I stiffened as disbelief echoed through me. Vonetta and the others wouldn’t have made it to the gates yet. “How?”
“We saw them and expedited their arrival,” she replied, the blades at Delano’s throat and stomach steady. “This morning, to be exact.”
“Where are they?” Casteel demanded through gritted teeth.
“They are safe and currently waiting for you all to join them.”
“And we’re supposed to believe you?” Kieran accused.
“She speaks the truth,” came a familiar voice from our right.
My breath caught as I turned, and Casteel tensed as if prepared to launch himself at me. Ian stepped out from the hall, his gaze moving from us to the woman and Delano. He looked...tense, his paler-than-should-be features strained.
“You were told no unnecessary bloodshed,” Ian spoke quietly.
“See?” The woman raised her brows at us. “And I haven’t spilled any. Not even a drop.” Without warning, she released Delano and stepped back, lowering her blades.
Delano spun around, his chest rising and falling as he glared at the young woman. She winked at him.
“She has told you all the truth. Your friends are fine.” Ian’s gaze touched mine. “I can take you to them, and the Queen will meet us there. You may keep your weapons.”
I looked over at Casteel. His jaw flexed as he nodded curtly. “Well, we might as well. We are here to see the Blood Crown.”
And it wasn’t like we had a choice.
Gods, this was why there’d been no guards underneath. It could’ve also been why we’d had no problem entering the city. They already knew we were coming in using a different route, and earlier than expected. We’d lost the upper hand before we even realized it, and we were the ones caught off guard.
The guards waited until we started walking, led by the strange woman. Casteel stuck close to my side as Ian fell into step beside me.
He stared straight ahead as we traveled the windowless hall. “I hope you’re well, sister,” he said, and I looked up at him, staying silent. “And that your travels after we last met went well.”
My gaze sharpened on him, and he glanced briefly at me. I could read nothing from those fathomless eyes or from him, but was he trying to ask about Nyktos’s guards without giving anything away?
“They did,” I lied.
His features eased in the slightest, and I swore it was relief. “Good.”
“You’re in—” I stopped myself from blurting out what I suspected. The woman in front of us looked over her shoulder. “You’re alone? Where is your wife?”
“Lady Claudeya remains in the capital.”
Casteel’s hand brushed mine as we entered the Great Hall. Like the hallway, there was no sunlight. Heavy, deep crimson drapes covered the windows, and a knight was stationed in front of each one. Several small tables of untouched food and drinks were situated between a handful of seats and settees before a raised dais. The chairs were occupied. Vonetta rose, followed by Emil, Lyra, and Hisa. Naill was already standing behind them. None of them looked entirely thrilled, but I could feel relief coming from them and us. Someone else remained seated in one of the chairs, partially blocked by—
Vonetta caught my stare and stepped aside.
Air punched out of my lungs as Tawny rose, a beautiful sight in a simple rose-hued gown with long, fluttering sleeves.
“Poppy?” she whispered, stepping forward as she glanced at Vonetta and Emil. “You’re really—”
“It is my sister,” Ian cut her off, and a look passed between my brother and her, one that might have been of warning, but a knot expanded and tripled in my throat because Tawny wasn’t…
She hadn’t Ascended.
I started toward her, but Casteel caught my hand.
“It’s okay,” Ian stated quietly, and the look Casteel shot him said that he didn’t think much of anything my brother said.
But Emil nodded. “It is.”
Casteel’s jaw worked, but he released my hand, and I rushed forward at the same moment Tawny swept past Emil, her mass of brown and gold curls as wild and beautiful as ever. The moment I reached her, I wrapped my arms around her, and when I felt her warm skin under her dress, I shook. I trembled even harder when she curled her arms around me, holding me as tightly as I held her, and I could feel that she was shaking just as badly—I could also feel her emotions. Bubbly and sugary wonder. Earthy and woodsy relief, and the bitter taste of—
“The Queen isn’t what she seems,” Tawny whispered in my ear as her fear coated the back of my throat. “You need—”
“Poppy looks so different,” Ian interrupted, having come up behind us. “Doesn’t she?”
I pulled back, my eyes searching Tawny’s as she nodded. I spared a quick look at Ian and saw that the Handmaiden was eyeing us as she moved slowly behind Casteel and Kieran. Both of them had crept closer. Tawny…she knew the truth about the Queen and the Ascended, and Ian was trying to protect her.
“I know,” I said, meeting Tawny’s gaze. “I do look different without the veil.”
Tawny’s lips trembled, but she forced a smile as she looked between Ian and me. “You look beautiful without the veil.”
I slid my hands to her arms. “I’m so happy to see you. I’ve missed you so much. And I’ve been so worried.”
“As I’ve missed you,” Tawny replied, aware of the guards circling the room. “But there is no reason to worry.” She swallowed as she looked up at where Casteel had come to stand at my side. “Hello.” She paused, eyes narrowing slightly. “Hawke.”
How she said his name and the look she gave him was so Tawny, I almost started crying.
“Hello, Tawny.” Casteel bowed his head. “I am relieved to see that you are well. Although I wish we were confirming that under different circumstances.”
“As do we all,” Ian murmured under his breath.
The young woman drifted closer, her still gaze seeming to miss nothing. Tawny started to glance back at her, but then the Handmaiden’s gaze flicked to the entrance of the Great Hall.
Awareness pressed against the nape of my neck and my back, erupting in icy shivers. Ian stepped back, using his arm to guide Tawny to do the same. I knew before I turned what I would find, but I still moved as if I were caught in thick, cold slush. I looked past the line of guards with their black mantles.
Crimson and black silk skirts flowed like water across the stone floor. The gown’s deep vee cut between the swells of breasts, reaching the impossibly narrow waist encased in rows of rubies chained together. Red-tipped fingers clasped together. Garnets strung and clasped tightly around slender wrists and a pale neck. Lush, red lips tipped up in a faint smile. A turned-up nose pierced with an onyx stone. High cheekbones flushed artfully with rouge. Black eyes glimmered under the golden chandeliers, outlined and winged in black. Arched, deep brown brows. Hair that shone a dark auburn was swept up and back so the mass spilled over an elegant shoulder in thick, loose curls that brushed the rows of rubies at the waist. Carved from pure, polished ruby and consisting of twelve hoops connected by oval pieces of onyx and topped with diamonds crafted into spires, the Blood Crown was one of the most beautiful and horrendous works of art that had ever been created.