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The Crown of Gilded Bones: Chapter 35

“It could’ve been someone in the inn at Tadous,” Emil said as we rode on, watchful for more attacks. He and Naill were now in front of us, which I found…strangely amusing. They rode in a manner to protect me—Casteel and I—and I thought that perhaps I should be riding in front of them. “Or it could’ve been someone who saw Arden on his way to Evaemon and assumed he was bringing word to the capital of our arrival.”

I hoped that Arden had made it to the palace safely.

 “Hey,” Casteel said quietly. I looked over to where he rode beside me, noticing then that Kieran and Delano had spread out a bit, giving us space. “What you did back there? You did the right thing.”

“I know.” And I did. “We could’ve kept fighting them, but someone would’ve gotten hurt, and I wasn’t going to allow that.”

“You’re amazing,” he replied, and I laughed softly. “I mean that, Poppy. Actually, you may be a deity, but you looked like a goddess.”

“Well, thank you.” I smiled at him. “I’m just glad that I did and could control it.”

“Same.” One side of his lip curved up. “That kind of ability will come in handy down the road.”

I thought of the Blood Queen.

Yes, it would.

A moment passed. “Those Unseen? They don’t represent Atlantia. What they think or want is not who the kingdom is.”

Our gazes met. “I know.” And that was…well, I wasn’t sure if that was true or not. I’d met many Atlantians who’d been welcoming, friendly even. I’d met some who’d been wary and reserved. But there had been at least two dozen Unseen among the Gyrms. How many were out there? How many people could they have infected with their beliefs that I would destroy Atlantia?

I didn’t know. But like before, I tucked those concerns away because, like I’d said back in the woods, they weren’t going to stop me.

They wouldn’t stop Casteel.

We rode on, and somewhere around midday, I knew that we were nearing the capital when we crested a hill, and large, broad trees appeared, each full of crimson leaves. Blood trees dotted the landscape and lined the wide, paved road leading into Evaemon—trees I now knew represented the blood of the gods and not evil or something to be afraid of.

The blood trees spread out on either side of the road. I sat straighter as Evaemon came into view.

My lips parted as my eyes widened.

Towering, ivory-hued structures with whirling, sharp spires stretched into the sky, flanking stone bridges that rose on tall pillars above a wide, crescent-shaped canal of water as blue as the sky. I could see three bridges, one to the east and one to the west, which led to islands that were nearly the size of Saion’s Cove, full of soaring buildings that scraped the sky. Each bridge connected to dome-shaped structures that bore suns carved from stone, which rose above the belfries, and the bridge we rode across led to the heart of Evaemon.

Square, squat buildings with colonnades as wide as a city block gave way to gray and ivory buildings built far closer together than they had been at the Cove, but they rose higher into the sky, forming elegant towers and spires. Like Saion’s Cove, there were patches of green wherever you looked, strips surrounding the graceful, sweeping structures, or covering the roofs of smaller, shorter buildings. Throughout the city, Temples shimmered, reflecting the afternoon sun. My throat dried as my gaze settled on the west end of the city, where a massive structure made of shiny black stone sat upon a raised hill, the wings of the building ending in circular porticos. Numerous domed-glass ceilings and spires shone brightly in the sun as the center wing flowed into a Temple constructed of the same midnight stone as the ones in Solis. Kneeling along the Temple’s steeple were stone soldiers, their sable heads bowed as they held shields to their chests and swords stretched out, the stone blades streaks of black against the sky.

Stunned, I dragged my gaze from what I could only imagine was the palace and looked out over Evaemon. My nostrils burned, along with my eyes, as I soaked in what I had once believed had fallen.

Where Saion’s Cove was nearly the size of Solis’s capital, Evaemon was triple the size, stretching on as far as I could see to the west and to the east, where specks of white grazed in open pastures. Past the heavily wooded area that followed the Mountains of Nyktos, and in the face of that mountain, were eleven statues taller than the Atheneum in Masadonia. Each figure held a lit torch in his or her outstretched arm, the flames burning as bright as the setting sun. When I asked who the eleventh statue was, I learned that it was Nyktos’s Constort.

