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The Crown of Gilded Bones: Chapter 15


Jasper’s home sat atop a bluff that overlooked the sea and a large swath of the city’s homes. Only the high-rises and a palatial home on another cliff rose higher. I assumed the latter was the King and Queen’s residence, and I had no idea if they had arrived in Saion’s Cove yet or if they’d heard the shouts.

Meyaah Liessa.

My Queen.

That was one of those three things I had managed not to dwell on since I woke in the hunting cabin. Queen. I couldn’t process that, and I wasn’t even going to try as I scanned the hanging stems of white and violet flowers dangling from numerous woven baskets strung halfway up the walls of the courtyard. Not until I bathed, slept, and got some food in my stomach.

As we neared the stables, the center of the courtyard drew my gaze. Water splashed and spilled over tiered levels of a water fountain crafted from stone the color of midnight and even more reflective than the material used to build the Temples in Solis.

A man in tan breeches and a loose white shirt hurried from one of the stables. His gaze bounced from Jasper and Kieran to Casteel. Surprise flickered through him. He bowed deeply. “Your Highness.”

“Harlan,” Casteel acknowledged. “I know it’s been quite a bit of time since you’ve seen me, but you don’t have to call me that.”

I couldn’t help but try to imagine any of the Ascended—let alone the King or Queen—allowing such familiarity. Those who hadn’t greeted Duke Teerman formally tended to disappear shortly thereafter.

Harlan nodded as Jasper dismounted. “Yes, Your—” He caught himself with a sheepish smile. “Yes, it has been a while.”

As the man took Setti’s reins, I saw that his eyes were a dark brown. He was either mortal or of the changeling bloodline. I wanted to ask, but that seemed like a rather impolite question. He looked up at me, his gaze briefly lingering on my face before moving on.

“Harlan, I would like to introduce you to someone extremely important to me,” Casteel said as Kieran faced us. “This is my wife, Penellaphe.”

My wife.

Despite everything, my heart still did a silly little leap.

“Your wife?” The male blinked once and then twice. A toothy grin spread across his face. “Congratulations, Your— Congratulations. Wow. I don’t know what is more surprising. Your return or that you’re married.”

“He likes to go big or go home,” Kieran commented as he patted his horse’s side. “In case you’ve forgotten that.”

Harlan chuckled as he scratched at his mop of blond hair. “I guess I have.” He looked at me again. “It’s an honor to meet you, Your Highness.” He bowed then with far more flourish.

Kieran raised his brow at me as he mouthed, Your Highness.

If I weren’t so tired and uninterested in making a second bad first impression, I would’ve jumped from Setti and punched the wolven in the face. Hard. Instead, I unglued my tongue from the roof of my mouth. “Thank you,” I managed, hoping I didn’t sound as strange to him as I did to myself. “You don’t have to call me that either. Penellaphe is fine.”

The male grinned, but I had a feeling my suggestion went in one ear and skipped right out the other.

“Setti has been on the road for quite some time. He could use some extra care,” Casteel commented, thankfully drawing the attention away from me.

“I will make sure he and the others receive it.” Harlan held onto the reins as he rubbed the side of Setti’s muzzle.

Casteel leapt down with a fluid grace that made me wonder if he were a pit of endless energy and then immediately reached 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 there. I looked up at him, and he bent down, pressing his lips to my forehead. The sweet kiss tugged at my heart.

“Just a couple of more minutes,” he murmured as he tucked several tangled strands of hair over my shoulder. “And we’ll be alone.”

I nodded. His arm stayed around me as we turned.

Kieran and Jasper had stopped in front of us, but the wolven not in their mortal forms caught and held my attention. 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 manor 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 shrank, fusing back together. Limbs straightened and claws retracted into nails. Within seconds, they stood in their mortal 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 not to 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 sank onto one knee, lowering their heads as the ones on the street had done. 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.

“They have never done that for me,” Casteel remarked under his breath.

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

“I don’t know why they’re doing it for me.”

He glanced down at me, his brows knitted. “It’s because you have the blood—”

“I know,” I said, my heart starting to pound again. “I know, but…” How could I put into words how crazy this was to me? People bowed before me as the Maiden, but this was different, and it had nothing to do with the fact that naked people prostrated themselves before me.

Though, that seemed important, too.

Kieran rose, meeting Casteel’s stare. He nodded. I had no idea how they communicated to one another if there was no bond. Hell, I had no idea how they did it when there had been one. He said something to Jasper, and his father shifted back into his wolven form. The others followed suit, and again, I was left wondering how they all acted in unison. I watched them move away from the home, spreading out through the courtyard and beyond the walls, wondering if it was some sort of instinctual drive or something beyond that.

Casteel’s hand dropped to the center of my back as he started forward. “Well, that was fun, wasn’t it?”

