“Succeeds you?” She didn’t understand.

“I will take the throne, and then I will die,” Ares said, with certain matter-of-factness that made her want to scream. Or do something to protest the ruthless inevitability in his voice. “And whoever comes next, whether it be a cousin or whatever issue my father manages to rustle up in his waning years, your boys will be out there. Some will inevitably claim that one of them is the rightful king. And do you know what will happen then?”

“Let me guess,” Pia said, more sharply than she intended, surely. But she couldn’t seem to pull herself back. “Another war.”

“The blood of Atilia runs in my veins,” Ares told her, his voice low and insistent. “It is poison. It is war and it is pain. And I am sorry to be the bearer of this news, but it is in you, too, now. It is in those boys. It is who we are.”

“I don’t know what any of that means.” But she had moved herself back as she spoke, so she was sitting up against the headboard. And she was watching him as if he might snap at any moment, and then God only knew what might happen. Or what she might do. “Of course there’s nothing in your blood. Royalty is not a virus.”

“I beg to differ,” Ares said, with a short sort of laugh, bitter and dark. “Royalty is power, nothing more and nothing less. And power infects. It could be that some successor seeks you out, and tries to neutralize any threat that your boys present. That is horrifying enough to contemplate.”

That he had already contemplated that stung Pia. When she hadn’t. She hadn’t thought much beyond her pregnancy. She had been too busy settling here in this palace of his. She had been too focused on her hopeless little heart.

She was already a bad mother and her children weren’t born yet.

“But there is also another possibility,” Ares said in that same powerfully mild way that was wreaking havoc on her. “Who knows who our sons will grow up to become? Either one of them might decide that they deserve their birthright. What do you plan to do then?”

Pia’s heart clattered around in her chest. And all she could seem to do was beat herself up for the possibilities she hadn’t considered.

She tried to shake it off—because she could beat herself up on her own time. She didn’t have to do it when Ares was watching her like this, close and very nearly ferocious. “So your position is that we should marry, and that will somehow...prevent your sons from taking the throne? Or prevent someone else from taking it? Or prevent...something else? I’m not following you.”

“Pia—”

“And I’ve already told you that I won’t restrict your access from them. I mean that. But a marriage between you and me isn’t about them. It’s about me.”

She hated the fact that her voice cracked on that last word. That it gave her away so completely. That it showed him things she didn’t want him to know.

“Pia,” he said again, even more calmly than before.

And this time, she didn’t care how hard it was. She got herself to the edge of the bed, and shoved herself off. She had to stand still for a moment, her hand on the small of her back, and she almost burst into tears because she wanted to storm away. But there was no storming in her current state. There was only waddling. And she already felt bad enough. She certainly didn’t need to waddle in front of him. Naked.

She grabbed at the coverlet that had been kicked to the foot of the bed. It was something spun from gold and unicorn dust, or so it appeared, like everything else in this place. Pia wrapped it around herself like a makeshift dress.

And she didn’t understand how she had let all this happen.

It was as if she hadn’t quite been paying attention. There had been all that mind-altering sex to distract her. And the exquisite sweetness of their nights together made her forget herself during the day. He’d moved her into his rooms and she’d just...let it happen. She hadn’t put up so much as a token protest. In fact, it hadn’t occurred to her to protest.

She’d been enjoying herself too much.

And now she was in her eighth month of this pregnancy. She was enormous. And she couldn’t tell if she was finding it hard to breathe because she was emotional, or because she had two babies pressed up hard against...everything.

But she knew that she’d miscalculated. Greatly. She had more than miscalculated.

Because what she couldn’t tell him was that while he had been indulging himself, and playing whatever game this was with her, she had been doing something far more dangerous. He had been playing a long game, trying to get her to marry him for his own suspect reasons.

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