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The Crown of Gilded Bones: Chapter 26


Casteel’s gaze met mine. Sensing a thread of concern in him, I nodded before he could question me. A faint smile appeared, and then he motioned for the guard to open the door.

The airy, brightly-lit room smelled of coffee, and the first person I noticed was his mother. She sat on a dove gray settee, wearing a simple short-sleeved gown of pale blue. Her onyx-hued hair was once again twisted in a simple knot at the base of her neck. She had just placed a small cup on a low-profile table and appeared frozen there as she stared at Casteel with bright amber eyes. A rush of emotion poured from her— relief, joy, love, and underneath all of that was something tangy. Sorrow. There was a throbbing, steady current of grief as she rose, reminding me very much of what I’d often felt from Casteel when we first met.

My gaze inched away to where the faired-haired man stood at the back of the room, a short glass of amber liquid in his hand. Neither he nor the Queen wore their crowns, and I wasn’t sure if that was common or not while in their private residences. I was almost convinced that Queen Ileana and King Jalara wore theirs to bed.

Goosebumps pimpled my flesh as Casteel’s father stared directly at me. I didn’t hold his stare in challenge but simply looked elsewhere. I felt barely anything from him. Casteel’s father was either very reserved or knew how to block his emotions. They weren’t the only people in the room.

Standing by a large window overlooking a garden was the Commander of the Crown Guard. Hisa stood quietly, her hands clasped behind her back.

Hawke.” The nickname was a soft breath on the Queen’s lips as she refocused on her son.

“Mother,” he said, and I noticed a roughness to his voice that stung my eyes. It struck me then that they hadn’t had a chance to even speak since his return.

She rushed forward, tripping over the corner of a cream rug. Casteel was there, catching her before she even really stumbled. She laughed as she threw her arms around him. “I was so glad when I heard that you planned to see us today. Look at you.” Casteel’s mother drew back, clasping his cheeks. She brushed at his hair. “Look at you,” she repeated and then pulled him in for another hug, one tighter and longer than the first. Casteel didn’t just allow it, he welcomed it.

Watching him be held by his mother softened…well, it softened every part of me. He was Casteel, the Dark One. I’d seen him remove a man’s heart with barely a flicker of emotion and launch himself into trees and use his fangs to tear through throats. He was capable of great strength and terrible violence, and yet, right now, he was only a boy in his mother’s arms.

“Mother.” His voice was a bit rough around the edges. “You may be cracking a rib or two of mine.”

Her laugh was light and happy as she pulled back. “That’s doubtful.” She placed a hand on his cheek again. “Have you gotten taller?”

“No, Mother.”

“You sure?” she asked.

“The boy stopped growing ages ago, right around the time he stopped listening to us,” his father finally spoke, and his tone was fond despite the words.

She laughed again, patting Casteel’s cheek. She may have said something else because Casteel nodded and then stepped aside. He extended a hand toward me. “I would like to properly introduce you to my wife,” he said, warm honey eyes meeting mine. “Penellaphe.”

Keeping my gaze locked with his, I came forward, placing my hand in his. He squeezed my hand as the sweet taste of chocolate filled my senses. I exhaled slowly, returning the gesture as I looked at his mother. Maybe it was my years as the Maiden because instinct guided my actions and had nothing to do with the hum of awareness that seemed to vibrate through my blood. I bowed at the waist and then straightened. “It is an honor to meet you officially.” The words spilled quietly from my lips. “Casteel has spoken so warmly of you.”

Amusement stretched from Casteel, but from his mother, I got what felt like a cool splash of water filtered back to me, mingled with an edge of disbelief. It was almost as if she were finally looking at me. And maybe this was the first time since I’d entered the room. There was no doubt in my mind that she had learned what had happened in the Wastelands, so I couldn’t exactly blame her for being shocked to see me standing before her, relatively normal and not a blood-hungry vampry.

A jolt ran through me because as unbelievable as it was, I sometimes forgot, if only for a few minutes, what had happened. When I remembered, like now, I also felt a dose of disbelief.

But Casteel’s mother had gone completely still as she stared at me, the blood draining rapidly from her features.

“Mother?” Casteel started toward her. “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” she said, clearing her throat as her husband came forward a step. My spine stiffened as she continued staring at me. “It’s just—I’m sorry.” Her golden eyes widened as a weak smile formed. “I just can’t believe what I’m seeing. Valyn told me what happened—that you were Ascended.”

“I couldn’t let her die,” Casteel stated before I could. Anger simmered from him like a riptide under still waters. “I knew exactly what I was doing and what I did is on me. Not her.”

