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The Crown of Gilded Bones: Chapter 42

You always had the power in you.

The words echoed through me as I roamed the halls of the Evaemon Palace several days later, trying to learn where all the many halls led and the purpose of all the rooms while Casteel spent time with his father and mother in the brightly lit family room.

An unrelenting malaise nipped at my heels, following my steps just as Arden, the silver-and-white wolven, and Hisa and another Crown Guard did. Except they were far quieter than my thoughts.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that my friends’ lives had been risked. And for what? To learn that whatever these Revenants were, was a greater evil than we knew? Which, by the way, meant that was all we knew. No one, not even Casteel’s parents, could hazard a guess as to what a Revenant could be and how it would warrant such a warning.

I traveled the back hall of the west wing where the staff offices were located, as were the laundry and the kitchens. Warmth crowded the area, along with the aromas of fresh linen and roasted meat as I admitted that the trip to Iliseeum hadn’t been a complete and utter waste. I had learned that Nyktos was a Primal god, something Valyn vaguely remembered hearing his grandfather mention once. And until now, he’d believed that his grandfather had been speaking of the gods we’d always known. Discovering that I had Primal blood explained why my abilities were so powerful. It also meant that the mother I remembered—the one Alastir had claimed was a Handmaiden—could very well have been my real mother. And, once again, I was back to the possibility that Ian could be my half-brother. That we shared the same mother but different fathers. Discovering that was huge and important to me, but only to me. It wasn’t what we’d gone for.

Which was to gain the aid of Nyktos’s guards—the draken.

At least, I’d gotten to see one, so there was that. Sighing, I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. I’d left the crown in the bedchamber, and I wished I’d left my brain there, as well, where Casteel had managed to pull my thoughts from the trip to Iliseeum multiple times in the ensuing days.

Since we’d returned, Casteel and I had barely had any time alone. There were meetings with the Council. Time spent with Eloana and Valyn, where I was taught the different laws of the kingdom at a head-spinning speed. Sessions held where the people of Atlantia could approach us to ask for aid or offer their services for various needs throughout the kingdom. Dinners had been late, and we mostly spent them with Kieran, strategizing the best way to enter Oak Ambler without being seen. Entering Castle Redrock wouldn’t be a problem. Slipping into the city’s Rise unseen would be, and it hadn’t been until the prior night that Kieran had come up with a plan.

I had yet to venture off the palace grounds, but it was just Casteel and me at night. We spent the time talking. I learned more about his brother and what it had been like growing up in Atlantia as the second son his father once expected to lead the Atlantian armies.

“That is how you became so skilled at fighting,” I’d said as we lay together in bed, facing one another.

He’d nodded. “Malik trained alongside me for years, but when it came time for him to learn to rule, it became time for me to learn how to lead an army and kill.”

“And to defend,” I’d amended softly, tracing small circles on his chest. “You learned how to defend your people and those you care about.”


“Did you want to be that?” I’d asked. “A commander?”

The commander,” he’d corrected with a teasing kiss. “It was the only skill I really knew, and I wanted to be able to serve my brother when he took the throne someday. I didn’t really question it.”

“At all?”

He’d fallen quiet for few minutes and then laughed. “Actually, that is not entirely true. I was fascinated with the science behind farming as a child—how the farmers grew to learn what time of year was best to plant certain crops, how they set up their irrigation systems. And there was something about seeing all that hard work come to fruition when it came time to harvest.”

A farmer.

Part of me hadn’t expected that, but then I thought of what he’d claimed his father did when I spoke with him in the Red Pearl. I’d grinned as I kissed him, and he then proved that fighting hadn’t been the only skill he’d learned.

Another night, when his body was curled around mine and after a long day of meetings, he’d asked, “There’s something I’ve been wondering and keep forgetting to ask. When we entered Iliseeum, and you saw the skeleton soldiers, you said they were hers. What did you mean?”

