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The Crown of Gilded Bones: Chapter 34


Casteel had sent Arden, a wolven from Spessa’s End, ahead of us. He would travel first to Saion’s Cove and then to Evaemon to alert the King and Queen of our impending arrival.

Casteel let me handle Setti’s reins and guide the horse until we encountered more treacherous terrain. It took us a day and a half to reach the Cove this time, having stopped halfway through the Skotos Mountains to rest. We stayed the night at Jasper and Kirha’s. The seamstress that we’d visited while we explored the city had been able to create several pairs of leggings, tunics, and even a gauzy dress in emerald for me, along with some underclothing. Those items were now packed carefully, and the remaining pieces she worked on would be sent to Evaemon. That night, we shared supper with the Contous, several of the wolven, and Naill and Emil. It had been so normal that it was almost hard to believe that we had just met with Ian and were planning to enter Iliseeum.

And wake the King of Gods.

Or that Casteel and I were about to become King and Queen.

We’d discussed everything with Kirha and Jasper at length when we arrived. We would need to travel to Iliseeum as soon as we could if we hoped to make it to Oak Ambler before we were expected. A group would travel with us—not a large one as Casteel and Kieran had explained that the tunnels could be narrow and cramped. And then from there? Well, we hoped that one of the Elders knew where Nyktos slumbered and that my blood would help us enter unharmed.

But during dinner, we didn’t talk about any of that, even though everyone present knew what was about to happen. Instead, Kirha and Jasper had entertained us with stories about their children and Casteel when they were younger—much to their annoyance and reluctant amusement. I didn’t think I’d ever laughed as much as I had that night. And later, when Casteel and I were alone, I didn’t think it was possible to be loved more thoroughly than I was.

I held onto those two things as we left Saion’s Cove early the next morning, dressed in buttery-soft black leggings and a matching, quarter-length-sleeve tunic that hugged my chest and then flared at the hips. I’d grinned when I saw that she’d left a slit in the right side for me to easily reach my dagger. Jasper remained behind with Kirha, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Vonetta would travel with us to Evaemon. I had expected her to stay with her parents or return to Spessa’s End, but she’d said that she wanted to see Casteel’s and my coronation.

She wasn’t the only one.

Dozens of wolven traveled with us, many that I hadn’t met yet, and a few, like Lyra, that I was just getting to know. Emil and Naill were also with us, and listening to those two bicker about everything from the best-tasting whiskey to whether a sword or an arrow was a better weapon was quite entertaining. All were alert, though, just in case the Unseen made an appearance.

The content feeling kept everything at bay, as did my continuous practice with speaking to the wolven through their imprints. Even the nightmare that, if true, possibly confirmed what Alastir had claimed.

That he hadn’t killed my parents.

I couldn’t focus on that as we traveled north through Atlantia. There would be time later to deal with that possibility, but if I’d learned anything in the last several months, it was how to compartmentalize. Or maybe it was just Casteel’s advice not to borrow tomorrow’s problems.

Either way, it wasn’t all that hard to just exist in the hours it took to reach Evaemon because I got a little lost in the beauty of Atlantia—the limestone homes with their terracotta roofs filling the rolling hills, the small farming villages, and the running streams that split the land, rushing from the cloud-capped Mountains of Nyktos that eventually became visible in the distance. One thing quickly became clear as we traveled.

With wooded, untouched land few and far between, no piece of land within the Pillars of Atlantia went unused.

Whether it was the fields plowed for crops or the land used for housing and commerce, Atlantia was running out of space…

Or already had.

Still, the land was beautiful—the homes, shops, and farms. It was all open, from village to city, with no walls separating them nor keeping monstrous creatures at bay. It was how I imagined Solis had once been.

Casteel had once again handed over control of Setti to me, and we continued on that way until we were halfway to Evaemon. We stopped in Tadous for the night, a town that reminded me very much of New Haven. Near the inn, young Atlantian children waved from the windows of a building I learned was similar to that of the schools in Carsodonia, where they learned their history, letters, and numbers in groups according to their age. The difference here was that all children attended, no matter what their parents did for a living. Whereas in Solis, only the children of means could afford to attend.

The temperatures were cooler here. Nothing that required a heavy cloak, but the faint trace of woodsmoke was in the air. We gathered that evening for dinner, ordering from a menu the friendly innkeeper and his wife provided.

Sitting in between Casteel and Kieran at a long banquet table, I scanned the menu while Vonetta sat across from me, laughing at something Delano said to her.

“Would you like to try a casserole?” Kieran offered as he looked over my shoulder. “That’s something we can share.”

