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The Crown of Gilded Bones: Chapter 28


Shivers erupted over my skin as I stopped walking. “What?”

The Queen of Atlantia faced me. “She is called the Queen of Blood and Ash.”

Not only had I never heard that, it didn’t make sense to me. “But the Descenters and Atlantians—”

“Use that phrase? We were not the first to do so, just like the Descenters weren’t the first to wear those masks,” she replied. “When the Blood Crown began their dynasty, they called themselves the Queen and King of Blood and Ash, referencing the power of blood and what remains after destruction.”

“I…I didn’t know that,” I admitted.

“Those words—that title—are important to us because it means that from the blood of those who have fallen at the hands of the Ascended, and from the ash of all they have destroyed, we will still rise.” She cocked her head to the side. “To us, it says that despite what they tried to do to us, we were not defeated. And because of it, we will rise again.”

I thought that over as the Queen began to walk again, and I followed her. “Do the Ascended know that is why the Descenters and Atlantians say that?”

A small smile appeared. “They do, and I’m also sure that it bothers them greatly to know that we took their title and made it mean something else.” The surge of gratification coming from her made me grin. “It is why you have never heard that title. I doubt many of the mortals alive or even some of the Ascended have heard it. They stopped using it several centuries ago, around the time the first Descenters left their mark behind, using those words. They sought to distance themselves from the title, but that is who they are.” Her gaze met mine before she strode forward once more. “The attack that killed your parents and gave you those scars? You are very lucky to be alive.”

It took me a moment to follow the shift in subject. “I am,” I agreed, and then I thought of something. “Do you think it’s because of my bloodline? Why I survived?”

“I would think so,” she said. “At a young age, Atlantians are nearly mortal, but you… You are different. The deity bloodline is obviously the strongest in you, and it protected you.”

“I…”

“What?” She sent me a quick glance when I didn’t continue.

“It’s just that I spent a lot of my life wondering how I survived that night, why I was…Chosen to be the Maiden. And now that I know why, I have more questions because I was told so many lies,” I told her. “It’s just a lot to process.”

“But you appear to be doing just that.”

“Because I have no other choice. It’s not like I can deny this. It sickens me to think of what the Blood Crown may have done to create me.” It also scared me to think of why they had done all of this. But that was something I couldn’t focus on now. “Not only to who might have been my mother, but also to Malec. I know he wasn’t a good man, but he was still a person,” I said. “And yet, I feel…detached from it. I feel sorrow and sympathy for them, but they are strangers, and it doesn’t change who I am. No matter what Alastir or the Unseen believe. I am not the sum of the blood that courses through my veins.”

“No,” she said after a few moments. “I do not think you are.”

“Really?” I blurted out in surprise.

Another small smile appeared on her lips. “I remember the deities, Penellaphe. While many could be prone to all manner of misdeeds, not all of them were that way. The others? If they had gone to sleep like the gods, who’s to say what would’ve become of the deities? We’ll never know. But Malec…he wasn’t a bad man, Penellaphe.”

Even though I had just basically said that Malec was nothing more than a stranger to me, part of me filled with curiosity and the need to learn more about the man who was my father. That had to be natural. “He wasn’t?” I asked finally.

Her hair shone a blue-black in the sunlight as she shook her head. “He wasn’t a bad ruler. For a long time, he was fair and just. And he could be very generous and kind. He was never abusive toward me or intentionally cruel.”

“He was unfaithful. Repeatedly,” I said, and immediately wished I hadn’t voiced what I was thinking. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t—”

“No need to apologize,” she said with a low laugh. “He was unfaithful and, yes, repeatedly. The man had two heads, and I’m sure you can guess which one he used most.”

It took me a moment to realize what she meant, and then my eyes widened.

“But he wasn’t like that when we first met. It was only toward the end that I started to see this…stirring inside him. This great unrest that I came to believe, even before what he’d done with his mistress, was because he was becoming something else. I…I don’t know what happened, what changed him so that he was no longer satisfied with me and the life we were trying to build. Why the generosity and kindness that had once been second nature to him faded. But I know it was no fault of mine, and I have long since stopped wondering and caring about why he sought completion and purpose in the arms of others. What I am trying to say is that your father wasn’t a monster, Penellaphe. He was a deity—the most powerful one there was. But he was still a man who became lost.”