Queen Eloana’s gaze flicked to her son. “I know. That is what your father said. I don’t hold her responsible for what you did.”

My breath caught. “You shouldn’t hold Casteel responsible, either. I’m not a vampry.”

“I can see that,” she said, her gaze tracking over my features as if she were searching for a hint of the Ascended we all knew. “But what if you had become that?”

“What if?” Casteel challenged softly, releasing my hand.

His father took a long drink from the glass he held, and I had a feeling we were quickly veering down the same path Casteel and his father had taken about my Ascension. I truly didn’t want a repeat of that.

“We can’t change what was done to me or what Casteel did to save my life. It happened,” I said, clasping my fingers together tightly. “And, obviously, we are all lucky that I didn’t turn into a vampry. It seems rather pointless to continue discussing what could’ve happened when it simply did not. He understood the risk. He still took the chance, and I am still here. Not a vampry. It’s over.”

The anger receded in Casteel, but the coolness of his mother’s surprise grew. “It’s only over if what was done in those ruins remains between those who were present. If word of what happened were to ever make it out, some would possibly see you as no different than the Ascended, so it’s not simply over just because it seemingly turned out well.”

Her tone was level, but there was a condescending touch to it that scalded my throat and stung my eyes. Warm skin brushed against my arm. Kieran had stepped in closer to me, and the simple touch was another jolt, reminding me of how such a thing had been forbidden to me as the Maiden. And that made me think of all those years I had been forced to remain quiet. To allow anything to be said in front of me or about me or to me. To accept whatever was done to me.

And I’d been so worried about his parents accepting me, even before Casteel and I had stopped pretending and admitted that what we felt for one another was real. I still wanted their acceptance, but what was done to me had been done to both of us. We hadn’t chosen to be put into that situation. Those who called Atlantia their home had. Her people had. I pushed through the burn in my throat because I had to.

Because I wore no veil now.

Some instinct told me that what happened right now could very well shape the dynamics of my relationship with Casteel’s parents from here on out. The gods knew it was already on shaky ground, but they weren’t the Teermans, who had been my guardians when I lived in Masadonia. They were not Queen Ileana and King Jalara. And I didn’t escape one Crown only to be silenced and patronized by another.

I met and held her gaze as I shut down my senses, not allowing myself to read anyone in the room. At this moment, what I felt mattered. “It’s over because not only is lecturing Casteel irrelevant and serves no purpose other than to imply he’s guilty of something, when in reality, your people are the only ones who are guilty.” My chin lifted a notch. “But also because it’s a rather repetitive, tiresome conversation at this point.”

Queen Eloana’s nostrils flared as she inhaled a sharp breath. Her lips parted.

But I wasn’t done. “Furthermore, regarding what happened in the Wastelands spreading beyond those who were present, I’m not sure that is a concern. As I understand it, the wolven are loyal to me and won’t do anything that causes harm to come to me. Is that not correct, Kieran?”

“That is correct,” he answered.

“The Atlantians present are loyal to Casteel, and I do not believe he feels they will betray him,” I said, still holding the Queen’s gaze. “Am I right, Casteel?”

“You are,” he confirmed, his tone not nearly as dry as Kieran’s. Still, there was an undeniable smokiness to it.

“With the exception of the King, the remaining witnesses are dead, and it can be safely assumed they will not be sharing the events of the night anytime soon,” I continued, my fingers beginning to ache from how tightly I clasped them. “But in the rare, off chance that what happened that night becomes widely known, I am still unsure what there is to be concerned about. The Atlantian people appear to be intelligent enough to realize that since I have no fangs and can walk in the sun, I am not a vampry. Or am I overestimating the people’s common sense?”

No one responded.

It was so quiet in the room that a cricket could have sneezed, and we would have heard it.

Casteel broke the tense silence. “You have not overestimated the people, and not only is this conversation pointless, it’s also offensive, considering she was attacked by our people.”

“We had no knowledge of Alastir’s plans or that the Unseen were active and involved in this,” the Queen stated. “Nor did he give us any indication that he was plotting such a thing.”

“When Alastir came with Kieran to alert us of the Ascended’s arrival in Spessa’s End,” his father said, “he told us about your intention to marry, and his belief that it was tied to…Malik.” He took a quick drink, clearing his throat. I felt it though, push through the walls around my senses, before it vanished—the burst of tangy, almost bitter agony. “He said he was unsure how committed you two truly were to each other.”

“We’re committed,” Casteel advised as the rush of hot anger joined my irritation. “Very.”

“I do not doubt that,” his father drawled. “I think one would have to be blind to not notice that.”

