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The Crown of Gilded Bones: Chapter 1


“Lower your swords,” Queen Eloana commanded, her hair shining a glossy onyx in the sun as she sank onto one knee. The raw emotion pouring out of her seeped into the Temple floors of the Chambers of Nyktos, bitter and hot, tasting of anguish and a helpless sort of anger. It stretched out toward me, needling my skin and brushing against this…primal thing inside me. “And bow before the…before the last descendant of the most ancient ones. She who carries the blood of the King of Gods within her. Bow before your new Queen.”

The blood of the King of Gods? Your new Queen? None of that made sense. Not her words or when she had removed her crown.

A too-thin breath scorched my throat as I looked at the man standing beside the Queen of Atlantia. The crown was still upon the King’s golden-haired head, but the bones had remained a bleached white. Nothing like the gleaming, gilded one the Queen had placed at the feet of the statue of Nyktos. My gaze skipped over the terrible, broken things scattered about the once pristine, white floors. I’d done that to them, adding their blood to what had fallen from the sky, filling the thin fissures in the marble. I didn’t look at that or anyone else—every part of my being focused on him.

He remained on one knee, staring up at me from between the vee of the swords he’d crossed over his chest. His damp hair, blue-black in the Atlantian sunlight, curled against the sandy-hued skin of his forehead. Red streaked those high, angular cheekbones, the proud curve of his jaw, and ran down lips that had once shattered my heart. Lips that had pieced those broken shards back together with the truth. Bright, golden eyes locked with mine, and even bowed before me, so motionless I wasn’t sure he breathed, he still reminded me of one of the wild and strikingly beautiful cave cats I’d once seen caged in Queen Ileana’s palace as a child.

He had been many things to me. A stranger in a dimly lit room who’d been my first kiss. A guard who had sworn to lay down his life for mine. A friend who had looked beyond the veil of the Maiden to truly see me underneath, who’d handed me a sword to protect myself instead of forcing me into a gilded cage. A legend cloaked in darkness and nightmares that had plotted to betray me. A Prince of a kingdom believed to have been lost to time and war, who had suffered unimaginable horrors and yet managed to find the pieces of who he used to be. A brother who would do anything, commit any deed to save his family. His people. A man who bared his soul and stripped open his heart to me—and only me.

My first.

My guard.

My friend.

My betrayer.

My partner.

My husband.

My heartmate.

My everything.

Casteel Da’Neer bowed before me and stared up at me as if I were the only person in the entire kingdom. I didn’t need to concentrate like before to know what he was feeling. Everything he felt was wide-open to me. His emotions were a kaleidoscope of ever-shifting tastes—cool and tart, heavy and spicy, and sweet like chocolate-dipped berries. Those unyieldingly firm and unrelentingly tender lips parted, revealing just the hint of sharp fangs.

“My Queen,” he breathed, and those two smoky words soothed my skin. The lilt of his voice quelled the ancient thing inside me that wanted to take the anger and the fear radiating from all the others and twist it, turn it back, truly give them something to fear, and add to the shattered things thrown about the floor. One side of his lips curled up, and a deep dimple appeared in his right cheek.

Dizzy with relief at the sight of that infuriatingly stupid—and adorable—dimple, my entire body shuddered. I feared that when he saw what I’d done, he’d be afraid. And I couldn’t blame him for that. What I’d done should terrify anyone, but not Casteel. The heat that turned his eyes the color of warmed honey told me that fear was very much the furthest thing from his mind. Which was also a little disturbing. But he was the Dark One, whether he liked being called that or not.

Some of the shock faded, and the pounding adrenaline eased. And when it left, I realized I hurt. My shoulder and the side of my head throbbed. The left side of my face felt puffy, and that had nothing to do with the old scars there. A dull ache pulsed in my legs and arms, and my body felt funny, as if my knees were weakening. I swayed in the warm, salty breeze—

Casteel rose quickly, and I shouldn’t have been surprised by how fast he moved, but I still was. In a heartbeat, he’d gone from kneeling to standing, a foot closer to me, and several things happened at once.