They were the gods—all of them—watching over the city or standing guard.

I couldn’t even begin to imagine how those statues had been built to that size and raised onto the mountain. Or even how those torches were lit—how they remained burning.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Casteel didn’t need to ask. It was the most beautiful city I’d ever seen. “Nearly all of the buildings you see before you were built by the deities.”

Gods, that had to mean they were thousands of years old. How anything lasted that long was beyond me. How a city could be so stunning and intimidating was also beyond my realm of understanding.

White-winged birds flew overhead as we crossed the bridge, soaring over the wolven who prowled in front of us. I glanced at the large wheels in the water, wondering if that was how they fed electricity to the city. Carsodonia used a similar technique, but not on such a grand scale. Ahead, I could see sails of small ships in the canal.

“I have so many questions,” I whispered.

“Not a single person is surprised to hear that,” Kieran remarked, and Delano chuckled.

“But I can’t even formulate words at the moment,” I admitted, clearing my throat.

Casteel drew Setti closer as he looked over at me. “Are you…crying?”

“No,” I lied, blinking the tears from my eyes. “Maybe? I don’t even know why. It’s just…I’ve never seen anything like this.”

A bell tolled, startling me and sending birds flying from the belfry as it rang in a quick succession of three—which was different than the bells that tolled in Saion’s Cove to tell the time.

“They’re just alerting the city to our arrival,” Casteel reassured me, and I nodded.

Emil looked back at us, his gaze finding Casteel over my shoulder. He nodded, guiding his horse to the front. Nudging his mount on, he galloped ahead, passing through the structure at the end of the bridge.

“Where is he going?” I asked.

“Ahead to the palace to let them know we’ve arrived,” Casteel informed me. “We’re going to take a far more discreet path. There will be people, but nothing like the route Emil is taking.”

Needless to say, I was grateful for that. My senses were already overwhelmed, and I really didn’t want to greet the citizens of Evaemon as a blubbering mess.

The wolven remained with us, along with Naill. Soldiers among the Guardians waited in the shadows of the entry building, bowing at their waists as we passed. My heart thumped heavily as we turned to the east, entering an empty road outside the long colonnades I’d spotted at the mouth of the bridge.

“What are these buildings used for?” I asked.

“They house the machinery that converts the water into electricity,” Casteel explained, keeping Setti close. “You’ll see several of these throughout the city.”

“That’s amazing,” I murmured as, across the street, where doors slowly opened from sandstone buildings, curious faces appeared.

“And boringly complicated,” Naill stated from behind us.

“But you could recite each piece of equipment and what the purpose of it is,” Kieran replied.

“True.” Naill smiled when I glanced over my shoulder at him. “My father is one of many who oversees the mills.”

“Oversees?” Casteel snorted. “More like he’s the heart of the mills. His father is mostly responsible for keeping these ancient wheels working so that everyone has access to everything electricity can provide.”

“Your father must be very smart,” I said, my gaze flicking over the faces that appeared in the windows. There were no hostile looks or feelings. Most seemed more focused on the mass of wolven converging on the street.

“That he is,” Naill answered, his pride as warm as the sun.

About a half-dozen wolven, along with Delano, had fallen back. I reached out to him in concern, finding the springy freshness of his imprint.

All is well, he assured me after a moment, his response tentative as if he were still getting used to communicating this way. We’re just making sure you and the Prince are protected from all fronts.

Were they worried about the Unseen or something else? I focused on the road we traveled. Eventually, we passed under the bridge that led to the east, a district of Evaemon that Casteel had said was called the Vineyards.

“Wine,” he explained as we rode near the bank of the main canal. Ships with white and gold sails were docked at the numerous piers. People hustled on and off vessels, carrying crates. “The district gets its name from the vineyards.”