I looked up at him, my brows raised. “That was a lot of…nakedness.”

A half-grin appeared as he looked down at me.

“You’ll get used to it,” Kieran stated as he climbed the steps.

I wasn’t so sure about that.

“More like you’re sort of forced to,” Casteel said as Kieran walked in through the open doors. “Wolven tend to find clothing cumbersome.”

I thought about all the breeches and shirts they seemed to go through, and I could sort of understand why they felt that way.

A warm breeze stirred gauzy curtains as Kieran led us past several large sitting rooms full of oversized chairs in vibrant hues. The air carried a hint of cinnamon that lingered as we followed him into a canopied breezeway. I didn’t see any sign of Kieran’s mother or anyone else, and I wondered if she was among the wolven who had been outside.

We ended up back inside, in a different wing of the house, walking down another long, seemingly never-ending hall. My steps slowed, and I sighed as we passed yet another door. “How many people live here?”

“Depends on the time of year,” Kieran answered. “At times, every room is filled, and we have a lot who come and go, those in need of temporary housing.”

“Oh,” I answered, internally sobbing when we passed two more doors. “How long is this hallway?”

“Not much longer,” he said, and Casteel’s hand moved in a slow, comforting circle on my back. A moment later, the hall curved, and I saw the end—thank the gods. Kieran stopped in front of cream-colored double doors. “I figured you’d want to stay in your old rooms.”

“You’ve stayed here a lot?” I asked as Casteel’s hand slipped from my back. I missed the weight of it immediately.

He nodded, opening one side of the doors. “My parents don’t come here a lot, and especially not after everything happened with Malik,” he answered, and I thought that made sense. “I’d rather be here than in an empty estate.”

I couldn’t even imagine how big his parents’ home here or in the capital was if this was the size of Jasper’s.

“I’ll make sure your bags are brought in from the stables,” Kieran offered.

“That would be amazing. Thank you.” Casteel glanced at him as he reached over, taking my hand. “We’re going to need some time before we have visitors.”

A wry grin appeared on Kieran’s face. “I’ll make sure my mother understands that.”

For some reason, my stomach flip-flopped at the thought of meeting Kieran’s mother.

Kieran slipped away then, and he did so with impressive quickness. Maybe he was half-afraid I would start asking questions. Little did he know, he didn’t have to worry about that. I shuffled into the room as Casteel nudged the door open farther.

Where was the bed?

That was all I could think as I walked across the cream-colored tile floors into the space where a pearly-hued settee and two wide chairs were situated in the middle. Behind the sitting area was a table with marble legs carved into vines, and two high-backed dining chairs upholstered in a thick gray material. A chaise lounge was positioned in front of closed, lattice doors, and above, a ceiling fan churned lazily.

“The bedroom is through here.” Casteel stepped through a rounded archway to the right.

I almost tripped as I walked into the room.

“That’s the largest bed ever.” I stared at the four-poster bed and its gauzy white curtains.

“Is it?” he asked, tugging the curtains back on one side and securing them to the posts. “The bed in my residence in Evaemon is bigger.”

“Well…” I cleared my throat. “Congratulations on that.”

He tossed me a grin over his shoulder as he unsheathed my dagger, placing it on the nightstand and then removed his swords. By a large wardrobe, I recognized saddlebags—the ones from when we’d first entered Atlantia. How long had they sat here, waiting for us? I turned slightly. Several chairs were situated across from the bed. Another set of lattice doors led to what appeared to be a veranda, and there was an even larger ceiling fan, one with leaf-shaped blades that spun, moving the air about. “Wait.” My gaze shot back to him. “You have your own residence?”

“I do.” Having finished with the curtains on the bed, he straightened. “I have quarters at my family’s home—the palace—but I also have a small townhome.”

I was sure that I knew Casteel better than most, but there was still so much I had to learn about him. Things that weren’t all that important, and the things that made him who he was today. We just hadn’t had the time to truly discover each other’s secrets yet, and I wanted that time as painfully as I wanted to hold my brother, see Tawny again, and learn that she hadn’t Ascended like the Duchess had claimed. I wanted that as badly as I wanted to see Casteel reunite with his brother and for Malik to be healthy and whole.

And we’d almost lost the chance for more time.

Casteel stepped to the side, turning to me. I saw the open door behind him. Faint sunlight drenched ivory-tiled walls and glimmered off a large, porcelain soaking tub. Drawn forward, I might’ve stopped breathing as I realized how big the tub was and that all the bottles on the shelves were full of colored salts, creams, and lotions. What sat in the corner of the bathing chamber was what I couldn’t look away from, though. Several pipes descended from the ceiling, each one with an oval-shaped head on it, and all full of tiny holes. The floor under them was sunken, and a large…drain was in the center. One side, under the window, held a tiled bench built into the wall.