The men and women behind Casteel’s parents, the ones wearing the same white tunics and loose pants of those lying on the floor, also moved. Light reflected off the golden armbands adorning their biceps as they lifted their swords, shifting closer to Casteel’s parents, protecting them. Some reached for crossbows strapped to their backs. They had to be guards of some sort.

A sudden growl of warning came from the largest wolven I’d ever seen. Kieran and Vonetta’s father stood to my right. Jasper had officiated the marriage between Casteel and me in Spessa’s End. He’d been there when Nyktos showed his approval by briefly turning day to night. But now, the steel-hued wolven’s lips peeled back, baring teeth that could tear through flesh and break bone. He was loyal to Casteel, and yet instinct told me that it wasn’t just the guards he warned.

Another snarl came from my left. In the shadows of the blood tree that had sprouted from where my blood had fallen and then grew to a massive height within seconds, a fawn-colored wolven crept into my line of sight, head dipped low, and wintery blue eyes iridescent. Kieran. He stared down Casteel. I didn’t understand why either of them would behave this way toward the Prince, but especially Kieran. He had been bonded to Casteel from birth, meant to obey and protect him at all costs. But he was more than a bonded wolven to Casteel. They were brothers, if not by blood then by friendship, and I knew they loved each other.

Right now, nothing about the way Kieran’s ears were pinned back was loving.

Unease skipped its way through me as Kieran sank down, the sleek muscles of his legs tensing as he prepared to attack…Casteel.

My stomach plummeted. This wasn’t right. None of this was right. “No,” I rasped, my voice hoarse and barely recognizable, even to my ears.

Kieran didn’t appear to hear me or care. If he had been acting normally, I would’ve just assumed he was attempting to ignore me, but this was different. He was different. His eyes were brighter than I ever remembered seeing, and they weren’t right because they…they weren’t just blue now. His pupils glowed silvery-white, an aura that seeped out in wispy tendrils across the blue. My head jerked to Jasper. His eyes had changed, too. I’d seen that strange light before. It had been what my skin had done when I healed Beckett’s broken legs—the same silvery glow that had radiated from me minutes earlier.

Icy bursts of surprise raced through Casteel as he eyed the wolven, and then I felt…relief radiate from him.

“You all knew.” Casteel’s voice filled with awe, something no one standing behind him felt. Even the easy grin was absent from the auburn-haired Atlantian. Emil looked at us with wide eyes, broadcasting a healthy dose of fear, as did Naill, who had always appeared utterly unfazed by everything—even when he’d been outnumbered in battle.

Casteel slowly sheathed his swords at his sides. Hands empty, he kept them down. “You all knew something was happening to her. That’s why…” He trailed off, his jaw hardening.

Several of the guards moved to the front of the King and Queen, surrounding them fully—

A shock of white fur shot forward. Delano tucked his tail back as he pawed at the marble. He lifted his head and howled. The eerie yet beautiful sound raised the tiny hairs all over my body.

Off in the distance, the faint sounds of yips and barks answered, growing louder with each second. The leaves on the tall, cone-shaped trees separating the Temple from Saion’s Cove trembled as a rolling rumble echoed from the ground below. Blue-and-yellow-winged birds took flight from the trees, scattering to the sky.

“Godsdamn.” Emil turned to the Temple steps. He reached for the swords at his sides. “They’re summoning the whole damn city.”

“It’s her.” The deep scar slicing across the older wolven’s forehead stood out starkly. Potent disbelief rolled off Alastir as he stood just outside the circle of guards who’d formed around Casteel’s parents.

“It is not her,” Casteel shot back.

“But it is,” King Valyn confirmed as he stared at me from a face that Casteel’s would one day become. “They’re responding to her. That’s why the ones on the road with us shifted without warning. She called them to her.”

“I…I didn’t call anyone,” I told Casteel, voice cracking.

“I know.” Casteel’s tone softened as his eyes locked with mine.

“But she did,” his mother insisted. “You might not realize it, but you did summon them.”

My eyes darted to her, and I felt my chest wrench. She was everything I’d imagined Casteel’s mother to be. Stunning. Regal. Powerful. Calm now, even as she remained on one knee, even when she had first seen me and demanded of her son—What have you done? What have you brought back? I flinched, fearing those words would stay with me long after today.

