But I did.
My steps faltered. My eyes appeared brighter than normal, the silvery sheen behind my pupils more noticeable. There was a faint pink blush to my cheeks. I didn’t really notice the scars. The crown of twisted bone that sat upon my head drew my attention.
And the fact that my hair was a bit of a mess. It was braided, but the ride here and the skirmish with the Unseen had caused many strands to sneak free.
Realizing that I was still in clothing dusty from the road and probably stained with blood during my crowning and my first Council meeting, I swallowed a sigh and glanced out into the reception hall. My head tilted as I scanned the Elders. It wasn’t until then that I realized they were dressed similarly to Casteel and me. They were all dressed in either black or gray tunics and pants trimmed in gold—even the women. There were no fancy, gauzy gowns made of rich, supple material. The clothing was pragmatic. I suspected that all of them were fighters in one way or another.
I glanced at my reflection once more, still a bit startled to see the golden crown. Gods, what would Tawny think if she saw this? She’d probably laugh in surprise and then fall into stunned silence. A sad smile tugged at my lips. And Vikter? Gods, he…
Blowing out a sharp breath, I managed to resist the urge to reach up and touch the crown and forced myself to walk past the mirror. I was sure that Vonetta probably wondered how long I would stare at my reflection.
“I see you found sanctuary and more.”
That throaty, smoky voice stopped me. A wave of tiny bumps pimpled my skin. I turned around and felt as if the floor fell out from under my feet. A woman stood there, her hair a deep black and thickly curled, hanging loosely to frame deep, rich brown skin. Full, red lips curved into an impish smile as she dipped in a bow that was subtle even in a gray tunic and pants.
My lips parted. I couldn’t believe who I was staring at. “You were at the Red Pearl,” I exclaimed as Vonetta looked up, cocking her head to the side. “You sent me to the room Casteel was in.”
The woman before me’s smile grew as she straightened, the soft scent of jasmine surrounding us as she whispered, “I was right, wasn’t I? About what you found in that room.”
“You were, but how…?” Was she a changeling? I knew they could know things by speaking or touching someone. Others simply knew things. So many questions rose to the tip of my tongue, starting with why she’d done that and what she had been doing at the Red Pearl. She had been dressed as one of the employees—
Casteel slid his arm along my lower back as he came to stand by my side. He lowered his head, pressing his lips against my cheek as he said, “I grew lonely and came to find you.”
In any other situation, I would’ve pointed out that he hadn’t been alone, and I also would’ve been secretly thrilled with his willingness to say such a thing in front of another, but this was not a normal situation. I stared at the woman before us.
“Ah, the last of you have arrived,” Valyn announced as he joined us, stopping beside the woman from the Red Pearl. Over his shoulder, I saw Eloana. He smiled at the woman. “I don’t think you’ve had a chance to meet before.”
“We haven’t,” Casteel confirmed, as I kept my mouth shut, and the woman smiled at me.
“This is Wilhelmina Colyns,” Valyn announced, and every single part of my body flashed hot and then cold. “She joined the Council after you…”
Valyn was speaking, but my heart was pounding so fast that I couldn’t be sure if he even spoke a language I understood. Oh, my gods, it was Miss Willa.
The Miss Willa.
Standing in front of us.
How could I have forgotten that she was a member of the Council?
A wild wave of amusement rolled off Casteel so strong that I almost laughed. “Wilhelmina,” Casteel drawled, and I looked at him.
And then I remembered that this was Casteel, and he could say anything in front of his father—and his mother. And, oh my gods—
“We have not met,” I said quickly, reaching down and placing my hand on his arm. I squeezed hard. “It is an honor to meet you.”
“A huge honor,” Casteel added while confusion pinched his father’s features.
Miss Willa smiled. “The honor is all mine.”
“Are you all ready?” Eloana asked, thankfully interrupting.
I could’ve hugged and kissed the woman. “Yes.” I squeezed Casteel’s arm, just knowing he was about to say something else. “We are.”
“Perfect.” Eloana glanced at Willa. “Would you like something to drink?”
“Whiskey, if you have it,” Willa answered.
Eloana laughed. “Now you know we always have that on hand.”
The remaining Elders entered the room, taking seats at the table. Only Vonetta remained inside with us, the rest of the wolven standing guard outside the closed doors. Willa joined the Elders, whiskey in hand. Casteel’s parents did not take seats at the table but took two against the wall where Naill, Delano, and Emil stood with Kieran and Hisa. No other guards were in the room. There were two seats left at the head of the table, reserved for the King and Queen.
Taking those seats felt as surreal as the crowning had, and thoughts of Willa faded as introductions were made. There were eight members in attendance. We were missing only Jasper, who had remained in Saion’s Cove. Another wolven had taken his place, a Lady Cambria, whose blonde hair was sprinkled with silver strands. In the aftermath of all that was happening, I knew it would be difficult to remember most of the names, but I would remember Sven, who looked very much like the son I had met by the stables. There were three others, two males I suspected were mortal, and a female Atlantian.
And they all sat in silence, staring at Casteel, their combined ages and experience wholly intimidating. Muscles tightened in my neck and shoulders, and suddenly, the crown felt heavier. An urge to shrink in the chair, to make myself as small and invisible as possible swept through me, but it was brief because I was neither small nor invisible.
And I would never be that again.
“I’m not sure what the formalities of such meetings are, but those of you who already know me are well aware that I’m not one for formalities,” Casteel announced as he looked over at me. “And neither is my wife, Penellaphe. So, we may as well get to the point. There is a lot to discuss, and very little time to waste.”
“If I may speak,” a pale-skinned man with golden eyes sitting near the middle of the table said. All I could think about was the last time I had sat at a table with Casteel, and similar words had been uttered. This man hadn’t been in the reception hall. I would’ve recognized his icy-blond hair.
“Of course, Lord Ambrose.” Casteel leaned back, resting his hands on the arms of the chair.
“Lord Gregori spoke for those of us who have concerns,” the Atlantian began, and my senses zeroed in on him. Distrust coated him. “We understand that there was nothing that could stop the ascension of the Crown, but we do feel that we must address those concerns.”
Across from him, Willa took a drink of her whiskey and not-so-discreetly rolled her eyes.
“Didn’t Lord Gregori address them in the Temple?” Casteel questioned, head tilted. “I believe he stated them as succinctly as possible. Or rather your Queen stated them as succinctly as possible.”