The other district was called The Splendor for its cache of museums, art, and some of the oldest buildings in all of Atlantia. I couldn’t wait to explore the enclave, but that would have to wait.

We traveled along the thicket of glossy blood trees, climbing the rolling pasture hills. My breathing became short as the trees thinned out, and smooth, jet-colored stone became visible through them.

“Why is the palace so different from the rest of the buildings in Atlantia?” I asked, forcing my grip to remain loose on Storm’s reins.

“It didn’t always look like this. Malec renovated it when he took the throne,” Casteel explained, and I felt my stomach dip. “He said that it was to honor Nyktos, claiming it was more in line with the Temples in Iliseeum, from what I recall.”

I thought that over. “Do you think he traveled to Iliseeum?”

“I don’t know, but it’s possible.” The cooler breeze lifted the wavy strands of Casteel’s hair. “Otherwise, how would he know what the Temples looked like there?”

“Good point,” I murmured. “Priestess Analia once told me that the Temples in Solis were the oldest buildings, there long before the Ascended ruled.”

“For once, that bitch spoke the truth,” Casteel replied, and there wasn’t a single thing about what he called her that offended me. Analia was a bitch. “Those Temples are made of shadowstone, a material that was mined in the Shadowlands and transported over to this realm ages ago by the gods, depositing some of it in the Elysium Peaks.”

I hadn’t known that.

Then again, I hadn’t realized the Shadowlands even existed until recently. But it was just odd to me that the Ascended would change so much of the true history of the gods, and yet leave the Temples as they were. Maybe that was a line they wouldn’t cross.

Either way, thoughts of shadowstone and ancient Temples fell to the wayside as we cleared the trees, and the back of the palace came into view.

We could see down into the city from our vantage point, homes and businesses staggered over the hills and valleys and in between the canals. The Evaemon Palace was built into the hillside, the gleaming black structure a formidable sight with numerous windows lining the towers and along the lower floors. But something immediately stood out.

No walls surrounded the palace, none along the back nor the front courtyard that led to the Temple. Several ebony pillars connected a catwalk from the palace to the Temple and surrounded most of the palace, now patrolled by Guards of the Crown. It struck me then that there hadn’t been any walls around the estate in Saion’s Cove, either.

Several Crown Guards, adorned in white and gold, stood under the archway and by doors a shade darker than the mare I sat astride as we rode through.

I couldn’t believe how open the palace was. In every city of Solis where a Royal was seated, their homes were guarded by walls nearly half the size of the Rise that protected the city. No one could even come close to the castles or any of the Royal keeps or manors as there were always vast courtyards separating the home from the inner walls. But here? One could potentially walk right to the very entry points of the palace.

It was clear that the ruling class welcomed interaction with their citizens. Yet another stark difference from how the Ascended ruled Solis.

I almost dropped Storm’s reins at my first sight of the courtyard. “Night-blooming roses,” I whispered. Velvety black petals, now closed against the rays of the sun, climbed the pillars at the front of the palace, creeping across the onyx walls and up over the towers and spires.

Casteel’s gaze followed mine. “I wanted to tell you about them when you mentioned that they were your favorite, but I couldn’t.” His brow creased. “They kind of slipped my mind since then.”

I blinked, a bit shook by the sight of them. What a coincidence that the flowers I had always been drawn to covered the palace walls I would now call home.

“Cas!” a voice called out, drawing my attention to the stables. A young man strode across the courtyard, dressed in fawn-colored breeches and a white shirt like Casteel’s but untucked. A wide smile broke out across the rich brown of his face. The smile only halted a fraction of a heartbeat when the wolven noticed him. “Is that really you? Or some bizarre hallucination?”