Casteel’s features sharpened as golden eyes swept over my face. “If the idiots behind me actually laid down their swords instead of lifting them against my wife, we wouldn’t have an entire colony of wolven about to descend on us,” he bit out. “They are only reacting to the threat.”

“You’re right,” his father agreed as he gently guided his wife to her feet. Blood soaked the knee and the hem of her lilac gown. “But ask yourself why your bonded wolven is guarding someone other than you.”

“I really couldn’t care less at the moment,” Casteel responded as the sound of hundreds—if not more—of paws pounding the earth grew even closer. He couldn’t be serious. He had to care, because that was a damn good question.

“You need to care,” his mother cautioned, a thin quiver in her otherwise steady voice. “The bonds have broken.”

The bonds? Hands trembling, my wide eyes shot to the Temple steps, to where Emil slowly backed away. Naill had his swords in his hands now.

“She’s right,” Alastir uttered, the skin around his mouth appearing even whiter. “I can… I can feel it—the Primal notam. Her mark. Good gods.” His voice trembled as he stumbled back, nearly stepping on the crown. “They’ve all broken.”

I had no idea what a notam was, but through the confusion and the blossoming panic, there was something odd about what Alastir had stated. If it was true, then why wasn’t he in his wolven form? Was it because he’d already broken his wolven bond with the former King of Atlantia all those years ago?

“Look at their eyes,” the Queen ordered softly, pointing out what I’d seen. “I know you don’t understand. There are things you never needed to learn, Hawke.” Her voice cracked then, thickened at the use of his nickname—a name I’d once believed to be nothing more than a lie. “But what you need to know now is that they no longer serve the elemental bloodline. You are not safe. Please,” she begged. “Please. Listen to me, Hawke.”

“How?” I croaked. “How could the bond break?”

“That doesn’t matter right now.” The amber of Casteel’s eyes was nearly luminous. “You’re bleeding,” he said as if that were the most important issue at hand.

But it wasn’t. “How?” I repeated.

“It’s what you are.” Eloana’s left hand balled into the skirt of her gown. “You have the blood of a god in you—”

“I’m mortal,” I told her.

A thick lock of dark hair tumbled from her knot as she shook her head. “Yes, you are mortal, but you are descended from a deity—the children of the gods. All it takes is a drop of god’s blood—” She swallowed thickly. “You may have more than just a drop, but what is in your blood, what is in you, supersedes any oath the wolven have taken.”

I remembered then what Kieran had told me in New Haven about the wolven. The gods had given the once-wild kiyou wolves mortal form to serve as guides and protectors to the children of the gods—the deities. Something else Kieran had shared then explained the Queen’s reaction.

My gaze shot to the crown lying near Nyktos’s feet. A drop of deity blood usurped any claim to the Atlantian throne.

Oh, gods, there was a good chance I really might pass out. And how embarrassing would that be?

Eloana’s gaze shifted to her son’s rigid back. “You go near her? Right now? They will see you as a threat to her. They will rip you apart.”

My heart stuttered to a panicked stop. Casteel looked as if he might do just that. Behind me, one of the smaller wolven lurched forward, barking and snapping at the air.

Every muscle in my body tensed. “Casteel—”

“It’s okay.” Casteel’s eyes never left mine. “No one is going to harm Poppy. I will not allow that.” His chest rose with a deep, heavy breath. “And you know that, right?”

I nodded as each breath came too fast, too shallowly. It was the only thing I understood at the moment.

“Everything’s all right. They’re just protecting you.” Casteel smiled for me then, but it was tense and tight. He looked to my left, at Kieran. “I don’t know everything that is going on right now, but you—all of you—want to keep her safe. And I’m all about that. You know I would never hurt her. I would tear out my own heart before I did that. She’s injured. I need to make sure she’s okay, and nothing is going to stop me from doing that.” He didn’t blink as he held Kieran’s stare, as the rolling thunder of the other wolven reached the Temple steps. “Not even you. Any of you. I will destroy every single one of you who stands between her and me.”

