Kieran dropped into the chair beside me. “What are you sitting over here thinking about?”
“Nothing,” I replied, and he shot me a knowing look. “Everything.”
He chuckled. “You having second thoughts about your decision?”
“No.” Surprisingly, I wasn’t. Going to Iliseeum? Maybe a little. “Do you think going to Iliseeum is a bad life choice?” I asked as Casteel caught what I thought was a cheese ball thrown by Vonetta.
“If you’d asked me that a year ago and I knew how to enter Iliseeum?” He laughed as he drew his fingers over his forehead. “I would’ve said yes. But now? Ever since my father told us how Iliseeum could be accessed through the tunnels, I’ve been thinking how that is one hell of a coincidence—all those years we spent in them.”
“I have, too,” I admitted, letting my head fall back against the soft cushion of the chair as I looked at him. “It’s just too convenient that you were led there.”
He nodded. “Then that got me thinking about fate. About how all these little things—and the big ones—happened and could’ve been…preordained. As if they were all leading up to this.”
“To me becoming Queen?” I laughed. “I hope you mean something else because that’s a lot of pressure.”
He sent me a grin. “Being Queen is a lot of pressure,” he pointed out.
“Yeah, it is.” I bit down on my lip. “Do you think that’s a bad life choice?”
“If you asked me a year ago—”
“You didn’t know me a year ago, Kieran.”
Dipping his chin, he chuckled and then looked over at me. “Honest to the gods? I think it’s the best choice for you—and for the future of Atlantia and Solis.”
“Well, that makes me feel even more pressured.”
“Sorry.” He slouched in the chair. “But, seriously. Like I was saying earlier, I think things were pointing to this—to something major. You’re doing the right thing.” His gaze found Casteel. “Both of you are.”
Inhaling deeply, I nodded. It felt like the right thing—terrifying, but right. “I just hope I’m not expected to walk around wearing a crown all day,” I murmured.
Kieran barked out a loud laugh, one that drew both Casteel’s and Lyra’s attention. The former raised his brows. I sank a little lower in my seat. “You have the weirdest mind, I swear,” Kieran said, shaking his head.
“Crowns look heavy,” I retorted as Lyra continued staring at Kieran, a faint smile on her pretty face. “And irreplaceable if you break or misplace them.”
Kieran was silent, but I could feel his stare on me.
“Lyra seems to like you,” I said, swiftly changing the subject.
“She seems to like you.”
“Glad to know, but I think we’re talking about two different types of liking someone.”
He lifted a shoulder.
“Do you like her?”
“I like her.” He propped a boot on the leg of another chair. “She’s fun. A good person.”
My brows lifted as I snuck a peek at Lyra. She was speaking with Delano and Naill. Fun? A good person? Kieran was often as transparent as a brick wall, but that wasn’t how I would talk about Casteel if someone asked me what I thought of him. I’d probably wax on poetically for quite some time…and also list all the ways he was utterly infuriating.
I studied Kieran’s profile, thinking of what he’d said while we sat along Stygian Bay. “I want to be nosy.”
“Like when you watched Lyra and I on the beach?”
I choked on my breath—my actual breath—as my face flamed red. “That is not what I was referencing.”
He was grinning so hard, I was surprised his face didn’t crack. “You’re not going to deny it?”
“What is the point?” I muttered.
Kieran eyed me. “Intriguing.”
He laughed. “What do you want to be nosy about?”
I looked down, running my finger over my ring. “The person you spoke about loving and losing? What happened to them?”
Kieran was quiet for so long, I didn’t think he’d answer. But then he did. “She died.”
My chest twisted. “I’m sorry.”
He nodded, and another long moment passed. “It was quite some time ago.”
“How…how did it happen?” I cringed at the question.
“Wolven are relatively healthy, just like Atlantians and other bloodlines, but there are a few diseases we’re susceptible to. All inherent,” he said. “Elashya was born with one—a wasting disease traced all the way back to the kiyou. It attacks the body and then shuts everything down.” He scratched his chin, squinting. “She knew her family carried the disease, but it doesn’t affect everyone, so she was hopeful. But her grandmother had it, and it commonly shows up every generation or two. The problem is that someone will be healthy for a hundred or so years, and then it just hits them. Starts with involuntary twitches and spasms of the muscles, almost so small you wouldn’t notice them. But then within days…that’s it. Over.”
My finger stilled over the ring. “You…you fell in love with her knowing you could lose her?”
“The heart doesn’t care how long you may have with someone.” Kieran looked over at me, his eyes sheltered. “It just cares that you have the person for as long as you can.”
The following morning, I approached Casteel with a request as we left the inn. “I have a favor to ask.”
“Anything,” he replied.
I grinned. “Is it possible for us to obtain another horse?” I asked as we neared where Emil and Naill were readying their mounts. Two saddled horses traveled with us, but they belonged to Kieran and Delano, who had shifted into their mortal forms and were now astride the two steeds. “I would…I would like to ride my own horse into the capital. I remember what you taught me,” I added when Casteel looked down at me. Vonetta had stopped, and even in her wolven form, she sent a look in Casteel’s direction as if she were warning him not to argue. “I think I am ready—that I can control a rather calm one.”
His eyes warmed in the fading afternoon sun. “I think you’re ready, too,” he said, and I beamed up at him. “Although, I will miss having you in front of me.”
“I will miss that, too,” I admitted, feeling my cheeks warm. “But I…”
“I know,” he said quietly, and I think he really did understand why I wanted to ride into the capital on my own horse. What it meant for me. He pressed a kiss to my forehead and then looked over his shoulder.
“Already on it,” Emil said, bowing with a flourish. “I will find you a steed worthy of your beauty and strength, Your Highness,” he added with a wink and a smile.
“Every time he smiles at you, I want to rip his lips from his face.”
My brows lifted as I looked at Casteel. “That’s excessive.”
“Not nearly excessive enough,” he grumbled, eyeing where the Atlantian had disappeared into the nearby stable.