I’d realized then that I hadn’t shared that image with him. I’d told him what I saw when I was in the Chambers of Nyktos. “I saw her again when I was sleeping after the attack—after you saved me. It felt like a dream…but not. Anyway, I saw her touch the ground, and I saw bone hands digging their way out.” I’d looked over my shoulder at him. “Who do you think she could be? If she is or was real?”

“I don’t know. You said she had silver hair?”

“Her hair was a silvery blonde.”

“I can’t think of any of the gods that resembles her, but maybe she was one of the Primals Nyktos spoke of.”

“Maybe,” I murmured.

We’d also spent the time using our mouths and tongues to speak words of the flesh. I enjoyed each thoroughly and equally.

But Casteel didn’t feel as if the trip was a waste. While I found Nyktos’s parting words to be generally unhelpful at the end of the day, Casteel took them to mean that I would one day rule both Solis and Atlantia. But those words made me think of what the Duchess had claimed.

That Queen Ileana was my grandmother. That was highly impossible, but it was the only way I would have a true claim to the throne—succession instead of conquering. Or maybe Nyktos meant that we would take the Blood Crown that way? I didn’t know, and the pressure to convince the Blood Crown in our upcoming meeting was even greater. We couldn’t let this become a war including these Revenants. I had a horrible feeling there would only be one way to stop this. Maybe that was what Nyktos had meant. That I had the power in me to stop this.

Icy fingers drifted across the nape of my neck. I’d heard those words before, spoken by the little girl who’d been so grievously wounded, but when she’d spoken them, they had struck a chord of familiarity in me. Over the last several days, I’d tried to remember, but they were like a dream you tried to retain hours after waking.

Passing the entrances to the busy kitchens, I rounded the bend in the hall and nearly walked right into Lord Gregori. I took a startled step back. The dark-haired Atlantian wasn’t alone.

“My apologies.” A slight frown appeared as he noted the absence of my crown.

It did not go unnoticed that he didn’t acknowledge my title. Neither had Lord Ambrose when I passed him the other day in the halls as I’d left to explore the grounds with Vonetta. “It is I who should apologize. I wasn’t paying attention to where I was walking.” My gaze darted to the young woman behind him. She appeared to be around my age, but I knew immediately she was a wolven, so she could be dozens or even hundreds of years older than me.

The pale, wintery eyes were a striking contrast to the golden hue of her skin, and the warm blonde hair that fell over her shoulders in loose waves. Her features were a mix of traits you would’ve found on different people. Her eyes were wideset and yet hooded, softening the sharp angles of her cheeks and the blade of her nose. Her brows were thick and several shades darker than her hair. Her mouth was small, but her lips were full. She was short, several inches shorter than me, but the cut of her tunic showed off the curves of her breasts and the lushness of her hips that would’ve seemed at odds with someone of her stature. Nothing about her made sense, and yet everything about her lined up so imperfectly that any artist would likely be driven to commit her image to canvas with charcoal or oil. She was perhaps the most uniquely beautiful person I’d ever seen, and I couldn’t stop staring at her.

And I was sure I was probably creeping her out a little based on her growing unease.

“I was actually looking for the King,” Lord Gregori announced. “But I see that he is not with you.”

Pulling my gaze from the unfamiliar wolven, I focused on the Atlantian. The thread of distrust was apparent, even if I wasn’t able to read his emotions. Either the Atlantian kept forgetting that I could do that, or he simply didn’t care. “He is with his parents. Is there something I can help you with?”

Amusement flickered through him, the mean kind. “No,” he said, his smile simpering, his tone overly conciliatory. “That will not be necessary. If you’ll excuse me.”

He hadn’t been excused, but he still brushed past me. I turned as Arden flattened his ears, watching the Lord as he nodded at Hisa and the other guard. The striking image of Arden rushing off and biting the Lord’s leg filled my mind, and I smothered a giggle at the ridiculousness. Arden’s head swung to me, and then he looked at the one who remained.

Remembering the female wolven, I turned back to her. “I’m sorry. I thought you were with him.”

