“It very well could be, but my brother is just beyond the Skotos Mountains with a message from the Blood Crown. I cannot think of anything else until I see him.” My gaze sought out Casteel’s. “We need to go,” I told him. “I need to go.”
A muscle along Casteel’s jaw ticked. I couldn’t pick up any emotion from him, but he nodded curtly. “We will leave for Spessa’s End,” he announced, and his father cursed. He sent the King a look that brooked no room for argument. “Immediately.”
Casteel’s parents protested—loudly and strongly—but neither of us would be swayed. They weren’t even remotely thrilled when we left the estate, and I didn’t blame them for that. My arrival had pushed the Crown to the edge of chaos, and we would lose vital time by going to Spessa’s End. But there was no way I could have done what the Queen had asked of me if I remained. I wanted to see all I could of Atlantia, but my brother was more important than a gilded crown or a kingdom.
Casteel’s parents would return to the capital, and we would join them there once we returned from Spessa’s End. I knew their decision to go to Evaemon meant that I would have to make my decision then, based on what little I’d seen of Atlantia.
I couldn’t think of any of that now.
As soon as we arrived at the Contous’ home, Kieran and Vonetta went to their parents. Both Jasper and Kirha came to our room, while I quickly braided my hair before shoving a sweater and a heavier tunic into a saddlebag for both Casteel and I, remembering how cold it could get in the Skotos Mountains. On the way out, I stopped at the wardrobe, grabbing an extra shirt for both of us, each in black, and another pair of breeches for him just in case our clothing became soiled…or bloodied.
Which seemed to happen a lot.
“The wolven will travel with you,” Kirha said as I entered the sitting room. She sat in the chair Jasper had occupied the night before. He now stood behind his wife. “That’s the only way to ensure the trap fails—if this is a trap.”
“How many?” Casteel asked as he took the saddlebag from me. His brows flew up as he glanced down at the leather bag. “What did you pack in here? A small child?”
I frowned. “Only a change of clothing.” He looked at me doubtfully. “Or two.”
A lopsided grin appeared.
“At least a dozen and a half can be ready to leave immediately. Maybe a little more. Kieran is wrangling them now,” Jasper said. “And that’s not including my children and me.”
“You’re coming with us?” I turned to them. “And Vonetta? She just arrived, didn’t she?”
“I told her she could stay,” Kirha said, shifting in the seat as if she sought a more comfortable position. “That she could sit this one out. But she refused. Spessa’s End has become a part of her heart, and she doesn’t want to be away while the Ascended are camped outside their walls. She is showering now, just so, you know, she can become filthy all over again.”
I cracked a grin at that. I didn’t know how she could make that trip again. I honestly didn’t know how Kieran had done it twice when Spessa’s End had been under siege, but I was still surprised that Jasper would make the trip. I was unsure of how to tactfully point out that his wife was super pregnant.
“Do not worry about me. I will be fine,” Kirha said, winking when my eyes widened. “I’m not going to have this baby in the next week or so. Jasper will be here for the birth.”
The silver-haired wolven nodded. “Besides, I don’t think we will be gone all that long. I’m guessing we will travel straight through the mountains.”
I looked at Casteel. He nodded. “Doing so would mean we’d arrive a few hours before nightfall tomorrow. It will give us some time to check out what they potentially have planned and for us to rest.”
“It’s going to be a hard and fast journey but more than doable,” Jasper stated. “Meet you at the stables in a few?”
Casteel agreed, and I watched Jasper help his wife stand. When the door closed behind them, I said, “I wish Jasper didn’t feel like he has to go with us—not when Kirha is so close to giving birth.”
“If he believed for one second that she would have that baby in the next couple of days, he wouldn’t leave,” Casteel explained. “I wouldn’t worry about that or Vonetta. She wouldn’t make the trip again if she didn’t think she could handle it.” The sound of a saddlebag snapping closed sounded. “What did my mother want to discuss with you?”
“The future of the kingdom,” I said, turning to him. Knowing that we only had a handful of minutes to discuss things, I gave him a quick rundown. “She said that the Atlantian armies were preparing to enter Solis. Did your father tell you that?”
“He did.” That muscle flexed in his jaw again. “I knew he was planning this. However, I didn’t know how advanced those plans had become. From what I could gather from speaking with him, half of the Elders are in agreement. It’s not that he wants to go to war. It’s that he sees no other choice.”
Crossing my arms, I stared out the terrace doors. “And you still do?”
“I believe it’s worth a shot. I believe it is more than that.”
I was relieved to hear that. “Your mother wanted me to take the next couple of days to travel to Evaemon and see the city before I made my choice about the Crown. She told me that her generation is incapable of giving the Ascended a chance because of what they’ve lived through. That it would have to be us who took that risk. She seemed…supportive of me taking the Crown. That it would be what is best for the kingdom,” I said, looking back at him. He watched me closely, and I registered no shock from him. “This doesn’t surprise you?”
“No.” A lock of wavy hair fell over his forehead. “She has always put the kingdom first, over her own needs.”
“And you truly believe that isn’t what makes a good King and Queen?”
“My parents have ruled Atlantia fairly and have done the best they can—better than anyone else could have. Maybe I’m biased in believing that, but whatever. Personally, I don’t believe that an unhappy or distracted King or Queen makes for a good ruler,” he told me. “And you wouldn’t have been able to enjoy any of your time spent exploring Atlantia if you chose not to go to your brother. It would be the same for me if I learned that Malik was near. I would have to go to him.”
How well he knew me never failed to amaze me, and he couldn’t read my emotions.
“Besides,” he continued, “we plan to negotiate with the Blood Crown. If they have a message, we need to hear it.”
Nodding, I turned back to the terrace doors, watching the vines move gently in the salty breeze. “What does your father think of us—of us and the Crown?”
“He doesn’t know what to think. He’s more…reserved than my mother when it comes to revealing what he is thinking,” Casteel said. “Always has been, but he knows that if you claim the Crown, there is little he or the Elders can do.”
As we left Saion’s Cove and passed through the Pillars of Atlantia once more, we caught Vonetta up on all that had happened since we’d last seen her. The sorrow she felt for Beckett lingered long after she’d taken her wolven form, and we crossed the meadow of flowers.