“That’s the shower,” Casteel said from behind me. “Once turned on, the water comes from overhead.”

All I could do was stare.

“The faucets at the sink are like the ones in the shower and tub. The handle painted red is hot, and the blue one is for cold water. You just turn it— Poppy?” There was a smile in his voice. “Look.”

Blinking, I pulled my gaze from the shower to watch him turn the red handle. Water poured into the basin.

“Come.” Casteel motioned me forward. “Feel the water. It’ll be cold for a few seconds.”

I went to his side, slipping my hand into the stream of water. It was cold and then cool before turning to lukewarm and then hot. Gasping, I jerked my hand back as my eyes flew to his.

The dimple in his right cheek deepened. “Welcome to the land of hot water at your fingertips.”

Awe filled me. Tawny would love this chamber. She probably would never leave it, demanding her suppers be served here. Sadness threatened to creep in and crowd out the joy, and it was hard to set it aside and allow myself to enjoy this moment. I started to dip my hand into the water again, but Casteel turned it off. “Hey—”

He took my hand. “You can play with the faucets and water all day, but let me take care of you first.”

Looking up, I started to tell him there was no need, but I saw my reflection and stopped moving, stopped thinking.

It was the first time I’d seen myself since I’d awakened in the cabin. I couldn’t stop staring, and it wasn’t the absolute mess that was my hair. Lowering my hands to the rim of the sink, I stared at my reflection.

“What are you doing?” Casteel asked.

“I…I look the same,” I said, noting the strong brow, the line of my nose, and the width of my mouth. “But I don’t.” I lifted a hand, touching the scar on my left cheek. His gaze followed mine to the mirror. “Do the scars look…less to you?” I asked because they did to me. They were still clearly noticeable, the one at my hairline that cut through my brow, and the other that sliced across my temple, reminding me of how close I’d come to losing an eye. The scars didn’t appear to be a shade paler than my skin like before. They were the same tone of pink as the rest of my face, and the flesh didn’t feel as rough, nor did it look as jagged.

“I hadn’t noticed,” Casteel said, and my gaze shot to his in the reflection. I…I sensed surprise from him. He spoke the truth. He truly hadn’t noticed the difference because he never really noticed the scars in the first place. They had never been a thing to him.

I might’ve fallen even more in love with him right then if that were possible.

“They are a little fainter,” he continued, his head cocked. “It must’ve been my blood—how much of it. It could’ve repaired some of the old wounds.”

I glanced down at my arm then and looked—really looked. The skin was less shiny and patchy there.

“It amazes me,” he commented. “That the scars are what you notice first.”

“Because the scars are what everyone seems to see first when they look upon me,” I stated.

“I don’t think that’s the first thing, Poppy. Not before,” he said, brushing a clump of my hair over my shoulder. “And definitely not now.”

Definitely not now.

I lifted my gaze once more and looked beyond the scars and the smattering of freckles across my nose to my eyes. They were green, just like I remembered my father’s being, but they were also different. It wasn’t exactly noticeable upon first glance, but I saw it now.

The silvery sheen behind my pupils.

“My eyes…”

“They’ve been like that since the Temple of Saion,” he said.

I blinked once and then twice. They remained the same upon reopening. “This isn’t what they look like when they glow, right?”

He shook his head. “That light behind your pupils seeps out into the green. It’s far more intense.”

“Oh,” I whispered.

“I think it’s the eather in you,” he told me, angling his body toward mine.

“Oh,” I repeated, thinking that it must be the same thing that made Casteel and the other Atlantians’ eyes become luminous and churning.

He arched a brow. “That’s all you have to say to seeing your eyes? Oh?”

“My eyes…they feel the same,” I offered up, truly having no idea what to say.

One side of his lips quirked. “And they’re still the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen.”

I turned to him, looking up. “None of this bothers you? My heritage? Whatever it is that I am?”

His half-grin faded. “We had this conversation when we talked about Malec.”

“Yes, we did, but…but when you met me, I was the Maiden. You thought I was mortal, and then you learned I was half-Atlantian. But now you know I’m descended from a god, and you don’t even really know what I am,” I pointed out. “My gifts aren’t even the same. I’m changing.”

“So?”

So?

“When you met me, you thought I was a mortal guard who’d sworn an oath to protect you. But then you learned I was an Atlantian and that I was the Prince,” he countered. “Did any of that change how you saw me?”

At first it had, but… “No. It didn’t.”

“Then why is it so hard for you to believe that it changes nothing for me? You are still Poppy.” He touched my cheek. “No matter how much more you change, you are still her in your heart.”

I glanced back at the mirror, seeing a familiar face that was also unfamiliar in the smallest ways. I felt like myself in my heart…and I hoped that didn’t change.


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