I couldn’t believe how open the palace was. In every city of Solis where a Royal was seated, their homes were guarded by walls nearly half the size of the Rise that protected the city. No one could even come close to the castles or any of the Royal keeps or manors as there were always vast courtyards separating the home from the inner walls. But here? One could potentially walk right to the very entry points of the palace.
It was clear that the ruling class welcomed interaction with their citizens. Yet another stark difference from how the Ascended ruled Solis.
I almost dropped Storm’s reins at my first sight of the courtyard. “Night-blooming roses,” I whispered. Velvety black petals, now closed against the rays of the sun, climbed the pillars at the front of the palace, creeping across the onyx walls and up over the towers and spires.
Casteel’s gaze followed mine. “I wanted to tell you about them when you mentioned that they were your favorite, but I couldn’t.” His brow creased. “They kind of slipped my mind since then.”
I blinked, a bit shook by the sight of them. What a coincidence that the flowers I had always been drawn to covered the palace walls I would now call home.
“Cas!” a voice called out, drawing my attention to the stables. A young man strode across the courtyard, dressed in fawn-colored breeches and a white shirt like Casteel’s but untucked. A wide smile broke out across the rich brown of his face. The smile only halted a fraction of a heartbeat when the wolven noticed him. “Is that really you? Or some bizarre hallucination?”
The casual use of Casteel’s name signalized that this man must be a friend—someone Casteel trusted. As he grew closer, I saw that his eyes were a clear amber. He was an elemental Atlantian, and he was quite handsome, his features broad and warm, hair cropped close to his head much like Kieran’s.
“That would be a strange hallucination,” Casteel joked as he reached down, clasping the man’s hand while I urged Storm to slow and then stop. “It’s been too long, Perry.”
The Atlantian nodded as a tan wolven crept close, watching the man closely. Luckily, Storm had shown no real reaction to so many wolven being close by. “It truly has been. I was surprised to hear that you’d come home. Almost didn’t believe it was true when word reached us.”
“I imagine many were surprised,” Casteel answered smoothly. “How have you been?”
“Staying in the best kind of trouble.” Perry’s curious gaze flicked over to me as Casteel chuckled, lingering for a moment before moving to Kieran. “But not nearly as much as when you two are around.”
My brows rose at that as Kieran asked, “What are you doing out here?”
“Engaging Raul in my stimulating and entertaining conversational skills.”
“More like annoying the shit out of me,” came a gravelly voice. An older man with hair the color of clouds and a beard of the same shade but streaked with black strode out from the stables with a slight limp, wiping his hands on a cloth he shoved into the front pocket of his brown tunic.
“Well, damn. Is it really the wayward Prince returned home?” the older man said. “I must be seeing things.”
Perry’s grin kicked up a notch. “That’s just your failing eyes, Raul.”
“Well, that would go along nicely with my failing body,” he answered.
“Speaking of failing bodies, I’m surprised you’re still alive,” Kieran commented as he swung off his horse, and I blinked.
Casteel snorted. “What are you talking about? Raul will outlive us all.”
“I fucking hope not—shit.” Raul stopped beside Perry, squinting hazel eyes as he stared up. “Here I am, cursing up a storm, and you have a lady with you.”
“A lady he hasn’t introduced us to yet,” Perry informed, his look a bit coy. My senses reached out to the Atlantian, and I felt nothing but amusement and curiosity. “A very quiet lady I’ve never seen before but believe I have heard about.”
“That’s because you don’t know many ladies,” Raul retorted as he reached for Storm’s reins, scratching the horse’s neck.
Perry nodded with a laugh. “Can’t argue with that. But I have heard about this particular lady. That is if the rumors are true.” He paused, looking over to where the wolven watched him. “And I’m thinking the rumors are very true.”
“This is Princess Penellaphe. My wife,” Casteel announced, and my heart gave a happy little skip in response to his words. “If that is the rumor you speak of, then it is true.”
“Part of the rumor,” Perry answered.
Raul muttered, “Well, shit.”
I had no idea if their response was common or a harbinger, but then Perry started to step forward. A fawn-colored wolven appeared in front of Storm, its ears pinned back. Perry raised his brows. “Is that you, Vonetta?”
But the wolven gave no response, only continued staring at the Atlantian, her body tense and still. If Vonetta and Perry had been on familiar terms before, it no longer appeared to matter. But if Perry was allowed to call the Prince, “Cas,” then I knew he was trusted.
I followed the vanilla-oak of Vonetta’s imprint. It’s okay. He is a friend of Casteel’s, right?
There was a moment of silence, and then Vonetta’s whisper found my thoughts. Friends of Cas have betrayed him.
Well, she had a good point there. Let’s give him a chance, though.
Vonetta shot me a rather arch look for a wolven, but she backed off several feet.
“Shit,” Raul repeated.
“Well, if that isn’t confirmation of the other rumor, then I don’t know what would be.” The smile returned to Perry’s handsome face as he looked up at me. A bubbly, fresh taste coated the inside of my mouth. Perry was curious…and still amused. “Should I call you Princess or Queen?”
No one answered for me. “You may call me Penellaphe,” I decided.
Perry’s smile increased, and the hint of fangs became visible. “Well, Penellaphe, may I help you down?”
I nodded. Raul steadied Storm as Perry helped me down. “Thank you,” I said.
“Pleasure is all mine.” He glanced at Casteel as he held my hands. “Leave it to you to show up after years of absence with a pretty wife at your side.”
Casteel dismounted with annoying ease. “I do love to make an entrance.” He came around my back, slipping my hands free from Perry’s.
Perry glanced at Kieran. “Since this fool is with you, does that mean Delano has returned? I haven’t seen him.”
“He has.” Casteel threaded his fingers through mine. “He should be arriving shortly.”
Perry’s smile made such a quick return that I doubted he was often not smiling, but the smoky taste of attraction accompanied the curve of his lips now.
“Any idea where my parents are?” Casteel asked.
Perry nodded toward the building with the kneeling, stone soldiers encircling the cupola.
“I’ll catch up with you later,” Casteel told Perry before speaking to Raul. “You’re going to take care of the horses for me?”
“Isn’t that my job?” Raul retorted, and a startled laugh left me, earning a gentle hand squeeze from Casteel. “At least it was the last time I checked. If I’ve been fired, no one has decided to let me know.”