My respect for her grew. It would’ve been all too easy for her to paint him with one brush. I wouldn’t have blamed her if she had. But she wanted me to know that there was some goodness to the man. The breath I exhaled was a little looser, easier. I appreciated what she did more than she may realize.

But it also left me with another question. “You said you hunted him down because—”

“Because he would have sought revenge against me. Against Atlantia. When the Council demanded that he deal with the mistress he Ascended, he felt betrayed by them. And when I annulled the marriage, taking the throne with the support of the Council, it compounded that feeling. He couldn’t believe it. That he, a deity and descendant of Nyktos, could be overruled.” She brushed a wisp of hair back from her face. “And things had…greatly soured between us by the end. He would’ve come back, and after what he did, he was no longer fit to rule.”

“And you think Casteel will be fit?” I asked, even at the risk of rehashing what I had shut down earlier. “He did the same as Malec. He had no idea that I would not become a vampry.”

Her gaze slid to mine as we passed lavender and vivid red hibiscus bushes. “But I do not believe Casteel would’ve attempted to take the throne if you had become one. I know my son. He would’ve taken you and left, not risking your life or Atlantia. Malec wanted Atlantia and his vampry mistress. While the risk he took disturbs me, the situations are not the same.”

She was right. The situations weren’t the same. And she was also correct about what Casteel would’ve done.

Although if I had Ascended into a vampry, I imagined that Casteel would’ve laid waste to quite a few people before leaving.

Through the soaring spikes of purple and blue flowers, Kieran matched our movements through the garden as we fell silent. If he was trying to be inconspicuous, he was failing. Queen Eloana noted where my attention had gone. “You will need to get used to someone always a few steps away.”

My gaze shifted to her. “I had many shadows when I was the Maiden.”

“And my son was one of them.” She stopped in front of a towering shrub of pale pink blossoms that formed an arch over a stone bench.

“He was.”

“Would you mind if we sat?” she asked. “I am far older than I appear and haven’t gotten much sleep the last couple of nights.”

Wondering exactly how old she was, I sat.

“I have a question for you,” she said once she was seated beside me. “You and Casteel…” She drew in a short breath, but I felt it. The punch of potent anguish as she slowly exhaled. “You plan to find and free Malik?”

This was why she’d wanted to speak to me in private. I started to respond when I stopped myself from lying—because I didn’t have any reason to lie. Casteel and I were no longer pretending to be in love to gain what we both sought. We were in love, and that didn’t change what we believed or wanted to achieve. However, as I focused on her emotions, her anguish was a tangy, bitter taste in the back of my throat, and I didn’t want to add to that.

But if I had any hope of fostering a relationship with Casteel’s mother beyond a rather antagonistic one, I couldn’t build it on a foundation of lies. “We do plan to find and free Malik.”

“And that is why my son took you?” she asked, her amber eyes bright—too bright. “In the beginning? He kidnapped you?”

I nodded. “He planned to use me as a bargaining chip, and that is why we initially agreed to marry.”

Her head tilted slightly. “Why would you agree to that?”

“Because I need to see my brother, to learn what he has become. And I would’ve had better luck achieving that with Casteel at my side than alone,” I confessed. “That’s why I originally agreed to marry him, and it doesn’t matter to me if Ian is a brother by blood or not. He’s my brother. That’s all that matters.”

“You’re right. He is your brother, just as the ones you remember as your parents are that.” A moment passed. “What do you think you will find once you see your brother?”

Her question was so similar to Casteel’s, I had to smile a little. “I hope to find my brother as I remember him—kind, nurturing, patient, and funny. Full of life and love.”

“And if that is not what you find?”

I briefly closed my eyes. “I know Ian. If he’s been turned into something cold and immoral—something that preys upon children and innocents? That would slowly kill him—kill whatever part of who he really is that remains inside him. If that is what he’s become, I will give him peace.”

Queen Eloana stared at me as something that reminded me of respect pierced through her grief. It was accompanied by the warm, vanilla taste of empathy. “You could do that?” she asked quietly.

“It’s not something that I want to do.” I watched the breeze stir the towers of blossoms. “But it’s something I have to do.”