“Oh, gods, no, meyaah Liessa. We just happened to enter the hall at the same time,” she said, and I grinned at the shamelessness of her response. “I was actually looking for someone I hadn’t seen in a while.”

“Who? Perhaps I could help you locate them?”

Her smile faded a bit, and unease returned. “You probably can. I was looking for Kieran.”

Surprised, my brows lifted. “He is with his sister. I think they were in…” I frowned, going through the many different doors and rooms in my head. “One of the five hundred thousand rooms here. Sorry.”

The wolven laughed. “It’s okay.” She looked up and around, taking in the vaulted ceilings and skylights. “This place is a lot to get used to.”

“That it is.” My curiosity took over. “I don’t think we’ve met.”

“We haven’t. I was in Aegea with my family when you and Cas—you and the King—were crowned,” she said, and I zeroed in on her words. She’d either almost called him by his first name or his nickname, which wasn’t all that surprising since she was looking for Kieran. If she was friends with one, I was sure she was friends with the other. “And if we’d met, I’m sure you would remember.”

Her nervousness itched at the back of my throat, stroking my wariness. “What do you mean by that?”

The wolven’s shoulder’s leveled. “My name is Gianna Davenwell.”

I inhaled sharply. Her unease made sense now on several levels. I swallowed as my gaze swept over her features again. Of course, the one Casteel’s father had wanted him to marry would have to be so fascinatingly beautiful and not resemble a Craven.

And, of course, I wouldn’t be dressed in any of the pretty gowns that had arrived from Spessa’s End. My hair was braided, and I wore leggings and a tunic—a pretty one the shade of amethyst that I had thought flattered my figure before I saw Gianna and realized she was the woman Casteel could’ve married.

Now I wished I’d worn the crown.

“I am so sorry for what my great-uncle took part in and orchestrated,” she added quickly, her anxiety now edged with the bitterness of fear. “We had no idea. My family was shocked and horrified to learn—”

“It’s okay,” I said, and surprise rolled through her—through me as I yanked my head out of a very unmentionable place. “If you and your family didn’t know what Alastir planned, then you have nothing to apologize for.” And that was true. One was not guilty because of who they were related to. “I am sorry for what happened to your cousin. I met Beckett. He was kind and entirely too young to have died.”

Grief darted through Gianna as she drew in a shaky breath. “Yes, he was far too young.” She swallowed. “I planned on coming to you and the King, but I…I thought it was better if I spoke with Kieran first. To see if he thought…”

If it would be wise for her to approach me went unsaid. I could understand that concern. “Neither of us hold Alastir’s family responsible. We hold him and the others who conspired with him responsible.”

Gianna nodded, her gaze skittering to where Arden sat, and the guards waited. What went unspoken between us strained the silence to an almost painful level of awkwardness.

I decided to address that head-on like I imagined Casteel’s mother would have done. Like I knew even Queen Ileana would do. “I know that Alastir and Casteel’s father had hopes that you would marry Casteel.”

Gianna’s already large eyes widened as Arden softly grumbled. I realized then that she reminded me of one of those porcelain dolls Ileana had given me as a child. Pink infused her cheeks. “I… Okay, to be honest, I was hoping you didn’t know that.”

“Me, too,” I admitted wryly, and her lips formed a perfect oval shape. “Only because you are very beautiful and don’t resemble a barrat,” I continued, and her mouth closed. “And because I like you after just speaking with you for a few moments. I would prefer not to like the person my father-in-law wished his son had married. But here we are.”

Gianna blinked.

The sugary amusement I felt now definitely came from Hisa, and I thought that maybe I shouldn’t have been so honest. But Arden and the guards were about to be entertained by even more blunt honesty. “Casteel told me that you two are friends, but that you had never shown any inclination towards being interested in marrying him. Is that true?”

It took Gianna a moment to respond. “I am sure few wouldn’t be honored to be married to him,” she began, and I started to feel my chest hum. “And, yes, we are friends—or we were. I haven’t seen him in ages.” Her brows knitted. “I’m not sure if he will even recognize me.”