I thought of the way Casteel had kissed me in front of his father, and my cheeks warmed. “Is that all Alastir said?” I asked. “Did he know that I was a descendant of the deities?”

“Alastir told us who you were and what you could do,” Queen Eloana acknowledged. “We knew what that meant. No average mortal with Atlantian blood could have those abilities. Any of us who is old enough to remember the deities would’ve known—though maybe not at first. No one would even be thinking of that. But at some point, Alastir became aware of your heritage and realized who you were.”

“But you knew the moment you saw me,” I said, remembering the look on her face as if I had seen it yesterday. “Alastir told you that it wasn’t too late.”

“Because he knew what it meant for the Crown, as did I when I saw you—saw how you radiated light. I knew what you were,” she told us. “I didn’t understand what he meant in the Chambers when he said it wasn’t too late, but after becoming aware of his plans, I imagine he believed we’d support what he hoped to accomplish.”

“Which was to hand me over to the Ascended so they could kill me?” I said, suppressing the shudder that rose at how close he’d come to succeeding. “Just like those in the Chambers who attacked me before you all arrived. I tried to stop them—”

“Tried?” King Valyn said with an incredulous laugh that reminded me so much of Casteel. “I would say you succeeded, Maiden.”

Casteel’s head snapped toward his father, tension stiffening his broad shoulders. “Her name is Penellaphe. And if you get my wife’s permission, you may call her that. If not, then you may call her Princess. Whatever rolls more respectfully off your tongue. But what you will never refer to her as is the Maiden. Do you understand me?”

I pressed my lips together. His words. His tone. I didn’t know why, but I wanted to smile.

His father drew back, eyes flaring wide, but his wife held up a hand. “Your father nor I mean any disrespect, Hawke.”

“You don’t?” I blurted out, and her golden gaze shot to me.

“No,” she stated, her delicate brow pinching. “We do not.”

I stared at the Queen—at my mother-in-law. “When you first saw me, you spoke as if Casteel had brought a curse back to the kingdom instead of a wife.”

“I was caught off guard by what I saw,” she responded, “as I imagine anyone would have been.” Her brow tightened even further. “I…I never expected you.”

“And I never expected any of this.” I held her stare, needing her to understand that I wasn’t the Maiden—that I wasn’t the Ascended’s tool like those in the Temple had believed. “Alastir wouldn’t have known this, but I was there when the Ascended delivered their gifts at Spessa’s End.” My chest squeezed as I thought of Elijah, Magda—of all of them who had been murdered so senselessly. “I fought them alongside Casteel. I killed the Duchess of Masadonia. I healed your people even as some of them looked upon me as if I were some kind of monster. I didn’t force your guards to attack me, and that’s who some of those people were, weren’t they? Guards of the Crown. Members of the Unseen.”

The Queen remained silent as I leaned forward. It didn’t go unnoticed how the King shifted as if he wished to stand and shield his wife, or how Hisa stepped forward. Maybe later, I’d feel ashamed for the savage rush of satisfaction that gave me. Or maybe I wouldn’t. “I don’t know what you might think of me or what Alastir shared with you, but I didn’t choose to be the Maiden or to wear the veil. I didn’t choose to be a descendant of some deity or come back here and break bonds or usurp any bloodlines. The only thing I have ever chosen is your son.”

Casteel’s head tipped back, and his chest rose with a deep breath, but he remained quiet, letting me speak for myself.

“Did Alastir tell you that when he arrived from Spessa’s End?” I asked.

“No,” his father responded quietly. “He did not.”

“I didn’t think so.”

Casteel spoke then. “We came here in hopes that you two could help us determine what my wife Ascended into. And on a personal note, I’d hoped that you’d get to know Penellaphe a little and vice versa. But if we’re going to rehash the past, then there is nothing left for us to do but take our leave.”

“But we must speak of the past,” his mother said, and Casteel went rigid. “Just not in the way you think,” she added with a heavy exhale. I finally opened my senses, letting them stretch out toward her. The tanginess of anguish was so extreme that I almost took a step back. She smoothed a hand over her already coifed hair as her husband joined her at her side in the same silent way Casteel often moved. He placed a hand on her shoulder as she said, “I need to apologize. I truly didn’t mean to cause offense, but I know that I have. My shock over the entire situation has obviously made a mess of me,” she said, reaching up and folding a hand over her husband’s. “But there is no excuse. Because you both are right.”

