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The Crown of Gilded Bones: Chapter 27


I stared at Casteel’s parents, caught in a cyclone of confusion and disbelief. I wanted to stand, but Casteel still held onto my hand tightly. And where could I go?

“For you to have your abilities, you have to be the child of a deity and not just share their blood,” King Valyn explained in that same gentle way. “And it also means that neither of your parents could’ve been mortal.”

I inhaled sharply. “What?”

“There’s simply no way that you were ever mortal,” Queen Eloana said, her gaze searching mine. “That doesn’t mean that the mother you knew isn’t your mother. It just means that she was never mortal.”

I shook my head as my brain rapidly tried to process this new information. “But wouldn’t Alastir have known that? He met her.”

Queen Eloana lowered her gaze, and I knew then that she had said what she had to lessen the impact.

My stomach hollowed. “Don’t do that—don’t lie to soften the blow. I appreciate it. I do.” And I did. It meant that she cared in some fashion about my feelings. “But I need to know the truth. I need to face it.”

A measure of respect rippled through the Queen as she nodded. “He would’ve known if the woman he met was not mortal.”

“It also means that Leopold couldn’t have been Malec.” Kieran had moved to perch on the arm of the settee. “Alastir would’ve known and would’ve said as much.”

 I focused on taking deep, even breaths as I reminded myself that I had already suspected that at least one of my parents hadn’t been related to me by blood. I’d even started to accept that, and I…I could accept this. But Malec as my father? Something didn’t add up about that. But my thoughts were too much of a whirlwind to figure out what that was at the moment.

“And he would’ve told me if he had happened across Malec,” Casteel’s mother stated, snapping my attention back to her. “He would’ve told both of us.”

Casteel’s fingers slipped from mine then, and my heart stuttered at the blast of iciness that rolled off him as he stared at his parents. “Did you two know about Penellaphe before me? Did you know what Alastir took part in that night in Lockswood?”

Oh, my gods.

I…I hadn’t even considered that. But I tasted it then, the sourness of shame, coming from both of them. The center of my chest hummed, and Kieran inhaled raggedly as he stretched his neck from left to right. “You…you knew?”

“We knew that he had found what he believed to be a descendant of Malec’s,” Queen Eloana answered as her husband reached between them, clasping her hand. “But we did not know anything else about you or your family. He didn’t even know then that you were Malec’s child. He only came to realize that when he met you again.”

Casteel’s body was impossibly rigid, and I saw Hisa inch away from the window and move toward his parents. “But you knew that he killed her parents? Left her to die?”

His father met his stare. “We only knew after the fact. There was nothing we could’ve done then.”

A moment passed, and then Casteel started to stand. I snapped forward, grasping his arm. “He’s right,” I said, swallowing thickly as his head swung in my direction. His eyes reminded me of frozen topaz. “There was nothing they could’ve done after the fact. This is not their fault.”

So focused on Casteel, I couldn’t quite place the strange sensation again, a fleeting emotion that was sour yet also tangy. I had no idea who it came from or if I had really even felt it when Casteel’s rage was a fire storm. “They’re not to blame for what Alastir did,” I told him, curling my other hand around his arm. “They’re not.”

He didn’t move for several heartbeats and then stiffly returned to sit beside me. The muscles under my hands remained tense as Hisa stepped back to her post by the window, her hand easing away from the hilt of her sword.

“How?” Casteel demanded raggedly. “How could either of you continue a friendship with that bastard after knowing what he did?”

That…

That was an excellent question.

His father’s chest rose with a heavy breath. “Because we thought that he was acting in the best interests of Atlantia.”

“He allowed a child to be attacked by Craven,” snarled Casteel. “How in the fuck is that in the best interests of Atlantia?”

“Because Malik was gone, you showed no interest in taking the Crown, and a descendant of Malec, raised among the Ascended, cared for by a Handmaiden of the Blood Crown, would’ve been able to claim the throne,” his mother said, and I felt Casteel flinch. “And even not knowing the extent of the blood that she carried in her, there was no way that Alastir or either of us believed it to be a coincidence that a Handmaiden was masquerading as the mother of a child who was the heir to Atlantia.”

