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Casteel leapt down, immediately reaching for me. I took his hands and he lifted me from the saddle, placing me on the ground beside him. His hands slid to my hips and lingered.

I looked up at him, and he bent down, pressing his lips to my forehead. The sweet kiss tugged at my heart. His arm stayed around me as we turned.

Kieran and Jasper had stopped in front of us. It wasn’t them that had caught my attention. It was the wolven not in their mortal forms. They had followed us into the courtyard, and there were… gods, there had to be hundreds of them. They prowled along the stables and the estate. Dozens leapt onto the walls of the courtyard.

Others climbed the wide steps of the estate and stood between the pillars. They parted, creating a path between us and the bronze doors, but before Casteel or I could move, they shifted. All of them at once.

Fur thinned and gave way to flesh. Bones cracked and shrunk, fusing back together. Limbs straightened and claws retracted into nails. Within seconds, they stood in their mortals forms. There was a whole lot of skin on display. More than I ever needed to see.

My cheeks started to heat as I struggled to not look, well, anywhere. I started to ask Casteel what was happening, but the wolven moved simultaneously.

Right hands balled into fists. They placed them over the center of their chests and then sunk onto one knee, lowering their heads. All of them—the wolven in the courtyard, the ones on the wall, on the steps and between the pillars.

I felt a little dizzy as Jasper and Kieran turned to us and followed suit.

All of them bowed.

“They have never done that for me,” Casteel murmured.

Kieran lifted his head just enough for me to see he smirked.

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ose then, the ruby crown dangling from my fingers. “Make sure she knows that I am the Chosen, the One who is Blessed, and I carry the blood of the King of Gods in me. I am the

Liessa to the wolven, the second daughter, the true heir, owed the crowns of Atlantia and Solis. I am the Queen of Flesh and Fire, and the gods’ guards ride with me. Tell the Blood Queen to prepare for war.”

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“Bravery is a fleeting beast, isn’t it? Always there to get you into trouble, but quick to disappear once you’re where you want to be.”

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“The only people I will ever know as my parents were killed to prevent this moment. I was left dead and scarred because of my birthright and forced to wear the veil because of my bloodline. My brother was

Ascended because of it. I’ve had years of controlling my own life taken away from me.

Innocent people have died because of what is owed to me. I almost died. And on the way here, we were attacked. None of that has stopped this moment from coming. The Crown belongs to me and my husband, and I believe you already know that.”

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Casteel stopped, turning to me. His fingers touched my cheek, just below the scars. He guided my gaze to his. “You’ve faced Craven and vamprys, men wearing masks of human flesh, creatures without faces, and stared down

Atlantians who wanted to harm you with the kind of strength and bravery most lack,” he whispered.

“Remember what you are. Fearless.”

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“The villain is always the hero in their story, aren’t they?”

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“I’m not finished looking at you. Do you know how beautiful you are? Have I told you that today?”

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“Very few men don’t want to make war, while nearly every woman wants to end it. Most would believe the former causes the most bloodshed,” she said, running a finger over the ruby petal. “They’d be wrong. The latter is always the bloodiest, and always requires a great sacrifice.

But, sometimes, no matter how many measures one takes, or how much they are willing to compromise, war cannot always be prevented.”

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“Those words—that title—are important to us because it means that from the blood of those who have fallen at the hands of the Ascended, and from the ash of all they have destroyed, we will still rise.” She cocked her head to the side. “To us, it says that despite what they tried to do to us, we were not defeated. And because of it, we will rise again.”

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“My wife is far humbler than I am,” Casteel asserted, and there was a soft, barely audible but recognizable snort from behind me. The corners of my lips turned down as Casteel’s gaze slid to mine. “If I were capable of doing what she did, I would have my greatness inked on my skin.”

“Really,” I replied dryly. “That sounds excessive.”

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