Her gaze swept back to me. “Especially you. What was done was not your fault or my son’s, and what I had planned to say to you was how sorry I am for what happened.” There was sincerity there, tasting of contrition, and I relaxed a little. “But both Valyn and I are relieved that you are…that you stand before us with our son.” There was a beat of emotion I couldn’t read because it came and went so quickly. “I should’ve said this as soon as you walked into the room, but I…” She trailed off, shaking her head. “I am deeply sorry, Penellaphe.”

I watched Casteel’s father dip his chin to kiss his mother’s temple, an act that tugged at my heart, reminding me of Casteel. The breath I took no longer scalded my throat, even if my skin still pricked with pent-up frustration. But Casteel’s parents had been dealt a shock. I couldn’t forget that she likely knew I shared the same blood as her first husband. I was a painful reminder of a past she probably wished never to think of.

And while the part of me that existed in the center of the hum in my chest wanted me to turn around and leave, I knew that would be as pointless as lecturing Casteel. Besides, I was capable of compassion, and I did feel empathy for his mother—for both of his parents. I was not what they expected. Ever.

“It’s okay. You haven’t had a chance to really see Casteel, let alone speak to him. And I can understand why you’d be shocked to see me as I am and not as one should be after an Ascension,” I said. There was no missing the twin bursts of surprise from both his parents.

Queen Eloana blinked rapidly while her husband stared at me as if I’d sprouted a third arm. His mother recovered first. “Thank you for being so understanding, especially when we are the ones who have much to atone for. Please,”—she extended an arm to identical settees that sat across from the one she had been seated upon—“have a seat.”

Casteel glanced back at me, the question clear in his eyes. He was leaving it up to me, whether we stayed or left. I reached out to him, welcoming the weight and feel of his fingers around mine. I nodded.

Relief was evident from both his parents. “Would either of you like something to drink? Kieran?” she asked.

We passed on the offer as we sat in the thickly cushioned settee—the kind I could easily imagine curling up in to read a book.

Just not that damn diary.

Kieran remained standing, taking up a guard position behind the settee, and it didn’t escape me that that was exactly what he was doing. He was standing guard directly behind me, his hand resting on the hilt of his sheathed sword.

That had to send a rather uncomfortable message.

“I hope what you saw of Atlantia yesterday has shown you that your experiences with us so far are not who we are,” King Valyn stated, his stare nearly as intense as his son’s as he revealed their knowledge of how we’d spent the day before. He and his wife sat. “And those you may have met yesterday are more of a representation.”

“I want nothing more than for that to be true,” I admitted. “What I’ve seen so far of Saion’s Cove has been lovely.”

His father nodded. “I want to make sure that is the only truth you come to know.”

 “We learned last night that we owe you our gratitude, something else I should’ve said already.” The Queen’s citrine-bright gaze fixed on me. I tasted the lemon of curiosity, a tart blast of confusion, and the tangy undercurrent of sorrow. “Thank you for aiding the child who was injured in the carriage accident. You prevented a great, unnecessary tragedy.”

I glanced at Casteel, unsure of how to answer. You’re welcome seemed like an odd way to respond in this situation. His hand tightened around mine. “I…I only did what I could to help her.”

The King arched a brow. “Only did what you could? You saved that child’s life. That was no simple act.”

I shifted in my seat, uncomfortable.

“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.”

“But as you already know, I am excessive in all things,” he told me in a voice that was all lush, decadent smoke.

Warmth crept into my cheeks as a wicked heat settled low in my belly. Immediately, I thought of what we’d done on the beach the night before. That had been…excessive.

Casteel grinned.

His father cleared his throat. “Have you always been able to do what you did with the child?”

Pulling my gaze from Casteel, and my mind from very inappropriate places, I answered. “No, I haven’t,” I said and then gave a brief recap of the evolution of my abilities. “They were changing before I Ascended.”

“I figured it had to do with the Culling,” Casteel supplied.

“The Culling would explain the change,” his mother agreed.

“And this was before the Ascension? I know of no other half-Atlantian to go through the Culling.” His father eyed me closely. “Or any Ascended mortal with Atlantian blood who went through a Culling and did not become a vampry. But then again, I know of no other half-Atlantian descended from the gods, who is alive today.”

“Me, either,” I said and then cringed. Obviously, I didn’t. Gods.

Amusement trickled in from Casteel, and surprisingly, his father. A faint grin appeared on the King’s face as Casteel said, “You said you know of no other that is alive today. Are you saying there were others like her before?”

I almost wanted to smack myself for not catching that earlier.

The Queen nodded. “It didn’t happen often, but deities did create children with either Atlantians or mortals. When that happened, the eather of the deity often manifested in the child in one way or another. Of course, that manifestation was stronger if the other parent was Atlantian.”

“The children? The ones from those who were mortal?” I asked, my need for answers great. “They were still mortal?”