“What’s a…casserole?”

Casteel looked over at me, a slow grin spreading across his lips. “Poppy…”

“What?”

“You’ve never had a casserole before?”

My eyes narrowed. “Obviously, not.”

“It’s good,” Kieran explained. “I think you’ll like it.”

“It is,” Vonetta chimed in.

Casteel tugged on a loose strand of my hair. “Especially if there’s a lot of…meat in it.”

I stared at him, immediately suspicious. “Why are you saying it that way?”

“Like what?” he asked.

“Don’t try to play innocent.”

“Me?” He pressed his hand to his heart. “I’m always innocent. I’m just saying I think you will enjoy a meat casserole.”

I didn’t trust him for one second. I twisted toward Kieran. “What is he talking about?”

Kieran frowned. “A meat casserole.”

I looked over at Vonetta and Delano. “Is that true?”

Dark brows lifted as Vonetta glanced at Casteel. “I honestly don’t know what this one is referring to, but I was thinking about a green bean casserole.”

“Oh, man, I haven’t had one of those in forever,” Naill murmured.

Sitting back, I folded my arms across my chest. “I don’t want it.”

“Shame,” Casteel murmured.

“I have a feeling I’m going to want to stab you by the end of the night.”

Kieran snorted. “And how is that different from any other night?”

I sighed. “True.”

Leaning over, Casteel kissed my cheek and then looked at the menu. We ended up settling on roasted vegetables and duck. With my stomach happily full, I moved closer to the empty fireplace and one of the overstuffed chairs with a tall back while Casteel argued with Vonetta about…well, I wasn’t sure what they were arguing about now. Earlier, it had been whether or not yams could be considered sweet potatoes, which was a strange argument, but I had a feeling it wasn’t the most bizarre one they’d had.

They acted like a brother and sister, no matter if they shared blood. Watching them caused my heart to ache with envy. Ian and I could’ve had that, arguing about vegetables. If we’d had a normal life.

But that had been taken from us.

All because I was Malec’s child and carried the blood of the gods in me. It was why I’d been forced to wear the veil and was caged for half of my life under the pretense of being Chosen. In reality, I had been, just not in the way I’d thought.

I no longer believed that there had been another Maiden. That had only been a lie to keep up the ruse. What I didn’t know was what Queen Ileana hoped to gain through this. In a few days shy of a fortnight, I would know. Unease slithered through me like a snake.

But at least some part of the Ian I knew remained. We could still have that normal life where we argued about vegetables.

Kieran dropped into the chair beside me. “What are you sitting over here thinking about?”

“Nothing,” I replied, and he shot me a knowing look. “Everything.”

He chuckled. “You having second thoughts about your decision?”

“No.” Surprisingly, I wasn’t. Going to Iliseeum? Maybe a little. “Do you think going to Iliseeum is a bad life choice?” I asked as Casteel caught what I thought was a cheese ball thrown by Vonetta.

“If you’d asked me that a year ago and I knew how to enter Iliseeum?” He laughed as he drew his fingers over his forehead. “I would’ve said yes. But now? Ever since my father told us how Iliseeum could be accessed through the tunnels, I’ve been thinking how that is one hell of a coincidence—all those years we spent in them.”

“I have, too,” I admitted, letting my head fall back against the soft cushion of the chair as I looked at him. “It’s just too convenient that you were led there.”

He nodded. “Then that got me thinking about fate. About how all these little things—and the big ones—happened and could’ve been…preordained. As if they were all leading up to this.”

“To me becoming Queen?” I laughed. “I hope you mean something else because that’s a lot of pressure.”

He sent me a grin. “Being Queen is a lot of pressure,” he pointed out.

“Yeah, it is.” I bit down on my lip. “Do you think that’s a bad life choice?”

“If you asked me a year ago—”

“You didn’t know me a year ago, Kieran.”

Dipping his chin, he chuckled and then looked over at me. “Honest to the gods? I think it’s the best choice for you—and for the future of Atlantia and Solis.”

“Well, that makes me feel even more pressured.”

“Sorry.” He slouched in the chair. “But, seriously. Like I was saying earlier, I think things were pointing to this—to something major. You’re doing the right thing.” His gaze found Casteel. “Both of you are.”

Inhaling deeply, I nodded. It felt like the right thing—terrifying, but right. “I just hope I’m not expected to walk around wearing a crown all day,” I murmured.

Kieran barked out a loud laugh, one that drew both Casteel’s and Lyra’s attention. The former raised his brows. I sank a little lower in my seat. “You have the weirdest mind, I swear,” Kieran said, shaking his head.