The casual use of Casteel’s name signalized that this man must be a friend—someone Casteel trusted. As he grew closer, I saw that his eyes were a clear amber. He was an elemental Atlantian, and he was quite handsome, his features broad and warm, hair cropped close to his head much like Kieran’s.

“That would be a strange hallucination,” Casteel joked as he reached down, clasping the man’s hand while I urged Storm to slow and then stop. “It’s been too long, Perry.”

The Atlantian nodded as a tan wolven crept close, watching the man closely. Luckily, Storm had shown no real reaction to so many wolven being close by. “It truly has been. I was surprised to hear that you’d come home. Almost didn’t believe it was true when word reached us.”

“I imagine many were surprised,” Casteel answered smoothly. “How have you been?”

“Staying in the best kind of trouble.” Perry’s curious gaze flicked over to me as Casteel chuckled, lingering for a moment before moving to Kieran. “But not nearly as much as when you two are around.”

My brows rose at that as Kieran asked, “What are you doing out here?”

“Engaging Raul in my stimulating and entertaining conversational skills.”

“More like annoying the shit out of me,” came a gravelly voice. An older man with hair the color of clouds and a beard of the same shade but streaked with black strode out from the stables with a slight limp, wiping his hands on a cloth he shoved into the front pocket of his brown tunic.

“Well, damn. Is it really the wayward Prince returned home?” the older man said. “I must be seeing things.”

Perry’s grin kicked up a notch. “That’s just your failing eyes, Raul.”

“Well, that would go along nicely with my failing body,” he answered.

“Speaking of failing bodies, I’m surprised you’re still alive,” Kieran commented as he swung off his horse, and I blinked.

Casteel snorted. “What are you talking about? Raul will outlive us all.”

“I fucking hope not—shit.” Raul stopped beside Perry, squinting hazel eyes as he stared up. “Here I am, cursing up a storm, and you have a lady with you.”

“A lady he hasn’t introduced us to yet,” Perry informed, his look a bit coy. My senses reached out to the Atlantian, and I felt nothing but amusement and curiosity. “A very quiet lady I’ve never seen before but believe I have heard about.”

“That’s because you don’t know many ladies,” Raul retorted as he reached for Storm’s reins, scratching the horse’s neck.

Perry nodded with a laugh. “Can’t argue with that. But I have heard about this particular lady. That is if the rumors are true.” He paused, looking over to where the wolven watched him. “And I’m thinking the rumors are very true.”

“This is Princess Penellaphe. My wife,” Casteel announced, and my heart gave a happy little skip in response to his words. “If that is the rumor you speak of, then it is true.”

“Part of the rumor,” Perry answered.

Raul muttered, “Well, shit.”

I had no idea if their response was common or a harbinger, but then Perry started to step forward. A fawn-colored wolven appeared in front of Storm, its ears pinned back. Perry raised his brows. “Is that you, Vonetta?”

It was.

But the wolven gave no response, only continued staring at the Atlantian, her body tense and still. If Vonetta and Perry had been on familiar terms before, it no longer appeared to matter. But if Perry was allowed to call the Prince, “Cas,” then I knew he was trusted.

I followed the vanilla-oak of Vonetta’s imprint. It’s okay. He is a friend of Casteel’s, right?

There was a moment of silence, and then Vonetta’s whisper found my thoughts. Friends of Cas have betrayed him.

Well, she had a good point there. Let’s give him a chance, though.

Vonetta shot me a rather arch look for a wolven, but she backed off several feet.

“Shit,” Raul repeated.

“Well, if that isn’t confirmation of the other rumor, then I don’t know what would be.” The smile returned to Perry’s handsome face as he looked up at me. A bubbly, fresh taste coated the inside of my mouth. Perry was curious…and still amused. “Should I call you Princess or Queen?”

No one answered for me. “You may call me Penellaphe,” I decided.

 Perry’s smile increased, and the hint of fangs became visible. “Well, Penellaphe, may I help you down?”

 I nodded. Raul steadied Storm as Perry helped me down. “Thank you,” I said.

