My gaze snapped to the knights. They were shifting uneasily, obviously not excited about Ian’s request or how far away he was now standing from them, and I could feel the wariness coming from all those around me, especially Casteel.
This…this could be my chance. I would be more than close enough to use the dagger. I didn’t think he’d expect it. I could do it. And in my heart, I knew that to be true. But at what risk? Casteel and the others could easily take the four knights. I didn’t doubt that for one second, but what if the Blood Crown took that as an act of war and Ian had spoken the truth about these Revenants? What if my one act spawned the war that Casteel and I were trying to prevent?
I…I didn’t want that.
Relief warred with disappointment so potent that it felt like I’d taken the dagger and used it on myself. However, I would rather carry the guilt of allowing my brother to continue on this way than shoulder the regret of causing countless people to lose their lives.
“It’s okay,” I told Casteel as I stepped forward. “He won’t hurt me.”
Ian frowned slightly, but I hoped Casteel understood what I said. Wariness throbbed from all those behind me, and I swore the wolven dagger did the same. But I ignored both things as I stopped in front of Ian. He didn’t smell like the sea and sun anymore. Instead, I caught the floral musk of an expensive cologne. Ian’s skin was cold, even through his shirt, and it all felt wrong as he folded me in his arms. I closed my eyes and let myself imagine just for a second that this was the Ian I remembered—that I was hugging my brother, and he was okay.
“Poppy, listen to me,” he whispered, and my eyes opened. “I know the truth. Wake Nyktos. Only his guards can stop the Blood Crown.”
“Well…” Jasper drew out the word from where he sat in one of the closed-off rooms beyond the Great Hall of the fortress. Delano and Lyra were trailing the Ascended to make sure they left, but the rest of us were here. “That was unexpected.”
I almost laughed, but I didn’t think that was appropriate. I was already wearing a path in the stone floor, pacing the length of the room. I couldn’t sit. Not with how my mind was racing. Not with my emotions all over the place, bouncing from sorrow to hope to disbelief.
Ian was still in there.
For him to say what he had, he had to be. And I…I could’ve stabbed him. My stomach roiled and then lurched. Ian was still in there. Good gods, I wanted to shout with joy and also sink to my knees and sob because that meant he was himself while surrounded by Ascended. What he must deal with. I couldn’t let myself think about that. He was smart and clever. Obviously, he was stronger than I ever realized for him to survive as he had.
But the implications of Ian remaining himself? Being able to put on a convincing act to survive so young in his Ascension? There could be others—many more.
“What do you think he meant by Nyktos’s guards?” I asked.
“That, I am not sure.” Casteel watched me from where he sat. “It would be hard to imagine that his guards would leave him.”
Nova frowned from where she stood by the door. “You think he spoke the truth? That this is not a trap of sorts?”
“He said he knew the truth,” I told her—told the room. Casteel had been close enough to overhear my brother’s whisper. The rest hadn’t. “He had to be talking about the Ascended.”
“He didn’t sound like he knew the truth about the Ascended,” Jasper remarked with a scowl. “He sounded like every Ascended I’ve come across.”
“That had to be an act,” I said.
“Then he’s one hell of an actor,” the older wolven retorted.
It was a good act, but we were thinking about two different situations. “Growing up, Ian made up these stories and then told them to me. He did it because he knew I was…I was often lonely and bored.” I started walking again, fiddling with the edge of my braid. “Anyway, when he told me those stories, he acted them out, adopting different accents and mannerisms. He was good at it—good enough that he’d be at home on a stage.”
“And I barely heard what he whispered to Poppy,” Casteel commented. “There’s no way the knights did.”
I nodded. “He made sure they couldn’t hear. That’s why he moved so far from them—something I could tell made them uncomfortable.”
“Truth or not, the fact that Ian even brought up Nyktos makes me think that he knows about your heritage,” Kieran began, leaning against the table beside where his sister sat perched on the edge, her feet resting on a chair. “And that means the Blood Crown likely does, as well. Which isn’t exactly a surprise, but it could mean they have some understanding of your abilities.”
“They may.” I stopped playing with my braid and instead started worrying the skin of my thumb. “I mean, it sounded like they orchestrated my creation,” I said without going into too much detail. It was strange how twenty-four hours ago, I had been caught up in the knowledge that Malec was my father. Now, replaced by something far more important, it felt like a non-issue. “Then they probably have a good idea of what my gifts could grow into. But these Revenant things? I’ve never heard of them before.”
“Neither have I,” Casteel said, which was unsettling since he’d spent time in the capital far more recently than I had.
“But whatever they are, they must be bad for Ian to say a large army couldn’t beat them.”
“That is if what he said is true,” Kieran pointed out.
“It may not be. It just might be.” Casteel squinted as he drew his thumb along his lower lip, watching me. “Wake Nyktos.”
Our gazes connected. What my brother told me to do sounded too bizarre to even consider, but…
“I doubt any god would be all that happy with being awakened, let alone Nyktos,” Vonetta said. “What if he said that in hopes the god takes you out?”
My stomach tumbled at the thought. Angering a god would be a surefire way to remove me from the picture. But I also thought about what the Duchess had said. That I had succeeded where she couldn’t. Could waking Nyktos be a part of that?
I didn’t think so. Duchess Teerman referenced Atlantia, and I truly believed that Ian was trying to help us.
“But the Blood Crown wants Poppy alive,” Casteel pointed out. “And they want her at this meeting. If the plan is to get her killed by waking Nyktos, why set up the meeting?”
“Good point.” Vonetta’s fingers tapped on her bent knees as she glanced between Casteel and me. “You two are seriously thinking about it, aren’t you? Waking Nyktos?”
Casteel still held my gaze. “If what Ian said is true, we may need Nyktos’s guards. Either way, Atlantia has lost the element of surprise when it comes to our armies.”
I nodded in agreement. “Are you familiar with Oak Ambler?”
A smoky smile appeared as he shared a quick glance with Kieran. “We’ve been to and infiltrated Castle Redrock.”
My brows lifted. “Do I want to know why you did that and what the outcome was?”
His gaze sharpened, burned. “Probably not.”