Masquerading as the mother…

Gods,” Kieran muttered, dragging a hand over his face.

Casteel sat back, a muscle flexing in his jaw as he looked at me. “Poppy, I—”

“Don’t. Don’t you dare.” Releasing his arm, I clasped the sides of his face. “Don’t you dare apologize. This isn’t your fault either. You were trying to find your brother then. You had no idea what Alastir would do or that I even existed. Don’t you take on that kind of guilt. Please.”

“She’s right, son.” His father cleared his throat. “This is not on you.”

“And you truly think you hold no responsibility in this?” Casteel said, his eyes never leaving mine.

“No, we do,” his mother said quietly. “We didn’t like what was done, but we did not disagree with it. And that is something we’ve lived with since then and will continue to live with.”

“Just like those you killed to protect the location of Iliseeum?” Casteel broke my hold as he turned to his parents. “Is that another thing you both live with?”

“It is,” King Valyn confirmed, and if either were surprised that we had learned about Iliseeum’s location, they didn’t show it. “And if you become King, you will have to do many things that will turn your stomach, haunt your dreams, and that you’ll have to live with.”

The truth in that statement silenced Casteel. For a second. “I’m sure there will be, but if I discover that any of my people took part in harming or killing a child, they will find themselves in the Abyss, where they belong. That will never be blood that sits on my hands.”

 Sorrow pierced through the walls surrounding King Valyn. “I hope and pray that it never does.”

“Prayers aren’t needed,” Casteel replied coolly as he picked up my hand and pressed a kiss to the center of my palm.

“Wait,” Kieran blurted out, startling me. “I don’t understand how Malec is her father. I know it’s never been stated what happened to him, but it’s been safely assumed that he’s not alive, and hasn’t been for centuries. After all, why wouldn’t he have returned to claim the throne?”

I jerked. That was what hadn’t made sense about Malec being my father. Yes, no one appeared to know what had happened to him or Isbeth. But how could he still be alive?

“It was a safe assumption,” Casteel’s mother said, rising. “And that’s why it’s also impossible.”

I blinked once and then twice. “Come again?”

“It’s impossible that Malec sired a child nineteen years ago.” The skirts of her gown snapped around her ankles as Queen Eloana strode to the oak credenza, picking up a decanter of amber liquid. “Are you sure none of you wants a drink?”

Kieran looked like he needed one when he said, “I really don’t understand what is happening.”

“After I had the marriage annulled, and Malec was dethroned, he disappeared,” she said, pouring herself a glass and placing the topper back on the decanter, her hand remaining there as she stood with her back to us. “At that time, I was otherwise occupied with the growing threat of the Ascended, and the beginnings of the war, but it wasn’t until some years later, after Valyn and I married and the War of Two Kings ended, that I found him.” Her shoulders were tense as she took a drink— a nice, long one.

“I knew I had to. If not, he would forever pose a risk to not only Atlantia but also to the family I was trying to build. I knew him.” She looked over her shoulder as she took another drink. Her lips peeled back, revealing the tips of her fangs. “He would have sought revenge for what I’d done. So, I hunted him down, deep within Solis, and entombed him.”

“You…you used the bone chains?” I asked.

She gave a curt nod. “It is extremely difficult to kill a deity. Some would say impossible without the aid of another or a god,” she said, and I remembered what Alastir had said about Malec. That he had killed many of the other deities.

Not only was my…father prone to chaotic violence and was a habitual adulterer, he was also apparently a murderer.

But that was if he was my father. And that was something Queen Eloana had yet to explain.

“That was some four hundred years ago.” She faced us, holding the glass to her breasts. “It would’ve taken more than half of those years for him to become weak enough to die, but he would’ve been dead by the time you were born.”

Casteel’s brows furrowed as he looked over at me and then back to his mother and then his father. “Then how is Malec Poppy’s father?”

“Maybe you’re wrong,” Kieran suggested. “Maybe Malec isn’t her father.”

King Valyn shook his head. “There are no other deities. Malec killed the last of them when he ruled. But it’s not just that.” His gaze flicked to me. “You do look like him. Too much to be a child several generations removed.”

