“I wouldn’t.” Casteel came to stand behind me, folding his arms around my waist. “Not only can she defend herself,” he repeated, “she needs to be able to defend herself. And that is why she will be allowed to do so, whether she is our Queen or our Princess.”
My heart swelled so fast it was a wonder it didn’t lift me right to the ceiling. Casteel…he just understood me. Understood my need to never be helpless.
“You’re the only person I truly trust Poppy with. Only you,” Casteel continued, and my breath halted a little in my chest. “I know your concern comes from a good place, and Poppy knows that, too.”
My lips remained sealed.
Casteel squeezed me. “Don’t you, Poppy?”
I swallowed a curse. “Yes, I do know that.” And I did, but I was irritated and confused about those things that had been outside—bewildered and unsettled about everything the one on the wall had said. “I know it comes from a good place.”
Kieran rubbed his jaw as his stare drifted to the terrace doors. “I know you’re capable of defending yourself. Stopping you had nothing to do with that. But it’s just that you’re in danger here, and you shouldn’t be. This is the one place you should be safe.” He dropped his hand and faced me. “I know none of that means I should’ve told you to stand down. I’m sorry.”
The sincerity in his apology was clear in his voice. It tasted of warm vanilla, but I could also taste a hint of something sour, just like I had with Casteel, which caused an ache in my chest. Neither of them was responsible for what had happened here. “It’s okay,” I said, looking up at him. “I will make sure it’s safe for me. We will make sure of that.”
Kieran nodded, smiling faintly. “Damn right, we will.”
I grinned at that.
“Well, now that we cleared that up, I know you have a lot of questions,” Casteel said, turning me toward the bathing chamber. “But let’s get this stuff off you first.” He paused. “And into something clean.”
I glanced down at my hands, my nose wrinkling as I saw that they were spotted with purple. “Is it even blood?”
“I honestly can’t say for sure.” Casteel led me to the vanity in the bathing chamber and turned on the faucets. He grabbed a bottle and squirted some of that rich, pine-scented soap onto my hands. “Whatever it is, it smells weird.”
I nodded as I rubbed my hands together. “It reminds me of stale lilacs.”
His brows knitted as he grabbed a bar of soap. “You know, you’re right.” He turned, handing the soap to Kieran. In the mirror, I watched him strip off his ruined shirt and toss it aside as he turned on a faucet to the shower. One of the overhead showerheads came on. “The one you said was on the wall,” Casteel said quietly, drawing my attention. “He spoke?”
I nodded as I rubbed the liquid soap up my forearms. “He wasn’t like the others. He was either mortal or Atlantian.”
“He wore a silver mask,” Kieran said, the muscles along his back and shoulders tensing as he dipped his head under the spray as he scrubbed his face and his closely-cropped hair. “Like Jansen did at the ruins. He also had those damn bone bindings with him.”
“What?” Casteel barked out.
“He did,” I said, running my hands under the warm water.
“Those bones will never touch your skin again.” Casteel’s voice was full of smoke and blood, and eyes as cold as frozen amber met mine. “That, I can promise you.”
“I promise myself that,” I murmured, as a cold slice of unease pierced through me when I thought of the Unseen. “No one has spoken the name of that village in years.”
Casteel’s jaw clenched as he ran his palms up my forearms, washing off the soap. “I knew where the inn was located because I did some digging into your background before we met, but that wasn’t readily available information.” He scooped my hair back from my face as I reached for more of the soap. “We don’t know how many people Alastir shared that knowledge with.”
He held my hair as I quickly washed my face. When I was done, the scent of stale flowers no longer clung to my skin at least, and Kieran had turned off the water. “Thank you,” I said as he handed me a towel.
“Alastir claimed there was another at the inn, correct?” Water dampened Kieran’s throat and chest as his gaze met ours in the mirror. “Called him the Dark One?”
I backed away from the vanity, lowering the towel. “He did. Why?”
“Is it possible that Alastir simply shared that information with others?” Kieran answered. “Or is there the chance that he was speaking the truth? That another was there.”
Anything was possible, but… “Alastir made it sound like this mystery figure led the Craven there.” I watched Casteel strip off his ruined shirt. That strange, purplish blood streaked the upper part of his chest. He took the bar of soap from Kieran as I said, “Can these…Unseen control the Craven?”
Tension bracketed his mouth as he lathered the soap between his palms. “The Unseen were gone long before the first Craven was ever created—or as far as we know. Either way, the Craven can be herded in a direction, but they cannot be controlled beyond that.” He looked back at Kieran. “If you want, you can grab one of my shirts.”
Kieran nodded, making his way to the wardrobe just outside the bathing chamber as I placed my used towel in a hamper. “But I…”
“What?” Casteel dragged his soap-covered hands over his face and then through his hair.
It took me a moment to pull my thoughts together. “I was told that my parents left Carsodonia because they wanted a quieter life. But that was a lie. They discovered the truth, or they always knew what the Ascended were doing and decided they could no longer be a part of it,” I said, hating to even speak those words. “He also claimed that my mother was this Handmaiden, trained to fight.” I hurried over to the stool, grabbing a smaller towel like the one Kieran had used as Casteel dipped his head, washing his face, and then ran the water through his hair. “That could be true, or it could also be a lie. But what if Alastir spoke the truth? What if someone else was there and led the Craven to the inn?”
I handed Casteel the towel as I said, “I…I have these memories of that night,” I said, glancing at Kieran. He’d donned a black tunic. “I know I heard Alastir’s voice—I heard him talking to my father. But I…I’ve dreamt of someone in a dark cloak. Someone else could’ve been there, and Alastir didn’t make it sound like it was someone who had anything to do with him. What if…what if that Craven attack had nothing to do with Alastir or the Unseen?”
“You’re thinking the Ascended may have had something to do with it?” Kieran asked from the doorway. “But if they knew what you were, they would want you to stay alive.”
“Agreed.” Casteel dragged the towel over his chest and face. “Luring the Craven to the inn would’ve been too much of a risk. Those creatures cannot be controlled by anyone.”
“And all that hinges on whether or not the Ascended knew what I was before my parents left—before I was attacked. I still don’t know that for sure,” I said. “Alastir never confirmed that.”