Kieran’s growl deepened, and an emotion I’d never felt from him before poured into me. It was like anger, but older. And it felt like that buzz in my blood had. Ancient. Primal.

And in an instant, I could see it all playing out in my mind as if it were happening before me. Kieran would attack. Or maybe it would be Jasper. I’d seen what kind of damage a wolven could inflict, but Casteel wouldn’t go down easily. He would do just as he’d promised. He’d tear through all that stood between him and me. Wolven would die, and if he harmed Kieran—if he did worse than that, the wolven’s blood wouldn’t just be on Casteel’s hands. It would mark his soul till the day he died.

A wave of wolven crested the Temple’s stairs, both small and large, in so many different colors. Their arrival brought terrifying knowledge. Casteel was incredibly strong and unbelievably fast. He would take down many. But he would fall with them.

He would die.

Casteel would die because of me—because I called to these wolven and didn’t know how to make it stop. My heart thumped erratically. A wolven near the steps stalked Emil as he continued backing up. Another tracked Naill as he spoke softly to the wolven, attempting to reason with the creature. The others had zeroed in on the guards surrounding the King and Queen, and a few… Oh, gods, several of them crept up behind Casteel. This had slipped into chaos, the wolven beyond control of any of them…

I sucked in a sharp breath as my mind raced, breaking free of the pain and turbulence. Something had happened within me to make that drop of god’s blood break the bonds. I superseded their previous oaths, and that had…it had to mean that they now obeyed me.

“Stop,” I ordered as Kieran snapped at Casteel, whose own lips were now peeled back. “Kieran! Stop! You will not hurt Casteel.” My voice rose as a soft hum returned to my blood. “All of you will stop. Now! None of you will attack.”

It was like a switch had been thrown in the wolven’s minds. One second they were all poised to attack, and then they were sinking onto their bellies, lowering their heads between their front paws. I could still feel their anger, the old power, but it had lessened already, was fading in steady waves.

Emil lowered his sword. “That…that was timely. Thank you for that.”

A ragged breath left me as a tremor traveled up and down my arms. I almost couldn’t believe it’d worked as I scanned the Temple, seeing all the wolven lying down. My entire being wanted to rebel against further confirmation of what the Queen had claimed, but gods, there was only so much I could deny. Throat dry, I looked at Casteel.

He stared at me, his eyes wide once more. I couldn’t breathe. My heart wouldn’t slow enough for me to make sense of what he was feeling.

“He will not hurt me. You all know that,” I said, my voice shaking as I looked at Jasper and then Kieran. “You told me that he was the only person in both kingdoms that I was safe with. That hasn’t changed.”

Kieran’s ears twitched, and then he rose, backing up. He turned, nudging my hand with his nose.

“Thank you,” I whispered, briefly closing my eyes.

“Just so you know,” Casteel murmured, thick lashes lowered halfway, “what you just did? Said? It has me feeling all kinds of wildly inappropriate things at the moment.”

A weak, shaky laugh left me. “There’s something so wrong with you.”

“I know.” The left side of his lips curved, and his dimple appeared. “But you love that about me.”

I did. Gods, I really did.

Jasper shook out his fur as his large head swung from me to Casteel. He turned sideways, making a rough, huffing sound as he did. The other wolven moved then, coming out from behind the blood tree. I watched them trot past me—past Casteel and the others—ears perked and tails wagging as they joined those descending the steps and left the Temple. Of the wolven, only Jasper, his son, and Delano remained, and the feeling of chaotic tension lifted.

A thick lock of dark hair fell over Casteel’s forehead. “You were glowing silver again. When you ordered the wolven to stop,” he told me. “Not a lot, not like before, but you looked like spun moonlight.”

Had I been? I glanced down at my hands. They looked normal. “I…I don’t know what’s happening,” I whispered, my legs shaking. “I don’t know what’s going on.” I lifted my eyes to his and watched him take a step forward, and then another. There were no snarls of warning. Nothing. My throat started to burn. I could feel it—tears creeping into my eyes. I couldn’t cry. I wouldn’t. Everything had already turned into enough of a mess without me sobbing hysterically. But I was so tired. I hurt, and it went beyond the physical.