“Pleasure is all mine.” He glanced at Casteel as he held my hands. “Leave it to you to show up after years of absence with a pretty wife at your side.”

Casteel dismounted with annoying ease. “I do love to make an entrance.” He came around my back, slipping my hands free from Perry’s.

Perry glanced at Kieran. “Since this fool is with you, does that mean Delano has returned? I haven’t seen him.”

“He has.” Casteel threaded his fingers through mine. “He should be arriving shortly.”

Perry’s smile made such a quick return that I doubted he was often not smiling, but the smoky taste of attraction accompanied the curve of his lips now.

“Any idea where my parents are?” Casteel asked.

Perry nodded toward the building with the kneeling, stone soldiers encircling the cupola.

“I’ll catch up with you later,” Casteel told Perry before speaking to Raul. “You’re going to take care of the horses for me?”

“Isn’t that my job?” Raul retorted, and a startled laugh left me, earning a gentle hand squeeze from Casteel. “At least it was the last time I checked. If I’ve been fired, no one has decided to let me know.”

“As if we would ever think of doing such a thing,” Casteel replied, grinning.

“As if you spend much time thinking about anything,” Raul snapped back.

Liking the old, somewhat crotchety man, my lips curved into a smile.

“Are you seriously smiling at him after he just suggested that I don’t have a brain?” Casteel demanded in mock-offense.

“I am under the impression he suggested you don’t use your brain often,” I told him. “Not that you don’t have one. And, yes, I am smiling at him. I like him.”

“Her Highness has good taste.” Raul nodded in my direction. “Not counting the taste that got you standing next to that one.”

I laughed again. “Trust me, I have questioned that.”

Perry laughed, and then came a rough chuckle from the old man. “I like her, Cas,” said the Atlantian.

“Of course, you do,” muttered Casteel. “Can you give Setti and Storm some extra sugar cubes? They deserve it.”

“Will do.”

We parted ways then, walking across the courtyard, followed by the wolven. I opened my mouth—

“Let me guess,” Kieran cut in. “You have questions.”

I ignored him. “Does Perry live here? At the palace?”

“He has quarters here, but he has his own home with his family in Evaemon.” Casteel brushed the hair out of his eyes with his free hand. “We basically grew up together.”

“Why does he have quarters here if he has his own home?”

“Because he is a Lord, much like his father, Sven,” he advised, “who is an Elder. All the Elders have rooms here.”

Considering that the palace appeared large enough to house a small village, I wasn’t surprised to hear that.

“I’m also betting that the Council has been called and are awaiting our arrival,” Casteel continued.

My heart tripped over itself a little. Although the wolven we’d sent ahead wouldn’t have told Casteel’s parents of our decision, nor did I think Emil would, I imagined his parents sensed that we’d made a decision.

Although this was the Temple, a wicked sense of deja vu swept over me as we neared the semicircular steps, and two guards opened the door. This time was different, though, because I wasn’t entering as a Princess uncertain about her future.

I was entering as one who was about to become Queen.

Emil waited for us just inside the Temple entryway, standing under an Atlantian banner that hung from the ceiling. My gaze locked on the closed doors beyond him, where at least ten guards were positioned. Wariness radiated from them, coming from what was probably a very unexpected sight of several dozen wolven climbing the steps beside us.

My heart tripped in my chest even as I walked forward. My hand trembled even enclosed in Casteel’s. I knew I was making the best choice. I was as ready as I would ever be, but it felt like a dozen flesh-eating carrions had taken flight in my chest. This was…this would be huge. I would enter as Poppy and leave as a Queen—Queen to people who didn’t know me and who may not trust me.

Casteel stopped, turning to me. His fingers touched my cheek, just below the scars. He guided my gaze to his. “You’ve faced Craven and vamprys, men wearing masks of human flesh, creatures without faces, and stared down Atlantians who wanted to harm you with the kind of strength and bravery most lack,” he whispered. “Remember what you are. Fearless.”