That was highly unlikely.

“But it wasn’t like that between us,” she continued. “At least, it didn’t feel that way, and he…he was engaged to Shea, and that just kind of weirded me out.”

The vibration settled. “Then we are in agreement about the latter.”

Relief started to seep through her. “I have no feelings for your husband,” she said. “Not before, and definitely not now.”

“Good.” I met her gaze, smiling. “Because if you did, I would probably tear you apart, limb by limb, and then feed what remained to a pack of hungry barrats,” I said. “Now, would you like to find Kieran? I think I remember which room he’s in.”

“I met Gianna today,” I announced later that evening as we took our seats in the State Room.

Casteel choked on his drink as Kieran took his seat beside us, the latter attempting and failing to hide a smile.

“She is quite beautiful,” I said, watching the door. Very few would be joining us tonight, but at the moment, only Hisa and Delano stood at the entrance. “Something you failed to mention.”

Setting his drink down, he looked over at me. “It’s something I’ve forgotten if it is true.”

I hid my smile as I took a sip of my wine. “She is very nice, though.”

Casteel eyed me. “What did you talk about?”

“She apologized for Alastir, and I told her she and her family had nothing to apologize for,” I told him. “And then I told her that I knew about Alastir’s and your father’s plans.”

“That is not all you said.”

I shot Kieran a look. “How do you know?” I demanded. When we ended up finding Kieran and his sister, nothing of my conversation with Gianna had been mentioned. I also hadn’t lingered long afterwards, and I seriously doubted that Gianna would’ve repeated what I said.

“How do you think?” Kieran remarked. “Arden couldn’t wait to tell everyone and anyone who would listen, what you said.”

I frowned.

“What else did you say?” Casteel asked.

I lifted my shoulders. “Nothing, really. Just that if she had any interest in you, I would…”

Casteel dipped his head closer to mine. “What?”

My lips pursed. “I might’ve said something like I’d tear her apart limb by limb and feed her to barrats.”

He stared at me.

I sighed. “It wasn’t one of my finer moments, I admit.”

“Damn.” Casteel broke the silence, his gaze the shade of heated honey. “I wish we weren’t about to have this meeting because I really want to fuck you on this table right now.”

My eyes widened.

Gods,” Kieran muttered, sitting back as he dragged a hand over his face.

“Is everything fine?” Casteel’s mother asked as she strode into the room, his father beside her.

My face heated as Casteel dragged his gaze from mine. “Everything is delightfully perfect,” he told them, sitting back in his chair.

I turned to Kieran and whispered, “Thanks for that.”

A closed-lip smile appeared. “You’re welcome.”

Resisting the urge to punch him, I looked over as Hisa closed the doors. Lord Sven and Lady Cambria had joined us, along with Emil, Delano, and Vonetta. Lyra, in her mortal form, had also come in, along with Naill. In the last several days, I’d learned that both Sven and Cambria assisted with the security of the kingdom and held positions within the Atlantian armies. No other Elder was present.

It was Kieran who spoke once Hisa had taken her seat on his other side. “We’re all set to leave for Oak Ambler tomorrow,” he announced. “A small group will travel with the King and Queen. It will just be Delano and me.”

Valyn inhaled deeply as he sat back in his chair. “That is not nearly enough.”

“I have to agree,” Hisa spoke up. “You will be entering Solis, meeting with the Blood Crown. It is unlikely that their armies will not have a substantial presence. Four of you is not nearly enough if something were to go wrong.”

“It’s not,” Casteel agreed. “But that is just one group.”

Hisa raised a brow. “I’m listening.”

“They will be expecting us to arrive via horse,” Kieran said. “Entering through the eastern gates of the Rise, but we don’t want to do what they expect.”

“That’s where you will come in,” I said. “You, along with Emil, Vonetta, and Lyra will leave in the morning, taking a small contingent of guards with you to arrive at the eastern gates. They have to expect that we would not come without some sort of convoy, even if they remain outside the Rise.”

