“Let’s just say some Ascended there won’t be missed by those who call Oak Ambler home,” Kieran commented. “It’s probably best if you don’t know more.”
“It would be wise for us to arrive before they expect us,” Casteel said, and I nodded.
“I can agree with that. I can also say for sure that your father will be pissed when he hears that the Blood Crown knows that Atlantia has been gathering forces to the north,” Jasper muttered, dragging a hand down his face as he looked at Casteel. “Hell.”
I stilled, my gaze finding Casteel’s once more. When Ian had dropped that unexpected tidbit, I couldn’t understand how they knew. Now, I did. “Alastir.”
Casteel’s jaw hardened. “From what my father said, only the Council was aware of the true purpose behind the armies being moved to the north. The public believes it’s a training exercise, but Alastir knew.”
“And he’d been communicating with the Ascended.” I shook my head. “How in the world could he have justified sharing that kind of information with the Ascended as something that would’ve benefited Atlantia?”
Jasper snorted. “I think Alastir had a lot of beliefs that didn’t make sense, but maybe he did that in hopes that Solis would strike first, forcing Atlantia’s hand. A backup plan in case all else failed.”
That made unfortunate sense. “Who knows what else he could’ve told them?”
That quieted the room, and in the silence, my mind returned to bouncing between Ian and what it meant for the Ascended before finally settling on something I hadn’t really allowed myself to think about.
The plans already in place wouldn’t change with the news that Ian wasn’t evil incarnate—and it was possible that other Ascended were the same. Once the King learned that Solis was aware of the Atlantian armies, it would spur an attack. Ian and any Ascended like him may die if the Atlantian armies were successful. If not, and these Revenants were something terrible and powerful, able to devastate the Atlantian armies? Not only would Spessa’s End fall, but the entire kingdom of Atlantia could. Either way, innocent people would die on both sides. I stopped as I neared Casteel’s chair. He looked up at me, his gaze searching my face.
Casteel and I could stop this.
That meant only I could stop it.
My pulse picked up as I stared down at him. I knew what we had to do—what I had to do. It felt like the floor shifted under my feet. A kernel of panic bloomed, and I used everything in me to shut it down.
Casteel reached out, extending a hand. I placed mine in it. “What?” he said quietly.
“Can we talk?”
He rose at once, sending the group a quick glance. “We’ll be back.”
No one said anything as we slipped from the room and then moved through the empty Great Hall where the Atlantian banners hung on the walls.
“Where do you want to go?” Casteel asked.
“The bay?” I suggested.
And that’s where we went, Casteel leading the way around the half stone wall that remained. Under the bright light of the moon and in the much cooler air of nighttime, the grass and dirt gave way to sand as the scent of lavender surrounded us.
We stopped on the edge of the midnight bay, the waters so dark they captured the stars above. Stygian Bay was the rumored gateway to the Temples of Eternity. I suppressed a shudder at the thought that the God of Common Men and Endings slept under the still waters.
“You doing okay?” Casteel asked.
Knowing he was talking about Ian, I nodded. “It’s strange. When I decided not to give Ian peace, I was both relieved and disappointed.”
“What made you decide not to do it?” Casteel pulled his gaze from the bay and looked over at me. “Because I really thought you were going to do it.”
“I was. It was the perfect chance. I knew you all would’ve been able to handle the knights. But besides the fact that we have no idea what these Revenants are, we’re also trying to prevent a war. If I’d ended Ian, the Blood Crown could have taken that as an act of war against them and struck at Spessa’s End. I couldn’t risk that.”
He reached over, rubbing his hand down my back. “I’m proud of you.”
“No. Seriously.” A faint smile appeared. “You made the call before Ian spoke to you, when you thought he was truly lost to you. You didn’t think of what you wanted, but what was best for the people of both Solis and Atlantia. Many wouldn’t have done that.”
His forehead creased as his attention returned to the bay. “I’m not sure. I’d like to think I would have, but I think it’s something you really can’t know for sure until you’re in that position.”
Silvery moonlight glanced off the curve of his cheek and jaw as if the light of the moon were drawn to him. “So, you believe that Ian isn’t like the others? That what he said is true?”
He didn’t answer for a long moment. “I believe in things that make sense, Poppy. Him telling you to wake Nyktos because his guards can defeat the Blood Crown only makes sense if he was trying to help us. I cannot think of how that would help the Blood Crown. Like I said in there, they have not indicated that they want you dead. I do think he’s trying to help you—help us—at great risk to himself. For him to be willing to do that to help his sister has to mean that he’s still in there. A normal Ascended would be looking out for only themselves. He’s not like them.”
I briefly closed my eyes, nodding. Hearing that Casteel believed that Ian was still in there erased the tiny doubts I still had and made what we needed to talk about easier. “And that could mean that some Ascended, young ones like Ian, who might not have had years and years to control their bloodlust, aren’t a lost cause.”
“And Atlantia is preparing for war—to kill all the Ascended. Your mother told me it wouldn’t matter if Ian wasn’t like the others. They wouldn’t take that risk.” I moved to what was left of a pier, sitting on a stone post. “I can’t let that happen. We can’t let that happen.”
Casteel turned to me, remaining quiet.
I took a deep breath as I looked up at him. “It’s not just about my brother. Yes, he’s a big reason. I know your mother wants me to choose the Crown because I love Atlantia, but there isn’t enough time for me to feel that way. I…I don’t know if I need to right now. Because I am already protective of Atlantia and her people. I don’t want to see them used by the Ascended or harmed during a war. I also don’t want to see Solis ravaged. I know you don’t either.”
My hands started to tremble, so I folded them between my knees. “I have no idea how to rule a kingdom, but I know that can be learned. You said so. Your mother said so. I don’t know if I’m ready for that, or if I would ultimately make a good Queen, but I want to make things better for the people in Solis and in Atlantia. I keep thinking about how the Ascended need to be stopped. I know that needs to happen, and that has to mean something, right? And I have to believe that being able to possibly prevent war is worth figuring that out. People’s lives are worth that, including my brother’s. You’d be by my side. We’d rule together, and we’d have your parents to help us.” And maybe I would come to love Atlantia as deeply as he and his parents did. It already felt like home to me, so it was possible. But there was also a little guilt. I wanted his mother to approve of why I decided to take the Crown. I swallowed, but a knot remained in my throat. “That is if you want this. If you can be happy with this. I don’t want you to feel forced into it,” I said as he took a quiet step toward me. “I know you said that part of you knew it would happen eventually, but I want you to know for sure that this is what you want and not…not do it just because I’m choosing this,” I finished, watching him and waiting for a response. When he stopped before me, saying nothing, the knot expanded in my throat. “Are you going to say something?”