I opened my mouth, but I didn’t know what to say.

“And what you did for that child yesterday?” his mother said. “From what we’ve heard, she was too far gone to be healed. Malec could do the same.”

“But he rarely did?” I said, repeating what Alastir had said.

She nodded. “He did when he was younger and less embittered and bored with life and death.” She took another drink, and I noticed her glass was nearly empty. “He actually saved my life. That’s how we met.” Her throat worked on a swallow as I glanced at Casteel, unsure if he had known that. “No other deity could do that. Only those who carried the blood of Nyktos. And there was only ever Malec. And he was Nyktos’s grandchild. That was why he was so powerful. That partially explains why you are so powerful, as Nyktos would be your great-grandfather.”

“Besides that, Malec was the oldest deity.” Casteel’s father sat forward, rubbing his palm on his right knee. “The rest were the children of great-grandchildren, born of the gods.”

Which meant that if Casteel and I had children, they would be…they would be like the deities who once ruled Atlantia. Perhaps a little less powerful due to Casteel’s elemental bloodline, but still…powerful.

I couldn’t even think about that at the moment. “But Nyktos had two children,” I said, remembering the painting of the large, gray cats. “They only had one child between the two of them?”

She nodded.

“I still do not understand how Malec is her father, then,” Kieran stated, and I was right there with him.

“Where is Malec entombed?” Casteel asked.

His mother walked over to where his father sat. “I do not know what the area would be called now, as so much of that land has changed in the years since. But it would not be hard to locate. Trees the color of blood, the likes of which grow at the Chambers of Nyktos and now flourish across the Skotos Mountains, will mark the land that entombs him.”

I gasped. “The Blood Forest outside of Masadonia.”

Casteel looked at me and then at Kieran. “You know something I’ve always wondered? Why the Blood Crown sent you to live in Masadonia when it would have been safer for you to be in the capital.”

As did I.

“Because her blood would’ve been too much of a lure to the Ascended, and she would’ve been placed with someone the Crown trusted,” his father said, and my stomach twisted with nausea.

“I’ve had serious doubts about the Blood Crown’s judgement, but if they trusted the Teermans, that shows a lack of awareness that is startling,” Casteel replied, smoothing his fingers down the center of my palm.

“But they never fed from me,” I said. “As much as I can remember.”

“No, they abused you instead.” His tone hardened. “I’m not sure I see much of a difference between the two.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Queen Eloana said, lowering her now-empty glass to a table by the settee.

“I…” My stomach tumbled some more as something occurred to me. “Is it possible that Ileana or Jalara learned where Malec was entombed?”

King Valyn inhaled deeply, and every part of me tensed even further. “I imagine they did. It’s the only plausible explanation as to how Malec is your father.”

I stared at them.

Casteel’s fingers stilled against my hand. “Are you implying that the Ascended raised him? Because I never heard them mention him.”

“They would’ve had to have gotten to him before he died,” his father said. “But even if it took only a century or two to learn that he was entombed there, it would’ve taken a lot of Atlantian blood to bring him into any state of consciousness. And even then, he would’ve been…not of the right mind. I doubt he would recover from such a thing in hundreds of years.”

My gods.

I pressed my other hand against my mouth. The implications were so horrifying, I couldn’t speak.

“And when did you all suspect that he had risen?” Casteel asked softly.

“When we saw her at the Chambers. Saw what Alastir claimed for ourselves,” his mother said. “We would’ve talked to you immediately, but…”

But there hadn’t been time.

A wild sense of panic rose in me, thinning each breath I took. I fought past it as my heart thundered against my chest. None of this changed who I was. None of this changed who I would grow into. At the end of the day, these were just names and stories. They were not me.

I breathed a little easier.

“The only way to know for sure if Malec has risen is to go to the Blood Forest,” Kieran stated. “And that would be damn near the definition of impossible with all the Craven there and how deep within Solis it is.”

“And what would be the point?” I asked, glancing at the wolven. “It would only confirm what we already know to be true.”