She nodded as she picked up her small white cup from the table. “From what I remember, they healed faster than most mortals from injuries, and they were not often sick,” she explained as she looked to her husband, taking a sip. I had always healed fast, and I rarely ever got sick. “But they remained mortal—aging the same as any other. They probably would’ve lived slightly longer if it weren’t for their need to chase after death.”

“What does that mean?” Casteel asked.

“Those who carried the blood of the gods were often warriors—the first to stop a fight, and sometimes start one,” the King explained. “They were the bravest men and women I’ve ever known, fighting in the trenches alongside Atlantian soldiers. Most, if not all of them, died in the war or were taken captive by the Ascended once they realized the blood they carried within them.”

My stomach soured. They were probably fed upon or used to create more Ascended, facing a brief but no less horrific taste of what Casteel had suffered, and his brother currently lived. My lip curled as I shook my head. “Gods.” I swallowed hard as Casteel squeezed my hand. “How long have the Ascended been doing this?”

“As long as they have breathed,” the King said, and I shuddered. “They have committed atrocious sins against Atlantians, mortals, and the gods.”

None of what he said was an understatement.

 “The thing is, though,” his father continued as he rested his elbow on the settee, “not even the children of a deity and an Atlantian had abilities that manifested so strongly in them as they have for you. What you did at the Chambers is something not even the most powerful elemental Atlantian can do,” he said, sliding a thumb along his jaw as he looked between Casteel and me. “You asked me in the Temple of Saion if I could explain what happened to you when Casteel Ascended you.”

“And you told us that you didn’t know,” Casteel replied.

“That wasn’t entirely a lie,” he said, glancing at his wife before turning to Casteel. “The past that your mother spoke of plays a role in this—what you’ve become. But it doesn’t explain how.”

Icy fingers of unease touched the nape of my neck, sending a shiver down my spine.

“Your parents?” his mother asked as she tipped forward slightly. “You believed them both to be mortal?”

“I did,” I said, shoulders tensing. “But I’m not so sure now. I don’t even know if they were my birth parents.”

Her throat worked on a swallow. “And you have a brother?”

Alastir had definitely informed them well. “I do. He is older by two years.”

“And he Ascended?” she asked, and I nodded stiffly. She clasped her hands lightly in her lap. “Are you sure of that?”

“He has only ever been seen at night,” Casteel confirmed. “Beyond that, there is no way of knowing. But he has been seen multiple times. I do not believe they are using him for blood—in the same way they intended to use Penellaphe.”

I knew what his parents were thinking. That Ian was either my half-brother or not my brother by blood at all. If either were the case, I didn’t care. He was still my sibling. Just as my parents, who had given their lives to protect us, would always be the only mother and father I knew.

“I believe that we can answer some of the questions you have,” his mother stated, her gaze briefly meeting her husband’s.

Casteel squeezed my hand as I said, “Alastir told me that I share similar abilities with—”

“Malec?” Queen Eloana interjected, her sorrow becoming a thickness that cast a pall on the room. “You do. You would. He spoke the truth.”

Sucking in a sharp breath, I was stunned and even more surprised by the fact that I was so shocked. Apparently, some part of me hadn’t wanted to believe it was true. I sat back, trying to pull my hand free of Casteel’s grip.

He held on as he angled his body toward mine. “It doesn’t matter, Poppy. I told you that before.” His gaze snared mine. “It doesn’t matter to me.”

“And it doesn’t matter to us,” Kieran stated softly from behind us, bravely speaking for the entirety of the wolven.

“You actually look like him,” Casteel’s mother whispered, and my head swung in her direction. “Even if I hadn’t seen the power radiating from you, I would’ve known exactly who you came from. You have many of his features and his hair—though his was a shade of red that carried more brown in it, and his skin was a little darker than yours.”

I could feel the blood slowing in my veins. “I was always told that I looked like my mother—”

“By who?” she asked.

“By…” Queen Ileana had told me that. Ever since I could remember, she’d said that I was a replica of my mother when she was my age. I never once questioned that growing up, and even though I was beginning to suspect that at least one of my parents wasn’t related to me by blood, I’d never truly thought it was my mother.

Casteel stared at me for a moment and then turned to his mother and father. “What are you saying?”

“What we’re saying is that it’s impossible for the ones you believed to be your parents to be who you remember them to be.” King Valyn’s tone was softer than what I even imagined him being able to accomplish. “Or they were not your parents at all. Because we know who one of them was.”

The sympathy that radiated from the Queen nearly choked me. “Malec had to have been your father, Penellaphe.”


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