Casteel knelt in front of me, resting a knee in the sand. “I told you before that if you wanted the Crown, I would support it. I would be right there with you. That hasn’t changed.”
“But what do you want?” I insisted.
He placed his hands on my knees. “This isn’t about me or what I want.”
“Bullshit,” I exclaimed.
Casteel laughed. “I’m sorry.” He dipped his chin, grinning. “You’re just adorable when you curse.”
“That’s weird, but whatever. It’s not just about me.”
“It’s about you because I know what ruling a kingdom entails. I grew up with a Queen as a mother and a King as a father. I also grew up knowing that I could ascend to the throne.” Golden eyes met mine. “Even though I’ve held off assuming the role, it wasn’t because I didn’t want to be King.”
“I know,” I said quietly. “It was because of your brother.”
“I know I can do this. I know you can. But it’s not such a shock to me.” Casteel worked his fingers between my knees, releasing my hands. He held them loosely in his. “I want to protect my people and the kingdom, and if sitting on that throne will do that, then it’s what I want. But,” he stressed, “I want you to have the choice—the freedom. I also want you to know that you don’t have to justify or explain your reasons for taking the Crown. Not to me. Not to my mother. And there is no one right reason, as long as it is your choice. So,” he said, running his thumbs over my knuckles, “is it your choice to take the Crown?”
My heart skipped a beat. “It is,” I whispered. It was only two words, but they were life-altering and terrifying, and it was strange. To think that before I could remember being called the Maiden, forces had been at play that strove to stop this very moment from happening. There was a bittersweetness to this, but there was also a sense of…rightness that buzzed through my veins, in the blood of the gods. Like what I felt when I first stood at the Chambers. I almost expected the ground to tremble and the skies to open.
All that happened was Casteel bowing his head as he drew our joined hands to his heart. “My Queen,” he murmured, lashes sweeping up as his eyes met mine. And that connection—the one tied to my heart and soul was just as life-changing. “I guess I will have to stop calling you Princess.”
My lips twitched. “You’ve barely called me that since we got here.”
“You noticed?” His brows rose as he kissed my hands. “Didn’t feel right calling a Queen a Princess. Didn’t matter if you never took the Crown.”
“You’re being sweet again.”
“Are you going to cry?”
“I don’t know.”
Chuckling, he let go of my hands and stretched up, cupping my cheeks. “You’re sure about this?”
My heart gave another leap. “I am.” Something occurred to me. “I want the crest changed. I want the arrow and sword to be equal.”
His dimples appeared then. “I like the sound of that.”
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Okay.”
“Okay,” he repeated, nodding. “We need to rest here for the night, but I’ll send someone ahead of us to Evaemon. Tomorrow, we will leave for the capital.”
Where we would take the Crown.
And then we would travel to Iliseeum and wake the King of Gods.
“You’ve got to let go, baby. You need to hide, Poppy—” Momma stilled, and then she wrenched her arm free, reaching inside her boot. She pulled something out, something black as night and slender and sharp. She moved so fast—faster than I’d ever seen her move, spinning around as she rose, the black spike in her hand.
“How could you do this?” Momma demanded as I scooted to the edge of the cupboard.
A…a man stood a few feet from her, cloaked in scary shadows. “I’m sorry.”
“So am I.” Momma swung out, but the shadow man caught her arm.
“Momma!” I screamed, and glass cracked.
Her head jerked around. “Run. Run—”
Glass shattered, and the night spilled into the kitchen, tumbling down the wall and hitting the floor. I froze, unable to move as the gray-skinned creatures rose, their sunken bodies and red-smeared mouths scaring me. They swarmed the kitchen, and I couldn’t see her. “Momma!”
Bodies snapped in my direction. Mouths dropped open. Shrill howls ripped through the air. Bony, cold fingers pressed into my leg. I screamed as I scrambled back inside the cupboard—
“Shit,” the dark man cursed, and a spray of something rotten hit my face. The thing let go of my leg. I started to twist away, but the shadow man reached inside the cupboard, grabbing my arm. “Gods, help me,” he muttered, yanking me out.
Panicked, I pulled at his grip as those things came at him. He swept out an arm. I twisted, struggling. My foot slipped in the wetness. I turned sideways—
Momma was there, her face streaked with red. She thrust that black spike into the center of the shadow man’s chest. He grunted out a bad word. His grip loosened and slipped away as he fell backward. “Run, Poppy,” Momma gasped. “Run.”
I ran. I ran toward her—
“Momma—” Claws caught my hair, scratched my skin, burning me like the time I’d reached for the kettle. I screamed, straining for Momma, but I couldn’t see her in the twining mass on the floor. Teeth sank into my arm as Papa’s friend silently backed away. Fiery pain roared through me, seizing my lungs and my body—
What a pretty little flower.
What a pretty poppy.
Pick it and watch it bleed.
Not so pretty any longer...
I jerked awake, a scream burning the back of my throat as my wide-eyed gaze swept across the dark bedchamber.
“Poppy,” Casteel called, his voice thick with sleep. A second later, his chest pressed into my back as he folded an arm around my waist. “It’s okay. You’re safe. You’re here.”
Heart pounding, I stared into the darkness, telling myself that I was in Spessa’s End. I wasn’t trapped in Lockswood, alone and—
My breath caught. “I wasn’t alone.”
I swallowed, my throat sore. “There was someone else in that kitchen where I was hiding in the cupboard. Someone my mother knew. I know she did.”
“No,” I whispered hoarsely, shaking my head. “It was someone else. He was like…like a shadow, dressed in black.” I twisted in Casteel’s embrace, barely making out his features in the darkness. “He was dressed like the Dark One.”
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.