“As if we would ever think of doing such a thing,” Casteel replied, grinning.
“As if you spend much time thinking about anything,” Raul snapped back.
Liking the old, somewhat crotchety man, my lips curved into a smile.
“Are you seriously smiling at him after he just suggested that I don’t have a brain?” Casteel demanded in mock-offense.
“I am under the impression he suggested you don’t use your brain often,” I told him. “Not that you don’t have one. And, yes, I am smiling at him. I like him.”
“Her Highness has good taste.” Raul nodded in my direction. “Not counting the taste that got you standing next to that one.”
I laughed again. “Trust me, I have questioned that.”
Perry laughed, and then came a rough chuckle from the old man. “I like her, Cas,” said the Atlantian.
“Of course, you do,” muttered Casteel. “Can you give Setti and Storm some extra sugar cubes? They deserve it.”
We parted ways then, walking across the courtyard, followed by the wolven. I opened my mouth—
“Let me guess,” Kieran cut in. “You have questions.”
I ignored him. “Does Perry live here? At the palace?”
“He has quarters here, but he has his own home with his family in Evaemon.” Casteel brushed the hair out of his eyes with his free hand. “We basically grew up together.”
“Why does he have quarters here if he has his own home?”
“Because he is a Lord, much like his father, Sven,” he advised, “who is an Elder. All the Elders have rooms here.”
Considering that the palace appeared large enough to house a small village, I wasn’t surprised to hear that.
“I’m also betting that the Council has been called and are awaiting our arrival,” Casteel continued.
My heart tripped over itself a little. Although the wolven we’d sent ahead wouldn’t have told Casteel’s parents of our decision, nor did I think Emil would, I imagined his parents sensed that we’d made a decision.
Although this was the Temple, a wicked sense of deja vu swept over me as we neared the semicircular steps, and two guards opened the door. This time was different, though, because I wasn’t entering as a Princess uncertain about her future.
I was entering as one who was about to become Queen.
Emil waited for us just inside the Temple entryway, standing under an Atlantian banner that hung from the ceiling. My gaze locked on the closed doors beyond him, where at least ten guards were positioned. Wariness radiated from them, coming from what was probably a very unexpected sight of several dozen wolven climbing the steps beside us.
My heart tripped in my chest even as I walked forward. My hand trembled even enclosed in Casteel’s. I knew I was making the best choice. I was as ready as I would ever be, but it felt like a dozen flesh-eating carrions had taken flight in my chest. This was…this would be huge. I would enter as Poppy and leave as a Queen—Queen to people who didn’t know me and who may not trust me.
Casteel stopped, turning to me. His fingers touched my cheek, just below the scars. He guided my gaze to his. “You’ve faced Craven and vamprys, men wearing masks of human flesh, creatures without faces, and stared down Atlantians who wanted to harm you with the kind of strength and bravery most lack,” he whispered. “Remember what you are. Fearless.”
Fingers touched the other side of my cheek, and Kieran’s pale eyes locked with mine. “You are a descendant of the gods, Poppy. You run from no one and nothing.”
My breath caught as my gaze held Kieran’s and then shifted to Casteel. The center of my chest hummed. A heartbeat passed, and then I looked at the closed doors. It was okay to be nervous. Who wouldn’t be in my situation? But I wasn’t afraid.
Because they were right.
I was brave.
I was fearless.
And I ran from no one and nothing—and that included a crown.
My gaze flickered over the wolven, stopping on Vonetta. Exhaling slowly, I nodded. We turned to the doors as they opened to an area lit by the sun coming from the dome’s glass sides.
Rows of semicircular benches sat on either side of the aisle, offering enough seating for what had to be several thousand—possibly more. Above, a balcony area where even more people could attend jutted out, and under them stood ten statues of the gods, five on each side. They held unlit torches against their black stone chests. Ahead of us, the statue of who I could only assume was Nyktos stood in the center of the dais. Beyond him was another set of doors as large as the ones we’d entered through, where guards stood now. I recognized Hisa. The thrones sat before the statue of Nyktos.
They were both made of pearlescent shadowstone, streaked with thick veins of gold. Their shape fascinated me. The backs were circular and spiked, shaped like the sun and its rays, and at the center of the top, carved out of the same stone, was a sword and arrow crossing each other.
The current Queen and King of Atlantia stood beside their thrones, and as their son and I walked forward with the wolven trailing and spreading out among the rows of benches, I realized that both wore their crowns.
The crown upon the King’s head was twisted, bleached bone, but the one that sat upon the Queen’s head was golden, shining bone. I hadn’t seen the crown since the Chambers of Nyktos. Eloana and Valyn stood in silence as we approached them, Casteel’s mother’s hands clasped at her waist.
“Mother,” Casteel said as we stopped before the steps of the dais. Kieran and the others hung back several feet. “Father.”
“We are glad to see that you have both returned,” his father replied, one hand resting on the hilt of his sword.
“Not without interruptions.” Casteel tilted his head. “We were accosted by members of the Unseen.”
“Were there any injuries?” his mother asked.
“No.” Casteel looked at me. “My wife made sure of that.”
“We all made sure of that,” I added.
“I’m relieved to hear that,” she said. “But it shouldn’t have happened.”
No, it shouldn’t have.
But it did.
“Arden arrived safely, I assume?” Casteel queried.
His father nodded. “Yes. He is resting in one of the rooms. All the wolven told us was that the meeting went well.”
“Your brother?” His mother’s gaze touched mine, the crown such a stark contrast to her dark hair. “Was he how you remembered?”
“He wasn’t,” I said. “And yet, he was. But he’s not like other Ascended.”
Her chest rose sharply behind the ivory gown she wore. “I don’t know if that is a good or a bad thing.”
“I don’t either,” I admitted.
“There must be much that you both need to share with us,” his father began, and I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. In the shadowy alcoves of the dais, several people stood. My senses stretched out, finding an array of emotions, everything from curiosity to faint distrust. “But we assume that you’re here to discuss more than your meeting with the Ascended.”
Irritation sparked at him referring to Ian as the Ascended even though he was…an Ascended. I could recognize the irrationality of that, but it still didn’t stop the burn of annoyance.