“Crowns look heavy,” I retorted as Lyra continued staring at Kieran, a faint smile on her pretty face. “And irreplaceable if you break or misplace them.”

Kieran was silent, but I could feel his stare on me.

“Lyra seems to like you,” I said, swiftly changing the subject.

“She seems to like you.”

“Glad to know, but I think we’re talking about two different types of liking someone.”

He lifted a shoulder.

“Do you like her?”

“I like her.” He propped a boot on the leg of another chair. “She’s fun. A good person.”

My brows lifted as I snuck a peek at Lyra. She was speaking with Delano and Naill. Fun? A good person? Kieran was often as transparent as a brick wall, but that wasn’t how I would talk about Casteel if someone asked me what I thought of him. I’d probably wax on poetically for quite some time…and also list all the ways he was utterly infuriating.

I studied Kieran’s profile, thinking of what he’d said while we sat along Stygian Bay. “I want to be nosy.”

“Like when you watched Lyra and I on the beach?”

I choked on my breath—my actual breath—as my face flamed red. “That is not what I was referencing.”

He was grinning so hard, I was surprised his face didn’t crack. “You’re not going to deny it?”

“What is the point?” I muttered.

Kieran eyed me. “Intriguing.”

“Shut up.”

He laughed. “What do you want to be nosy about?”

I looked down, running my finger over my ring. “The person you spoke about loving and losing? What happened to them?”

Kieran was quiet for so long, I didn’t think he’d answer. But then he did. “She died.”

My chest twisted. “I’m sorry.”

He nodded, and another long moment passed. “It was quite some time ago.”

“How…how did it happen?” I cringed at the question.

“Wolven are relatively healthy, just like Atlantians and other bloodlines, but there are a few diseases we’re susceptible to. All inherent,” he said. “Elashya was born with one—a wasting disease traced all the way back to the kiyou. It attacks the body and then shuts everything down.” He scratched his chin, squinting. “She knew her family carried the disease, but it doesn’t affect everyone, so she was hopeful. But her grandmother had it, and it commonly shows up every generation or two. The problem is that someone will be healthy for a hundred or so years, and then it just hits them. Starts with involuntary twitches and spasms of the muscles, almost so small you wouldn’t notice them. But then within days…that’s it. Over.”

My finger stilled over the ring. “You…you fell in love with her knowing you could lose her?”

“The heart doesn’t care how long you may have with someone.” Kieran looked over at me, his eyes sheltered. “It just cares that you have the person for as long as you can.”


The following morning, I approached Casteel with a request as we left the inn. “I have a favor to ask.”

“Anything,” he replied.

I grinned. “Is it possible for us to obtain another horse?” I asked as we neared where Emil and Naill were readying their mounts. Two saddled horses traveled with us, but they belonged to Kieran and Delano, who had shifted into their mortal forms and were now astride the two steeds. “I would…I would like to ride my own horse into the capital. I remember what you taught me,” I added when Casteel looked down at me. Vonetta had stopped, and even in her wolven form, she sent a look in Casteel’s direction as if she were warning him not to argue. “I think I am ready—that I can control a rather calm one.”

His eyes warmed in the fading afternoon sun. “I think you’re ready, too,” he said, and I beamed up at him. “Although, I will miss having you in front of me.”

“I will miss that, too,” I admitted, feeling my cheeks warm. “But I…”

“I know,” he said quietly, and I think he really did understand why I wanted to ride into the capital on my own horse. What it meant for me. He pressed a kiss to my forehead and then looked over his shoulder.

“Already on it,” Emil said, bowing with a flourish. “I will find you a steed worthy of your beauty and strength, Your Highness,” he added with a wink and a smile.

I grinned.

“Every time he smiles at you, I want to rip his lips from his face.”

My brows lifted as I looked at Casteel. “That’s excessive.”

“Not nearly excessive enough,” he grumbled, eyeing where the Atlantian had disappeared into the nearby stable.

“Sometimes,” Naill began as he hoisted himself onto his horse, “I do believe Emil has a death wish.”

“Same,” Casteel muttered, and I rolled my eyes.

 Emil returned with a very beautiful gray mare that he’d been assured was even-tempered. Setti gave his approval by nudging the mare with his nose as I thanked Emil. “Does she have a name?”

“Storm,” he answered as Casteel checked the straps on the saddle. “Named by the innkeeper’s daughter.”

I grinned as I stroked the fine hairs of the mare’s neck. “It’s nice to meet you, Storm.”