Kieran nodded after a moment.

“Why the blood tree?” I asked, looking over at Casteel’s parents. “Why do they grow where my blood spills and Malec is or was entombed? Why did they change in the mountains?”

“The…the trees of Aios once bore crimson leaves,” Queen Eloana answered. “When the deities ruled over Atlantia. They changed to gold when Malec was dethroned.”

“And we think that when Casteel Ascended you, it changed something in you. Perhaps…unlocking the rest of your abilities or completing some kind of cycle,” Valyn explained. “Either way, we believe the trees changed to reflect that a deity was now in line for the throne.”

“So…they’re not a bad thing?” I asked.

A faint smile tugged at Queen Eloana’s lips as she shook her head. “No. They have always represented the blood of the gods.”

“And that is why I did not become an Ascended? Because of the blood of the gods, or that I…I was never truly mortal?”

“Because you were never truly mortal,” King Valyn confirmed. “Who your mother is? What she is? She would’ve had to be of elemental descent or of another bloodline, perhaps one that died out as far as we knew. And she would’ve had to be old—nearly as old as Malec.”

I nodded slowly, realizing that there was no way Coralena was my birth mother unless she was somehow fully aware and party to what the Ascended were doing. I doubted that was the case, as I couldn’t see any Atlantian being okay with that.

Or surviving long enough in the capital if the Blood Crown had moved me away from there because I would’ve been too much of a lure.

“It is possible,” Kieran began, looking past me to Casteel. “Isn’t it? That another Atlantian was held by the Blood Crown?”

“They were usually half-Atlantians, at least that I saw or heard of,” Casteel answered, his voice rough. “But it’s not impossible that I just never knew or that…she was held at a different location.”

If that were the case, then was my birth mother…forced into pregnancy? Raped by a deity out of his mind and somehow manipulated into the act?

Gods.

My hands trembled, and this time when Casteel released me, I pulled my hand free. I rubbed my palms over my knees.

“I hate asking this,” Casteel whispered, even though everyone in the room could hear him. “But are you okay?”

“I feel like vomiting,” I admitted. “But I won’t.”

“It’s okay if you do.”

A strangled laugh left me. “I also feel like I could very well become the Bringer of Death and Destruction that the masked Unseen called me.” I looked at him then. “I want to destroy the Blood Crown.” Tears filled my eyes. “I need to do that.”

Queen Eloana watched as his gaze searched mine. He nodded. He didn’t speak, but there was a silent vow there.

It took me a few moments to find my ability to talk again. “Well, at least you can stop calling me a goddess. I am just a…deity.”

A heartbeat passed, and a wide smile broke out across Casteel’s face. Both dimples made an appearance. “You will always be a goddess to me.”

Feeling my cheeks warm, I sat back. A hundred or more questions roamed through my mind, but two came to the forefront. “Have you heard of any prophecies supposedly written in the bones of the Goddess Penellaphe that warn against a great evil that will destroy Atlantia?”

Casteel’s parents stared at me as if a third arm had grown out of my forehead and waved at them. It was his mother who snapped out of her stupor first. She cleared her throat. “No. We don’t have prophecies.”

“But I’m kind of curious about this one,” King Valyn murmured.

“It’s really dumb,” Kieran advised.

“It is.” I glanced at Casteel before continuing. “Do you know if deities have to…if they need blood? I did when I first woke up after Casteel gave me his blood, but I haven’t felt a…hunger for it since then.”

King Valyn’s brows lifted. “As far as I know, deities didn’t need to feed.” He looked at his wife, who nodded. “On the other hand, I do remember reading something long ago about gods needing to feed if they’d been wounded or physically exerted themselves too much. Your need could’ve stemmed from receiving so much Atlantian blood,” he said, his brow furrowing. “That could’ve been a one-off thing or something that becomes a necessity.”

Casteel smiled faintly as I nodded. The idea of drinking blood was still a strange thing for me to consider, but I could get used to it. I snuck a glance at Casteel. He would definitely get used to it.

His mother’s gaze met mine. “Would you like to take a walk? You and I?”

