Grinning, Casteel tugged on the lapel of my cloak as he passed, heading for several low-hanging branches. “The Ascended are known for spending extravagant sums on rich gowns and sparkling stones. But do you know what else they are known for?” He lifted one of the branches, and through the remaining thin, bare limbs was a pile of gray rock at the foot of a narrow opening in the wall. “Their unwillingness to spend any of that coin on the most fundamental upkeep of their cities and even their castles.”
“Gods,” I muttered, shaking my head.
“Really is shameful.” Delano knocked several pale shades of hair back from his face. One side of his lips kicked up. “And also very beneficial to us.”
Casteel led the way, lifting the branches as he passed under them and holding them up for me. The earthy, musty scent that greeted us as we entered the tear in the wall and eased into a dark space reminded me too much of the tunnels that led to Iliseeum. I forced my mind to focus on the plan at hand. According to Casteel and Kieran, the courtyards could be accessed from underground walkways and chambers. From there, we would be able to get an idea of what kind of forces we were dealing with.
And then? Well, we were going to walk right into the heart of Castle Redrock, into the Great Hall, and announce that we were earlier than expected. We would catch them off guard, and that would surely mess with the heads of the guards and the Blood Crown alike, that we had been able to come in right under their noses. And being caught off guard was often a fatal weakness.
“Careful.” Casteel found my hand in the darkness. “The ground slopes.”
“What did the Ascended create this for?” I asked as I tried to make sense of the area we were in.
“It was here before the Ascended,” Casteel said as he moved like a shadow through the nothingness. He stopped, shouldering a door that creaked softly. A torch-lit earthen tunnel awaited. “The woods led to a path straight to the bluffs. I imagine it was once used for smuggling of some sort.”
“And I can tell you that the Ascended who once stayed here used it for smuggling of a different sort,” Kieran commented from behind me.
They could use it to smuggle mortals in and out of the castle without them ever being seen entering the grounds.
I shuddered as we walked between the damp stone walls of a passageway, my hand on the wolven dagger’s hilt. We came upon a short set of steps, where the hallway split in two. Casteel headed right.
“As your advisor,” Kieran began in a low voice as we passed rooms, some with old, wooden doors now barred, and others open to reveal racks of dusty bottles of what I imagined—or hoped—was wine. “I would like to formally suggest the placement of guards at the entrances of any and all tunnels at any of the residences you two may end up staying in.”
Casteel snorted. “I think that is an excellent suggestion.”
A sense of wariness rose in Delano, drawing my attention. “What is it?”
His pale eyes were sharp and alert as he scanned the rooms we passed. “They know we’re coming. You would think that someone in their guard would have thought to station guards in these tunnels just in case, especially since the castle was breached in the past.”
“Yeah, but they didn’t know this would be how we came in,” Kieran told him.
Delano had a point, but the Blood Crown rarely left the capital as far as I knew. Would they have known of these tunnels? Would whoever had been placed in the Royal Seat have discovered them? I imagined they had because of how easy it would be to bring people in or to…dispose of bodies.
Unease prickled my skin as we walked on, crossing another set of short steps. My gaze swept down another narrow hall that Casteel and Kieran passed, their attention focused ahead. There was a chamber to the side, one lit with several torches. I stopped suddenly, nearly causing Delano to walk into me.
“What is…?” Surprise rocked him as he saw what I did. “Holy shit.”
“What?” Casteel turned as I pivoted, heading for the chamber. “What are you doing?”
“The cage—look at what’s in the cage in that room.” I hurried forward, not quite believing what I saw.
In the center of the small room, a large gray feline struggled to its feet behind bleached-white bars. A wicked sense of deja vu filtered through me.
“Look,” I repeated, shaking my head. It couldn’t be the same one, but… “This looks just like the cave cat I saw when I was a child.”
“What the fuck?” muttered Kieran as he stopped at the mouth of the chamber while Casteel strode toward me.
“That…really does look like a cave cat,” Casteel murmured. The large cat now prowled restlessly, its muscles tensing and bunching under its sleek coat as it peered out from between the bars with vibrant green eyes. Intelligent eyes. Knowing ones. “Why in the hell would they keep this here?”
“Or bring it with them?” Delano added softly, his eyes narrowed on the creature. “The damn thing looks underfed.”
It really did.
I started toward it. The cat stopped, watching me.
“Poppy,” Casteel whispered. “We need to hurry.”
“I know. I just…” I didn’t know how to explain what I felt. Why the eather in my chest hummed so violently now.
“Okay. So you were right. They have a cave cat.” Tension crowded Kieran’s voice. “But we don’t have time to free the castle pets.”
I knew we didn’t have time, and I also doubted that a cave cat or any wild animal could be kept alive this long in a cage. But I…I couldn’t stop myself. I knelt before the cage, the cat’s unblinking stare capturing mine. I reached through the bars—
“Poppy! Don’t you dare stick your hand—” Casteel shot forward.
The tips of my fingers brushed soft fur as Casteel’s hand wrapped around my arm. He jerked my hand back as the cat shuddered and—and kept shuddering.
“What’s happening?” Panic exploded as Casteel dragged me to my feet. “Did I hurt it? I didn’t mean to—”
We all stopped and stared.
The feline’s fur stood up as it sank to its haunches, shaking fiercely. Silvery white light seeped across its eyes, spitting and crackling. Under the glossy fur, the cat’s skin began to glow—
“Oh, gods,” Delano groaned. “You really need to stop touching things, Poppy.”
The fur retracted into skin that smoothed and became a golden, wheatish tone. Long, russet-colored hair fell forward, brushing the floor of the cage, shielding much of the nude man kneeling behind the bars, his upper body tucked close to his lower half. The sharp definition of the bones and muscles along his shoulders and legs showed how frail he was, but through the matted hair, vivid green eyes locked with mine once more.
The man shuddered again, and as quickly as he’d appeared mortal, he was once more a large feline. The cat was flat on his belly now, trembling and shivering, his head lowered.
“I’ll ask again,” Kieran said. “What in the actual fuck?”
“Maybe he’s a wivern,” Delano murmured, referencing one of the bloodlines believed to be extinct. “Or maybe a changeling? Some of the older ones could take on the form of an animal.”