Casteel raised his brows at me from the other side of the horse, but at least he wasn’t ripping Emil’s heart out.

Telling myself that this wasn’t a bad idea, I hoisted myself onto Storm’s back. My stomach flipped and flopped all over the place. I had no idea if Casteel somehow saw my nervousness, but he took the reins, holding them for a bit. Once I got used to the movement and being alone, I took them. Since we weren’t doing anything beyond a quick trot, I felt rather confident that I wouldn’t fall off.

Though, both Casteel and Kieran stayed close to me, riding to my left and right.

“What are you thinking about for the coronation?” Casteel asked as we rode through a wooded area. “Typically, it’s an all-day celebration—a feast along with a ball.”

A feast? Ball? Excitement bubbled up in me. For so many years, I’d wanted nothing more than to join the balls held at Castle Teerman, fascinated by the sounds and laughter, the dresses and artful makeup, and how the anticipation permeated the crowds. It was a reckless sort of happiness. I…I wanted that. To be in a pretty dress, have my hair done, my face painted, and to…to dance with Casteel.

But balls took weeks to plan, and I imagined coronations took even longer. And we didn’t have days to spare to plan such an event.

“I would enjoy a ball,” I said. “But I don’t think we have time for that.”

Casteel nodded. “I think you’re right.”

“Is it something that can be done later?” I wondered. “I mean, after we’re crowned officially and have dealt with the Blood Crown and everything with that?”

A dimple appeared in his right cheek. “Poppy, you will be Queen. You will be able to do whatever you want.”

“Oh,” I murmured as Delano chuckled. I could…I could do whatever I wanted? I blinked as I focused on the road ahead. Anything? That was a unique feeling. A shocking one. I exhaled raggedly. “Then I would—”

An arrow whizzed past my head. I gasped, jerking to the side as Casteel reached over.

“Grab her reins,” he bit out, encircling an arm around my waist.

Cursing, Kieran leaned over, grabbing Storm’s reins as Casteel dragged me onto Setti. Another arrow flew over our heads.

“Motherfuckers.” Naill grunted. Over his shoulder, I saw him glance down at his arm.

“Are you okay?” I shouted as Casteel wheeled Setti to the side, angling himself so his body shielded mine.

“Barely a flesh wound,” the Atlantian growled, baring fangs. “Won’t be able to say the same for those dead fucks.”

I twisted in the saddle. All I saw were bronze masks.

The Unseen.

Dozens of them stood in the road, some armed with bows, and others with swords. Gyrms. The skin of their bare chests carried the grayish pallor of something that had never lived.

Then I saw nothing but wolven, streaking over the paved road and through the reedy grass, taking down those who held bows. Their screams were cut short as teeth sank deep into throats. Naill flew past us, shoving his sword deep into the chest of a Gyrm as Vonetta leapt over a fallen Unseen, crashing into the back of another. Several Gyrms breached the wolven, racing toward us as Emil rode past us, throwing a dagger. The blade pierced a mask, sending the Unseen falling backward. There wasn’t even time to feel disappointment over what was happening—that this signified that there were still Unseen hell-bent on preventing me from taking the Crown.

That as Alastir had promised and had proven the night in Saion’s Cove, it hadn’t ended with his death.

“Hold on.” Casteel twisted sharply, swinging his leg off Setti’s back. I held on as he jumped from the horse. He landed without stumbling and then lowered me to the ground. Grasping the back of my head, he tipped his head down. “Kill as many as you can.” Then his mouth was on mine, the kiss quick and raw, a clash of teeth and tongues.

The moment he let go, I reached for the wolven dagger and spun just as Kieran led Setti and Storm off the road—and hopefully out of harm’s way.

Unstrapping his short swords, Casteel stalked forward. “You assholes interrupted a very charming conversation.” He leaned to the side so fast that an arrow aimed for him flew harmlessly beyond him. “And that was incredibly rude.”

Dagger in hand, I shot toward the closest Gyrm. I dipped low as it swung its sword. Popping up behind the creature, I thrust the blade deep into its back and then jumped back to avoid the inevitable gross poof. I whirled around as Delano relieved a Gyrm of its head with his sword. An Unseen rushed from the trees, weapon held high. I waited and then snapped forward, twisting as I kicked out, catching him in the knee. Bone cracked and gave. A muffled scream came from the man as I spun, slamming my dagger into the side of his neck. I jerked, dragging the wickedly sharp blade as I did. The man toppled forward. I turned, scanning those still standing and seeing none in a silver mask or any that carried the bone chain with them.

It was clear that they had no intention of taking me alive.

