from doing what she wants.”
That was the thing, though. Another fissure streaked across my heart. Ian only knew me as his baby sister and then as the Maiden. He only knew me back when I did what I was told. And, gods, I wanted him to know me now—know the real me.
But seeing that inhuman coldness etched into his features, I knew that would never happen.
I wanted to cry.
I wanted to sit down right there and crack wide-open. It wouldn’t change what was standing in front of me, but it would make me feel better. At least temporarily. But I couldn’t do that. Not here. Not anytime soon. So, I thought of Casteel’s mother, and I did what she had done in front of me. I stitched myself back together so tightly that only a thread of grief coursed through me.
Once I was sure I had it under control, I took a step toward Ian. “You are my brother. I will always love you.” My voice caught. “But you have to know what they do to those children given over to the Rite. They serve no gods. How can you be okay with that? The Ian I knew would’ve been horrified to know that children are murdered—that innocent people are slaughtered in their sleep—all so the Ascended can feed.”
Something flickered across his face, but it was gone too quickly for me to know if it was really even there. His features smoothed out. “But I am an Ascended, Poppy.”
I drew in a ragged inhale as I stiffened. The warmth of Casteel’s body pressed against my back. “And Tawny?” I rasped.
“Tawny is safe,” he stated flatly. “As is the Dark One’s brother. Both are well taken care of and provided for.”
“Do you truly expect us to believe that?” Casteel demanded, his anger rising to the surface.
“You don’t have to. Both of you can see for yourselves,” Ian replied. His words fell like frozen rain. “That is why I am here.”
I suppressed a shudder as the spark of hope died. There was nothing familiar about Ian’s tone now, and his words meant more than what was spoken. He wasn’t here out of concern. “The message from the Blood Crown?” I managed.
He nodded. “The true Queen has requested a meeting with the Prince and Princess of Atlantia.”
True Queen? I almost laughed. I was surprised that Casteel didn’t. I glanced at him. His striking features had sharpened. “Funny, we wish to speak to the false Queen, as well.”
“Then she will be pleased to hear that you will meet with her in a fortnight to discuss the future. At the Royal Seat in Oak Ambler,” Ian told us, referencing a small port city just before the Wastelands. “Of course, she extends this offer with a promise that no harm will come to either of you in hopes that you will honor her offer and leave the armies you have gathered to the north.”
My stomach dropped as a cool shower of surprise echoed from the wolven and Casteel. How did they know?
“Yes.” Ian smiled then, and it killed me a little when I saw the hint of fangs along both rows of teeth. “The King and Queen know of the armies gathering. They hope that this meeting can prevent unnecessary bloodshed. He glanced to where Vonetta stood. “You are more than welcome to join.”
My brows crept up on my forehead. Ian had been a bit of a flirt growing up, but wasn’t he married now? Then again, he’d barely spoken of his wife, and it wasn’t like I’d seen a loving relationship between an Ascended pair before.
“Thanks, but I’ll pass,” Vonetta replied dryly as I sensed a rise in Kieran’s annoyance.
“Shame,” Ian murmured. “I had hoped to continue our conversation.”
“Not me,” she muttered, and I so wondered what conversation he was referencing.
“Why, in either kingdom, would we trust that offer?” Casteel had silently moved to stand beside me once more, something that caused the knights to start forward.
Ian held up a hand, halting the knights. “Because the Blood Crown has no desire to start another war,” he responded. “One I hope you realize you will not win.”
“We’re going to have to disagree on that,” Casteel bit out.
“So we shall.” Ian inclined his head. “But you should also know that if you come with ill will, not only will you be destroyed, but so will Atlantia—starting with Spessa’s End.”
Rage coated the back of my throat, and I reached out, curling a hand around Casteel’s arm. A slight tremor coursed through him. His chin had dipped, his features becoming sharp angles. I squeezed his arm, and he briefly glanced down at my hand as if he didn’t know who touched him. It took several seconds for him to wrangle his anger.
“The Blood Crown is rather confident,” I said, taking on the same tone of nonchalance Casteel had had in the beginning. Dark eyes met mine. “Which tells me that the Queen has no real knowledge of what armies are gathering to the north.” Considering that I had no real idea, it was nothing more than a bluff.
“Sister,” Ian purred, turning my stomach. “You could have hundreds of thousands of soldiers, half of them wolven larger than the ones before me, and you would not defeat what the Queen has created.”
Unsettled, I stared at him. “What has the Queen created, Ian?”
“Let’s hope you never need to find out.”
“I want to find out,” I insisted.
“Do you speak of more knights?” Casteel cast a sneer in the direction of those standing behind him. “Because if so, we’re not worried.”
“No.” Ian continued to smile, while the knights showed no reaction to Casteel’s taunt. “The Revenants are not knights. They are not Ascended, mortal, nor Atlantian. They are something far more…unique than that.”
Revenant? I had no idea what that could even be.
“I must take my leave now. It is a long journey back to the capital. I look forward to seeing you in Oak Ambler.” His gaze shifted to me. “I wish to hug you, Poppy. I hope you can look past our differences and grant this favor.”
I locked up as the weight of the wolven dagger reminded me of the oath I’d made to myself and what I’d promised Casteel. Ian was…he was no longer my brother. There were moments when I saw him, but those seconds truly meant nothing. He was no longer in there.