When I first stepped into this Temple and looked out over the clear waters of the Seas of Saion, I’d felt like I was home. And I knew things would be hard. Proving that our union was real wouldn’t be nearly as difficult as gaining the acceptance of Casteel’s parents and that of his kingdom. We still needed to find his brother, Prince Malik. And mine. We had to deal with the Ascended Queen and King. Nothing about our future would be easy, but I had hope.

Now, I felt foolish. So naïve. The older wolven in Spessa’s End, the one I’d helped heal after the battle, had warned me about the people of Atlantia. They did not choose you. And I now doubted they ever would.

I drew in a stuttering breath and whispered, “I didn’t want any of this.”

Tension bracketed Casteel’s mouth. “I know.” His voice was rough, but his touch was gentle as he placed his palm over the cheek that didn’t feel swollen. He lowered his forehead to mine, and the shock of awareness his flesh against mine brought was there, rippling through me as he slid his hand into the tangled mess of my hair. “I know, Princess,” he whispered, and I squeezed my eyes shut against a stronger rush of tears. “It’s okay. It will all be okay. I promise you that.”

I nodded, even though I knew it wasn’t something he could guarantee. Not anymore. I forced myself to swallow the knot of emotion that rose.

Casteel kissed my blood-streaked brow and then lifted his head. “Emil? Can you retrieve clothing from Delano’s and Kieran’s horses so they can shift and not scar anyone?”

“I’ll be more than happy to do that,” the Atlantian answered.

I almost laughed. “I think their nakedness will be the least scarring thing to happen today.”

Casteel said nothing as he touched my cheek again, gently tilting my head to the side. His gaze then dropped to several of the rocks still littering the ground at my feet. A muscle popped along his jaw. His eyes lifted to mine, and I saw his pupils were dilated, only a thin strip of amber visible. “They tried to stone you?”

I heard a soft gasp I thought had come from his mother, but I didn’t look. I didn’t want to see their faces. I didn’t want to know what they felt right now. “They accused me of working with the Ascended, and they called me a Soul Eater. I told them I wasn’t. I tried to talk to them.” Words spilled out in a rush as I lifted my hands to touch him, but I stopped. I didn’t know what my touch would do. Hell, I didn’t even know what I would do without touching someone. “I tried to reason with them, but they started throwing stones. I told them to stop. I said it was enough, and…I don’t know what I did—” I started to look over his shoulder, but Casteel seemed to know what it was I searched for. He stopped me. “I didn’t mean to kill them.”

“You were defending yourself.” His pupils constricted as he caught my stare. “You did what you had to do. You were defending yourself—”

“But I didn’t touch them, Casteel,” I whispered. “It was like in Spessa’s End, during the battle. Remember the soldiers who surrounded us? When they fell, I felt something in me. I felt that again here. It was like something inside me knew what to do. I took their anger and I—I did exactly what a Soul Eater would do. I took it from them and then gave it back.”

“You are not a Soul Eater,” Queen Eloana said from somewhere not too far away. “The moment the eather in your blood became visible, those who attacked you should’ve known exactly what you were. What you are.”

“Eather?”

“It’s what some would call magic,” Casteel answered, shifting his stance as if he were blocking his mother from me. “You’ve seen it before.”

“The mist?”

He nodded. “It’s the essence of the gods, what’s in their blood, what gives them their abilities and the power to create all that they have. No one really calls it that anymore, not since the gods went to sleep, and the deities died off.” His eyes searched mine. “I should have known. Gods, I should’ve seen it…”

“You can say that now,” his mother spoke. “But why would you have even thought that this would be a possibility? No one would’ve expected this.”

“Except for you,” Casteel said. And he was right. She’d known, without a doubt. And, granted, I had been glowing upon her arrival, but she’d known with unquestioned certainty.

“I can explain,” she said as Emil appeared, carrying two saddlebags. He gave all of us a wide berth as he dropped them near Jasper and then backed away.

“Apparently, a lot needs to be explained,” Casteel remarked coolly. “But it will have to wait.” His gaze touched on my left cheek, and that muscle throbbed along his jaw again. “I need to get you somewhere safe where I can… Where I can take care of you.”