“And now? This is still your plan?”

“It is,” I told her, but I didn’t stop there. “But we aren’t pretending to be in love to accomplish our goals, Your Majesty. I do love your son, and I know he loves me. When I said that he was the first thing I’d ever chosen for myself, that wasn’t a lie. He is…” I smiled through the knot of emotion swelling in my throat. “He is my everything, and I would do anything for him. I don’t know when it changed for us exactly, but we were both falling for each other long before I knew that Hawke wasn’t his first name. None of that changes how we got here—the lies or the betrayals. But we are here now, and that’s what matters.”

Her throat worked on a swallow. “You’ve truly forgiven him for that betrayal?”

I thought about that for a moment. “I think too much value is given to forgiveness when it’s easier to forgive but far harder to forget. That understanding and acceptance is far more important than forgiving someone,” I said. “I understand why he lied. That doesn’t mean I agree with it or that it’s okay, but I have accepted it, and I’ve moved on. We’ve moved on.”

She inclined her head, nodding. I had no idea if that meant she believed me. Her internal pain overshadowed anything else she may be feeling. Several moments passed. “Do you think Malik lives?”

“Casteel believes that he does.”

Her gaze sharpened on me. “I asked if you believe Malik lives. Not if my son believes it.”

I stiffened, glancing through the garden to where Kieran stood with his back to us. “He…he has to be alive. Not because I want him to be alive for Casteel and for your family’s sake, but how else would my brother have Ascended? We’re not entirely sure that they have another Atlantian held captive,” I said, thinking of the unnamed and faceless woman who could possibly be my birth mother. “And Duchess Teerman claimed that Malik was. She wasn’t the most trustworthy of sources, but I think she spoke the truth. I just don’t…”

“What?” she prodded when I fell silent, sensing a small measure of hope from her.

“I just don’t know what kind of…state he will be in.” I twisted my fingers together in my lap, bracing myself for the raw wave of pain that came from her. Tears pricked my eyes as I glanced at her. Her lips trembled as she pressed them together. “I’m sorry. I can’t imagine how you feel. Knowing that they turned my brother and possibly my dearest friend is hard enough. But this is different. I’m so sorry.”

She breathed as if the air were full of shards of glass. “If he is alive and they’ve had him this long?” Her gaze touched mine and then flicked to the sky. “It would almost be better if he…”

She didn’t finish her sentence, but she didn’t need to. “If he were dead?”

Her shoulders jerked as she blinked rapidly. “That is a terrible thing to think, isn’t it?” She pressed a hand to her chest as she swallowed several times. “Especially as a mother, it’s a terrible thing to wish for your child.”

“No. It’s just…real,” I said, and her eyes flew to mine. “Feeling that way doesn’t mean you don’t love or care for him or even hope that he’s not still alive.”

“How can you say that when you know that a part of me wishes he had passed on to the Vale?”

“You know that I can sense emotions,” I stated, and tension bracketed her mouth. “I can feel your anguish, but I also felt your hope and your love for your son. I know that’s real,” I repeated, searching her gaze. “And I think wishing that any loved one was at peace isn’t wrong. I love my brother. What I may have to do doesn’t change that.”

“No,” she agreed softly. “It just proves how much you do love him.”

I nodded. “The same goes for you and Malik.”

She stared at me for several seconds and then a small, trembling smile appeared. “Thank you,” she whispered, reaching between us and patting my arm. “Thank you.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I said nothing. I simply watched her pull herself together. Queen Eloana swallowed once more and then let out a deep, slow breath. Her anguish eased off then, returning to levels that reminded me of how Casteel had felt when I first met him. Her features smoothed out as she cleared her throat, lifting her chin ever so slightly. And, frankly, it was an awe-inspiring thing to witness because I knew just how deep and how terrible her pain was.

Casteel’s mother may never care deeply for me, and we may never grow close, but that didn’t change the fact that she was an incredibly strong woman, one to be respected and admired.

“So,” she began, folding her hands in her lap, “how is it that you and my son plan to achieve this?”

“We will offer the Blood Crown an ultimatum. They will release his brother, agree to stop making more vamprys and killing those who are willing to feed them, and they must relinquish control of the lands east of New Haven to Atlantia.” I was unsure how much of this she may already know. “If they refuse, there will be war.”