Fingers touched the other side of my cheek, and Kieran’s pale eyes locked with mine. “You are a descendant of the gods, Poppy. You run from no one and nothing.”

My breath caught as my gaze held Kieran’s and then shifted to Casteel. The center of my chest hummed. A heartbeat passed, and then I looked at the closed doors. It was okay to be nervous. Who wouldn’t be in my situation? But I wasn’t afraid.

Because they were right.

I was brave.

I was fearless.

And I ran from no one and nothing—and that included a crown.

My gaze flickered over the wolven, stopping on Vonetta. Exhaling slowly, I nodded. We turned to the doors as they opened to an area lit by the sun coming from the dome’s glass sides.

Rows of semicircular benches sat on either side of the aisle, offering enough seating for what had to be several thousand—possibly more. Above, a balcony area where even more people could attend jutted out, and under them stood ten statues of the gods, five on each side. They held unlit torches against their black stone chests. Ahead of us, the statue of who I could only assume was Nyktos stood in the center of the dais. Beyond him was another set of doors as large as the ones we’d entered through, where guards stood now. I recognized Hisa. The thrones sat before the statue of Nyktos.

They were both made of pearlescent shadowstone, streaked with thick veins of gold. Their shape fascinated me. The backs were circular and spiked, shaped like the sun and its rays, and at the center of the top, carved out of the same stone, was a sword and arrow crossing each other.

The current Queen and King of Atlantia stood beside their thrones, and as their son and I walked forward with the wolven trailing and spreading out among the rows of benches, I realized that both wore their crowns.

The crown upon the King’s head was twisted, bleached bone, but the one that sat upon the Queen’s head was golden, shining bone. I hadn’t seen the crown since the Chambers of Nyktos. Eloana and Valyn stood in silence as we approached them, Casteel’s mother’s hands clasped at her waist.

“Mother,” Casteel said as we stopped before the steps of the dais. Kieran and the others hung back several feet. “Father.”

“We are glad to see that you have both returned,” his father replied, one hand resting on the hilt of his sword.

“Not without interruptions.” Casteel tilted his head. “We were accosted by members of the Unseen.”

“Were there any injuries?” his mother asked.

“No.” Casteel looked at me. “My wife made sure of that.”

“We all made sure of that,” I added.

“I’m relieved to hear that,” she said. “But it shouldn’t have happened.”

No, it shouldn’t have.

But it did.

“Arden arrived safely, I assume?” Casteel queried.

His father nodded. “Yes. He is resting in one of the rooms. All the wolven told us was that the meeting went well.”

“Your brother?” His mother’s gaze touched mine, the crown such a stark contrast to her dark hair. “Was he how you remembered?”

“He wasn’t,” I said. “And yet, he was. But he’s not like other Ascended.”

Her chest rose sharply behind the ivory gown she wore. “I don’t know if that is a good or a bad thing.”

“I don’t either,” I admitted.

“There must be much that you both need to share with us,” his father began, and I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. In the shadowy alcoves of the dais, several people stood. My senses stretched out, finding an array of emotions, everything from curiosity to faint distrust. “But we assume that you’re here to discuss more than your meeting with the Ascended.”

Irritation sparked at him referring to Ian as the Ascended even though he was…an Ascended. I could recognize the irrationality of that, but it still didn’t stop the burn of annoyance.

“You’re correct,” Casteel replied and then looked at me. Our gazes met. “We have come for more than that.”

I focused only on Casteel, not allowing myself to read his parents or the shadows standing in the alcoves. The taste of chocolate-dipped berries calmed my nerves, and the steadiness in his golden eyes eased the tension gathering in my neck.

I was brave.

I was fearless.

Squeezing Casteel’s hand, I turned back to his parents. “We have come to claim what is mine—the Crown and the kingdom.”


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