Hisa nodded. “And you all?”

“We will travel by sea.” Kieran glanced at Sven. “Thanks to you, we have a ship.”

Sven smiled. “More like thanks to my son, who is currently loading several crates of wine—well, mostly wine bottles full of water and horse piss,” he said, and my lip curled. “We aren’t going to just give the Blood Crown several hundred bottles of our wine.”

Eloana placed a hand over her mouth, but not quickly enough to hide her smile.

“As most know, we monitor many of the shipments in and out of nearby ports,” Lord Sven continued. “And since Oak Ambler is the closest, we know that wine and other goods are infrequently shipped into the city. The shipment will not be questioned.”

“They won’t be expecting us from the sea.” Casteel picked up his chalice. “Not with the mist that comes off the Skotos Mountains. As far as people know, both mortal and vampry alike, the mountains continue into the sea. That is what the mist leads them to believe.”

“I can confirm that,” I noted. “We believed that the Stroud Sea ended at the Skotos.”

“That doesn’t mean the Blood Crown believes that,” Valyn pointed out. “They could’ve gotten that information from any number of Atlantians they captured over the years.”

“True.” Casteel nodded. “But I’m also sure they will have scouts on the road leading to Oak Ambler. The group traveling by land will be spotted. Lyra and Emil will travel with their identities hidden. Vonetta will be in her wolven form, and Naill will be at Emil’s side.”

“It takes, what? Four days by land to arrive at Oak Ambler?” Lady Cambria inclined her head. “How many by sea?”

“With our ships?” Sven grinned. “Faster than anything Solis will have, but you will have to go slow through the mist. So, you’re looking at roughly the same time.”

Understanding flickered on Hisa’s face as she smiled tightly. “It will take us about two days to clear the Skotos and enter the Wastelands. We would be spotted before you arrive.”

“Meaning they will turn their attentions to you,” Kieran stated. “Emil and Lyra, along with Vonetta and Naill, will enter and travel to Castle Redrock.”

“Hopefully, that is what occurs,” Eloana said, shifting in her seat, uneasy. “There is still a chance that you could be discovered.”

“There will always be a risk,” Casteel confirmed. “But we have a better chance this way.”

“And then?” Valyn queried. “Once you’re in front of the Blood Crown, how do you plan to get out if things do not go as planned? If it is a trap? I will go to the north to await word with the armies, but what will you do if it is a trap?”

My mind went to what I’d believed Nyktos had been referring to regarding the power already residing in me. I lifted my gaze to Casteel’s.

“What are you thinking, my Queen?” he asked.

The way those two words rolled off his tongue caused a wicked curl to start up low in my stomach. The way his eyes heated as they held mine told me he knew exactly what they did.

He was…incorrigible.

I took a drink. “I was unable to gain the aid of Nyktos’s guards,” I stated, and I could feel Casteel gearing up to deny that, so I rushed on. “And with what he and my brother said about the Revenants, we do not want to go to war with Solis. So, I was thinking that if this is a trap, or if the Blood Crown doesn’t take our ultimatum, we are left with only one recourse.”

The room fell silent with understanding. “And what if that provokes what you’re attempting to avoid?” Lord Sven asked.

“The King and Queen wouldn’t have survived even if they agreed,” Casteel said after a moment. “If we have an agreement, we would be careful about ensuring that neither Ileana nor Jalara are a threat any longer—once we were sure that the remaining Blood Crown is in agreement with what we have set forth.” One of his fingers drew idle circles on the bottom of his chalice as his attention flicked back to me. “But I don’t think that’s what you’re talking about.”

I shook my head. “If they don’t agree, the only option we will be left with is one that ensures the Revenants can’t be used or can be dealt with. And there is only one way we can do that.” I sought out Eloana’s gaze in the room. “We cut the head off the snake. We destroy the Blood Crown in its entirety, and I…I can do that.”


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