She watched a tiny, blue-winged bird jump from branch to branch on a nearby rose bush. “And you think that the Blood Crown will agree to this?”

“I think the Ascended are smart, and I think they know that their control of Solis has been built upon nothing but lies and fear. They told the people of Solis that I was Blessed and Chosen by the gods. And they’ve also told the people that Atlantia was forsaken by those very same gods. I’m sure you know what the people of Solis are told about Atlantians—about how your kiss is a curse that creates the Craven.” I watched her roll her eyes and couldn’t stop my smile. “My union with the Prince of Atlantia will prove that to be untrue. It will serve as a crack in the lies. The people of Solis believe what they’ve been told because they’ve never been allowed to see any other truth. We will change that. The Ascended won’t have a choice.”

“But will it be enough for them to give up power? To stop feeding and turning others?”

Telling her that I hoped so probably wouldn’t come across as very reassuring. “If any Ascended hope to live, they will.”

“Including the Queen and King?” she questioned. “Will they live and retain power?”

“No. They will not, no matter if they agree,” I said, studying her profile. I didn’t know if she knew of my past with the Queen of Solis. “Ileana raised me for many years. It was she who changed my bandages and held me when I had nightmares. She was the closest thing I had to a mother then, and I cared for her very much,” I shared, forcing my hands to relax. “It has been hard to reconcile the Queen I knew and the monster she obviously is. I don’t know if I ever will, but I don’t need to reconcile who she was to me with who she truly is to know that she nor King Jalara can live. Not after what they did to Casteel—to Malik, my brother, and everyone else.”

“And to you?”

I nodded.

Queen Eloana watched me quietly for several heartbeats. “You mean that.”

What she said wasn’t a question, but I answered anyway. “I do.”

Her gaze swept over my face, touching briefly on the scars. “My son said you were brave and strong. I see that is no exaggeration.”

Hearing that from Casteel’s mother meant a lot, but knowing how much strength and grit were inside her made it mean even more. There was a good chance that I might do something silly like run around the garden…or hug her.

I managed to remain seated and keep my arms to myself.

“What my son failed to mention though, is that you’re also incredibly logical,” she added.

A laugh burst from me. I couldn’t help it, and it was loud enough that Kieran looked over his shoulder at us with a questioning raise of his brows. “I’m sorry,” I said, smothering a giggle. “It’s just that Casteel would argue that logic isn’t one of my strong suits.”

There was a faint curve of her lips. “That doesn’t surprise me. Most men wouldn’t know logic if it smacked them in the face.”

This time, my laugh was a lot softer, partly due to her response and Kieran’s reactive frown.

“But because you do appear to be logical, even when emotions are involved, I feel that I can be blunt,” she continued, and my humor shriveled up. “And that I can admit that I did have yet another agenda for speaking with you privately. My husband wants to go to war with the Ascended—with Solis. There are many who wish the same.”

“The…the Council of Elders?”

A shadow flickered across her face. “Most of them want to see Solis destroyed. The Lords and Ladies of Atlantia? Very many of them, as well. It’s more than just what has been done to our sons. It is what has been done over and over to Atlantia. They want blood.”

Casteel had said as much. “I can understand that.”

“You said inside that you wanted to bring death and destruction to Solis,” she pointed out, and I shivered despite the warmth. “Valyn was probably pleased to hear that he may have a supporter in you, but I don’t believe you understand what that truly means or what has already begun.”

I flattened my hands in my lap. “What has already begun?”

“Casteel hasn’t been home to see that we’ve been training our armies daily outside of Evaemon, nor does he know that we have already moved a sizable unit to the northern foothills of the Skotos Mountains,” she told me, and I sensed Kieran’s cool surprise even from where he stood. “I’m sure he’s being told this now or will be shortly, but we are already on the line of war. And if we cross it, we will go after every Ascended. There will be no chances for them to prove they can control their bloodlust, that they can rule without tyranny and oppression.” Her steady gaze held mine as I stiffened. “Your brother? Ian? Your friend you spoke of? If either proves to be what you hope, they will still be destroyed along with the rest. All will be killed.”


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