“You’re correct,” Casteel replied and then looked at me. Our gazes met. “We have come for more than that.”
I focused only on Casteel, not allowing myself to read his parents or the shadows standing in the alcoves. The taste of chocolate-dipped berries calmed my nerves, and the steadiness in his golden eyes eased the tension gathering in my neck.
I was brave.
I was fearless.
Squeezing Casteel’s hand, I turned back to his parents. “We have come to claim what is mine—the Crown and the kingdom.”
Eloana unclasped her hands, letting them fall to her sides. A heavy breath left her, one I hoped was of relief or at the very least acceptance.
His father stepped forward. “And if we contest your claim?”
My head shot in his direction. “You can,” I said before Casteel had a chance to respond. “But it won’t change the inevitable.” Vonetta brushed against my leg as she prowled forward. Lyra had leapt onto one of the stone benches, and without looking, I knew the others had also moved in closer. I slipped my hand free of Casteel’s and stepped forward, looking at his father. “The only people I will ever know as my parents were killed to prevent this moment. I was left dead and scarred because of my birthright and forced to wear the veil because of my bloodline. My brother was Ascended because of it. I’ve had years of controlling my own life taken away from me. Innocent people have died because of what is owed to me. I almost died. And on the way here, we were attacked. None of that has stopped this moment from coming. The Crown belongs to me and my husband, and I believe you already know that.”
Valyn stared down at me, his expression unreadable, and I doubted I would succeed if I tried to read his emotions. His gaze flicked to where his son stood. “Do you have anything to add?”
“Not really.” A shadow of a smile filled his tone. “She pretty much summed it up. You know that the Crown belongs to her. To us. We will need your help—both of you—when it comes to ruling Atlantia. But we don’t need unnecessary drama.”
I fought a smile as his father’s eyes narrowed. “I apologize, son. I wouldn’t want to cause any unnecessary drama,” his father replied dryly.
“Apology accepted,” Casteel murmured, and I heard the huffing sound of a wolven laughing behind me. Valyn’s eyes narrowed.
“He’s right,” I agreed. “We do need your help. There is much for me to learn, and there is a lot that Casteel and I have to do.”
“And your reason for coming to this decision?” Eloana asked.
Thinking of what Casteel had said to me, I met her stare. “My reasons don’t matter as long as they’re my reasons.”
She stared at me for a moment, and then one side of her lips curved up. With a nod, she looked at her husband. “It’s time,” she said. “It’s been time.”
“I know,” his father said with a heavy sigh. “I just hope you both understand that this responsibility doesn’t end when you accomplish what you seek.”
“We know,” Casteel answered, coming to stand beside me once more.
I nodded. “We do.”
Valyn and his wife came to the edge of the dais. “I have a suspicion that neither of you will want to go the traditional route?”
Casteel looked over at me. Assuming the traditional route meant balls and feasts, I said, “Once we have handled the threat to the west, we would like for there to be a…more elaborate coronation. Neither of us feels the timing is appropriate to do so now.”
Eloana nodded. “The coronation celebration can be held whenever, upon your discretion.”
A tremor coursed through me. I reached over, and within a heartbeat, Casteel’s hand folded over mine. “So, what happens now?”
“It’s fairly simple,” his father answered. “In front of the Council of Elders, we will relinquish the crowns and the control to you and my son. And then we announce to the citizens the changing of the Crown.”
My heart skipped a beat as I glanced at the shadowy alcoves. “Does that happen now since the Council is already present?”
Valyn smiled faintly. “It can.”
Casteel eyed the alcoves. “And do any of them stand in opposition?”
There was silence, and then to our left, a tall man stepped out from the shadows. His eyes were a bright yellow, and his dark hair was turning silver at the temples, meaning he was a very, very old Atlantian.
“Lord Gregori.” Casteel inclined his head, apparently recognizing the man. “You have something to say?”
“I do, Your Highness.” The man bowed while Eloana sent her husband a wry look. “I know there is nothing we can say to suspend what is about to occur, but as one of the oldest Elders on the Council, I feel that I must speak for myself and others who are concerned about this development.”
If he was one of the oldest members of the Council, then I suspected he was a changeling. My gifts pressed against my skin, and I let my senses open just enough to get a read on him. The stringent taste of distrust dried my mouth but wasn’t at all surprising considering his words.
“Your concerns are noted,” Casteel observed. “But as you suspected, they will not delay this.”
The acidic burst of irritation rose from Lord Gregori. He started to step back.
“What are your concerns?” I asked, genuinely curious.
Lord Gregori’s gaze skipped to me. His features showed none of the wariness he felt. “We are on the brink of war, and some of us feel that this is not the time to transfer power.”
Anxiety hummed in my chest as I studied him. A year ago, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to find the courage to ask such a question. Six months ago, I might’ve accepted that what I knew was only half the answer. Today, I didn’t. “And that is all?”
Lord Gregori stared back at me, his spine rigid. “No. We do not know you,” he stated coolly. “You may share the blood of the gods—”
“She is a deity,” Valyn corrected sternly, surprising me. “Descended from the King of Gods, and is Malec’s child. She is not one who simply shares the blood of the gods. You know that.”
My eyes grew wide.
Pink spotted Lord Gregori’s cheeks. “My apologies,” he murmured. “You are a deity, but you are still a foreigner to our lands.”
“And one raised by the enemy as the Maiden?” I finished for him, wondering if it was too much of a leap to consider that he may sympathize with the Unseen, possibly even support them. “Our enemies are the same, Lord Gregori, as are our loyalties. I hope you give me a chance to prove that to be true.”
Approval flickered through Casteel’s father, and I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t feel good.
“I pray to the gods that you do.” Lord Gregori bowed stiffly before stepping back into the shadows.
“Anyone else feel the need to share their opinion?” Casteel asked. There was no movement from the alcoves, but obviously, others shared Lord Gregori’s concerns. “Good.” Casteel smiled tightly. “Because there is much we need to discuss with the Council.”
“They are eager to hear what you must share,” Eloana replied. “We can relinquish the crowns now, and while you meet with the Council, we will send word to the people throughout Evaemon that their new King and Queen will greet them,” she said, turning and extending a hand to the tall doors beyond the statue of Nyktos. “From the balconies of the Temple of Nyktos.”