“You can take her to your old rooms at my place,” Jasper announced, startling me. I hadn’t even heard him shift. I started to look over at him but saw skin as he reached for the saddlebag.

“That will do.” Casteel took what appeared to be a pair of breeches from Jasper. “Thank you.”

“Will it be safe for you there?” I asked, and a wry grin tugged at Casteel’s lips.

“He’ll be safe there,” Kieran answered.

So shocked by the sound of Kieran’s voice, I turned. And didn’t stop. There was a whole lot of tawny skin on display, but he stood there like he wasn’t naked in front of all who remained. For once, I really had no problem ignoring the fact that he was nude. I looked at his eyes. They were normal—a vivid, striking blue without the silvery-white aura. “You were going to attack Casteel.”

Kieran nodded as he took the pants from Casteel.

“He most definitely was,” Casteel confirmed.

I looked back at my husband. “And you threatened to destroy him.”

The dimple in his left cheek appeared again. “I did.”

“Why are you smiling? That isn’t something that should make you smile.” I stared at him, stupid tears burning my eyes. I didn’t care that we had an audience. “That can never happen again. Do you hear me?” I twisted to Kieran, who arched a brow as he pulled his breeches up over his lean hips. “Do you both hear me? I won’t allow it. I won’t—”

“Shh.” Casteel’s light touch to my cheek drew my gaze back to his as he stepped into me. He was close enough that his chest brushed mine with each breath. “It won’t happen again, Poppy.” His thumb quickly swiped under my left eye. “Right?”

“Right.” Kieran cleared his throat. “I don’t…” He fell quiet.

His father didn’t. “As long as the Prince doesn’t give any of us a reason to behave differently, we will protect him as fiercely as we will protect you.”

We. As in the entirety of the wolven race. That’s what Alastir had meant when he’d said that all the bonds had broken. I had a lot of questions, but I plopped my head on Casteel’s chest. It didn’t feel that great, sending a flare of pain across my head. I didn’t care because when I inhaled, all I smelled was lush spice and pine. Casteel carefully folded an arm around my upper back, and I thought… I thought I felt him shudder against me.

“Wait,” Kieran said. “Where is Beckett? He was with you when you walked off.”

Casteel drew back slightly. “That’s right. He offered to show you the Temple.” His eyes narrowed as he stared down at me. “He led you here.”

A wave of goosebumps pimpled my skin. Beckett. Pressure clamped down on my chest, squeezing tightly as I thought of the young wolven who’d spent the vast majority of the trip here chasing butterflies. I still couldn’t believe that he had led me here, knowing what awaited. But I remembered the bitter taste of his fear that day in Spessa’s End. He’d been terrified of me.

Or had he been terrified of something else?

His emotions had been all over the place. He’d gone from being normal around me, happy and grinning, to suddenly afraid and anxious, as he had been when he brought me up here.

“He disappeared before the others showed up,” I told Casteel. “I don’t know where he went.”

“Find Beckett,” he ordered, and Delano, still in his wolven form, tilted his head. “Naill? Emil? Go with him. Make sure Beckett is brought to me alive.”

Both Atlantians nodded and bowed. Nothing about Casteel’s tone suggested that the alive part was a good thing. “He’s just a kid.” I watched Delano rush off, quickly disappearing with Naill and Emil. “He was scared. And now that I think about it—”

“Poppy.” Casteel placed the tips of his fingers against my cheek, just below a spot that ached. He dipped his head, brushing his lips over the cut. “I have two things to say. If Beckett had anything to do with this, I don’t care what or who he is, and I sure as fuck don’t care about what he was feeling.” His voice rose until all who remained at the Temple could hear him, including his parents.

“A move against my wife is a proclamation of war against me. Their fate is already sealed. And, secondly?” He lowered his head even farther. This time, his lips brushed over mine in a featherlight kiss. I could barely feel it, but it somehow still managed to twist my insides into knots. He then lifted his head, and I saw it in his features—the stark stillness of a predator locking onto its prey. I’d seen it before, right before he’d torn out Landell’s heart back in New Haven.

Casteel turned his head to the side, looking at the only wolven who remained, now standing on two legs. “You.”


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