Another rushed from the trees. It wasn’t a Gyrm. He was smarter—darting to the left and then the right. He swung the sword around as I danced to my right, slamming the blade into a nearby tree. “If I get blood on my new clothing,” I warned as I sprang forward, shoving the dagger into the man’s chest, “I’m going to be very upset.”

“I’ll get you new clothing,” Casteel said, gripping an Unseen’s shoulder as he thrust his sword into his gut.

I jumped back. “But I like this tunic.”

“Holy shit,” Emil grunted from several feet away, facing the woods.

Turning around, my stomach dropped. At least two dozen attackers drifted from the thick shadows of the trees, half Unseen and half Gyrms. The wolven and the others were making quick work of the ones on the road, but there were many, and one of ours was likely to get hurt or worse.

And I didn’t want that.

There would be time later to wonder how the Unseen had learned that we’d be on the road to Evaemon. And at some point, I might think back on how easily and quickly I’d decided to tap into the hum of power building in my chest. About how I didn’t stop to fear whether or not I’d be able to control myself. I just reacted, allowing instinct to take over.

Maybe later, I would even think back to the conversation I’d had with Casteel—the one where I had said I’d give those who stood against me a second chance, and how this was the exact opposite of what I’d said.

Then again, these men and creatures were actively trying to kill me, so maybe not.

I opened my senses wide and let the other side of my gift out, the half that took life instead of giving it. It was a lot like when I healed someone, but in reverse, I realized. My skin began to vibrate as the taste of metal filled the back of my throat. The hot, acidic burn of anger from the Unseen and the stark, frightening nothingness from the Gyrms reached out to me, and I took it—the hatred and even the void, letting it enter my veins and pour into my chest where it joined the eather. Under me, I felt the ground begin to faintly tremble as my gaze swept over those in masks. The primal power of the gods invaded my every sense.

My flesh sparked.

Silvery-white embers erupted over my skin, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Casteel step back, and the wolven retreat. “Get ‘em, girl.”

I smiled as wispy, crackling cords stretched out from me. Someone gasped, likely an Unseen as glistening spiderwebs of light stretched out from me, crawling across the ground in a network of radiant veins. Several Unseen whirled, started to run, but they wouldn’t make it. I would ensure that.

In my mind, I saw the webs of light falling upon the Unseen and Gyrms, their bodies breaking and crumbling, their weapons dropping and falling to the ground. I focused on that image as I took all the hate and fear and nothingness I held in my chest and fed it back through the many cords.

The rush of power swept over the trees, rattling the leaves until several fell. The webs of light lifted and then dropped over the Unseen and the Gyrms, those standing in the road, the ones running toward us, and even those who’d fled.

Bones cracked like thunder, arms and legs snapping and backs twisting. Bodies of inhuman creatures collapsed into themselves, shattering and sifting like dirt. One after another, they either broke or crumbled until they were just things on the ground, and then I pictured the remains turning to ash to match the piles of dirt.

After all, it seemed unsanitary to leave the bodies behind.

Silvery-white flames erupted over the still, twisted things on the ground, swallowing them and fading until all that remained was ash. The silvery webbing thrummed as the ancient, raw power pulsed through me.

“Poppy.”

Static crackled through the air as I turned my head to where Casteel stood on the bank of the road, his chin lifted and hair tousled. What I felt from him wasn’t acidic or empty. It was warm and sultry, spicy and sweet.

“That was incredibly hot,” he remarked.

A husky, echoing laugh left me. His comment—as twisted and wrong as it was—helped me pull all that power back inside. I pictured the shimmering web fading, and when it did, I shut down my senses, and the silvery-white glow faded from my skin.

I stared at what was left of the attackers, searching for any sign of remorse, but all I found was a sense of sadness for a life wasted. These people, the members of the Unseen, could’ve chosen anything for themselves, and they had chosen this—actions based on one-sided beliefs of bloodlines and a fake prophecy.

“You okay?” Delano’s soft question intruded on my thoughts.

I looked over at him and nodded. “You?”

His pale eyes searched mine. “Yes.”

“Gods.” Emil’s lip curled as he dragged a hand over his face, wiping away the greasy blood as he stared down at the ashes and piles of oily dirt. “What did they really hope to accomplish?”

It was clear to me what they wanted.

Seeking out Casteel, my gaze locked with his. His eyes, like vibrant chips of glacial topaz, held mine. “They don’t want me to take the Crown,” I said. “They failed. So will anyone else who thinks they can stop me.”

A razor-thin smile appeared on Casteel’s face. “Damn straight.”


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