Casteel stiffened beside me, and inside me, my heart turned over heavily. “I don’t know about that,” he said.

Sorrow spiked in his mother, bright and raw. “I only wish to get to know my daughter-in-law. There is no nefarious reason to the request, nor any other shocking news to share.”

There wasn’t—at least, I didn’t sense hostility from her or dread, only sadness and maybe the nutty flavor of resolve. I wasn’t exactly sure I was prepared to be alone with his mother. The mere idea made it feel like a hundred flesh-eating butterflies were in my chest, and that provided momentarily disturbing imagery.

“I promise,” his mother said. “She has nothing to fear from me.”

“I don’t,” I agreed, and she looked at me. “I don’t fear you at all.”

And that was the truth. I was nervous, but that was not the same as fear.

The Queen stared for a moment and then smiled. “I would think not. My son would only choose a bride whose bravery equaled his own.”


The Queen of Atlantia and I walked a path made of ivory stone and lined with soaring blossoms a bluish-purple shade. We weren’t alone, although it might appear that way at first to some. Hisa and another followed at a discreet distance. Kieran also followed, and I was sure I’d spotted a flash of black when we first stepped onto the path. I believed that to have been Lyra, moving through the shrubs and trees.

“My son is…very protective of you,” Queen Eloana noted.

“He is,” I said. Casteel hadn’t exactly been thrilled when I agreed to walk with his mother. He worried, and I think he feared that she might say something that would hurt my feelings or perhaps overwhelm me. But I didn’t expect instantaneous friendship from his mother, and I had grown accustomed to existing in a near-constant state of being overwhelmed.

And, honestly, what more could be shared that would be more shocking than what I had already learned? The fact that I was able to walk and think about anything else was proof that I had most likely moved beyond being overwhelmed.

“Though I have a feeling you are more than capable of protecting yourself,” she commented as she stared ahead.

“I am.”

There was a faint smile on her lips when I glanced over at her. “You like gardens?” she asked, but it was more of a statement than a question.

“I do. I find them to be very—”

“Peaceful?”

“Yes.” I smiled tentatively. “Do you?”

“Gods, no.” She laughed, and I blinked. “I am far too…what does Valyn say? Too frenetic to find peace among flowers and greenery. These gardens,” she said as she gestured with her arm, “are beautiful because Kirha has a green thumb and took pity on me. She enjoys spending hours removing spent blossoms, and I enjoy spending those hours distracting her.”

“I finally met Kirha today,” I ventured. “She has been very kind.”

She nodded. “That, she is.”

I took a deep breath and said, “But I don’t think you wanted to speak to me about Kirha.”

“No.” Glancing at me, her gaze flickered over my face before returning to the pathway. Several moments passed. “I would love for us to talk about something normal and mundane, but that will not be today. I wanted you to know that we were aware of you when you were the Maiden, before Alastir returned with news of Casteel’s intention to marry you. Not that you were the child he had…met all those years ago. Only that there was a girl the Blood Crown claimed was Chosen by the gods, one they called the Maiden. Admittedly, it was not news we paid much attention to. We figured it was some ploy the Ascended had created to strengthen their claims—their behaviors, like the Rite.”

“There was supposedly another before me,” I commented after a moment. “Her name is not known, and it is said that the Dark One killed her.”

“The Dark One?” she mused. “Is that not what they call my son?”

“It is, but I know he didn’t kill her. I’m not even sure she existed.”

“I haven’t heard of another. That doesn’t mean one didn’t exist,” she said as we neared the jacaranda trees. “You were raised in Carsodonia?”

Clasping my hands together in front of me, I nodded. “After my parents were killed, I was.”

“I’m truly sorry to learn of your parents’ deaths.” Empathy flooded my senses as she turned to the right. “And they were the ones who cared for you—the ones you remember. They are your parents, Penellaphe.”

“Thank you.” A knot formed in my throat as I glanced up at the cloudless, blue sky and then looked over at her. “I’m sure you know that I spent many years with Queen Ileana.”

Tension bracketed her mouth as she echoed, “Ileana.” Her nostrils flared in distaste. “The Queen of Blood and Ash.”


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