And wake the King of Gods.
Or that Casteel and I were about to become King and Queen.
We’d discussed everything with Kirha and Jasper at length when we arrived. We would need to travel to Iliseeum as soon as we could if we hoped to make it to Oak Ambler before we were expected. A group would travel with us—not a large one as Casteel and Kieran had explained that the tunnels could be narrow and cramped. And then from there? Well, we hoped that one of the Elders knew where Nyktos slumbered and that my blood would help us enter unharmed.
But during dinner, we didn’t talk about any of that, even though everyone present knew what was about to happen. Instead, Kirha and Jasper had entertained us with stories about their children and Casteel when they were younger—much to their annoyance and reluctant amusement. I didn’t think I’d ever laughed as much as I had that night. And later, when Casteel and I were alone, I didn’t think it was possible to be loved more thoroughly than I was.
I held onto those two things as we left Saion’s Cove early the next morning, dressed in buttery-soft black leggings and a matching, quarter-length-sleeve tunic that hugged my chest and then flared at the hips. I’d grinned when I saw that she’d left a slit in the right side for me to easily reach my dagger. Jasper remained behind with Kirha, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Vonetta would travel with us to Evaemon. I had expected her to stay with her parents or return to Spessa’s End, but she’d said that she wanted to see Casteel’s and my coronation.
She wasn’t the only one.
Dozens of wolven traveled with us, many that I hadn’t met yet, and a few, like Lyra, that I was just getting to know. Emil and Naill were also with us, and listening to those two bicker about everything from the best-tasting whiskey to whether a sword or an arrow was a better weapon was quite entertaining. All were alert, though, just in case the Unseen made an appearance.
The content feeling kept everything at bay, as did my continuous practice with speaking to the wolven through their imprints. Even the nightmare that, if true, possibly confirmed what Alastir had claimed.
That he hadn’t killed my parents.
I couldn’t focus on that as we traveled north through Atlantia. There would be time later to deal with that possibility, but if I’d learned anything in the last several months, it was how to compartmentalize. Or maybe it was just Casteel’s advice not to borrow tomorrow’s problems.
Either way, it wasn’t all that hard to just exist in the hours it took to reach Evaemon because I got a little lost in the beauty of Atlantia—the limestone homes with their terracotta roofs filling the rolling hills, the small farming villages, and the running streams that split the land, rushing from the cloud-capped Mountains of Nyktos that eventually became visible in the distance. One thing quickly became clear as we traveled.
With wooded, untouched land few and far between, no piece of land within the Pillars of Atlantia went unused.
Whether it was the fields plowed for crops or the land used for housing and commerce, Atlantia was running out of space…
Or already had.
Still, the land was beautiful—the homes, shops, and farms. It was all open, from village to city, with no walls separating them nor keeping monstrous creatures at bay. It was how I imagined Solis had once been.
Casteel had once again handed over control of Setti to me, and we continued on that way until we were halfway to Evaemon. We stopped in Tadous for the night, a town that reminded me very much of New Haven. Near the inn, young Atlantian children waved from the windows of a building I learned was similar to that of the schools in Carsodonia, where they learned their history, letters, and numbers in groups according to their age. The difference here was that all children attended, no matter what their parents did for a living. Whereas in Solis, only the children of means could afford to attend.
The temperatures were cooler here. Nothing that required a heavy cloak, but the faint trace of woodsmoke was in the air. We gathered that evening for dinner, ordering from a menu the friendly innkeeper and his wife provided.
Sitting in between Casteel and Kieran at a long banquet table, I scanned the menu while Vonetta sat across from me, laughing at something Delano said to her.
“Would you like to try a casserole?” Kieran offered as he looked over my shoulder. “That’s something we can share.”
Casteel looked over at me, a slow grin spreading across his lips. “Poppy…”
“You’ve never had a casserole before?”
My eyes narrowed. “Obviously, not.”
“It’s good,” Kieran explained. “I think you’ll like it.”
“It is,” Vonetta chimed in.
Casteel tugged on a loose strand of my hair. “Especially if there’s a lot of…meat in it.”
I stared at him, immediately suspicious. “Why are you saying it that way?”
“Like what?” he asked.
“Don’t try to play innocent.”
“Me?” He pressed his hand to his heart. “I’m always innocent. I’m just saying I think you will enjoy a meat casserole.”
I didn’t trust him for one second. I twisted toward Kieran. “What is he talking about?”
Kieran frowned. “A meat casserole.”
I looked over at Vonetta and Delano. “Is that true?”
Dark brows lifted as Vonetta glanced at Casteel. “I honestly don’t know what this one is referring to, but I was thinking about a green bean casserole.”
“Oh, man, I haven’t had one of those in forever,” Naill murmured.
Sitting back, I folded my arms across my chest. “I don’t want it.”
“Shame,” Casteel murmured.
“I have a feeling I’m going to want to stab you by the end of the night.”
Kieran snorted. “And how is that different from any other night?”
I sighed. “True.”
Leaning over, Casteel kissed my cheek and then looked at the menu. We ended up settling on roasted vegetables and duck. With my stomach happily full, I moved closer to the empty fireplace and one of the overstuffed chairs with a tall back while Casteel argued with Vonetta about…well, I wasn’t sure what they were arguing about now. Earlier, it had been whether or not yams could be considered sweet potatoes, which was a strange argument, but I had a feeling it wasn’t the most bizarre one they’d had.
They acted like a brother and sister, no matter if they shared blood. Watching them caused my heart to ache with envy. Ian and I could’ve had that, arguing about vegetables. If we’d had a normal life.
But that had been taken from us.
All because I was Malec’s child and carried the blood of the gods in me. It was why I’d been forced to wear the veil and was caged for half of my life under the pretense of being Chosen. In reality, I had been, just not in the way I’d thought.
I no longer believed that there had been another Maiden. That had only been a lie to keep up the ruse. What I didn’t know was what Queen Ileana hoped to gain through this. In a few days shy of a fortnight, I would know. Unease slithered through me like a snake.
But at least some part of the Ian I knew remained. We could still have that normal life where we argued about vegetables.