Ambrose glanced in my direction. “She did, and she was right. We do not know her, and she was raised by the enemy. That was stated but not discussed.”
“There’s nothing to discuss beyond what was already stated,” I spoke up, meeting Ambrose’s stare. “I understand your concerns, but I also know that nothing I say will change them. All I can do is prove that you have nothing to fear.”
“Then, if you wish to prove that there is nothing to fear, you should have no issue with us voicing our concerns,” Ambrose countered.
“I don’t,” I replied as Casteel began tapping his finger on the arm of the chair, his ring making soft thuds against the wood. “I’ve been told that it is wise to heed the advice of the Council, and that when it hasn’t been, nothing good has come from it—advice Casteel and I plan to follow. But I already know how you feel, Lord Ambrose. I already know how several of you feel.” My gaze swept around the table. Gregori’s lips thinned. A woman with dark hair sat back. Lady Cambria’s smirk matched Willa’s. Sven appeared bored. “There is too much to discuss to sit here and talk about what cannot be changed in a discussion, nor will I sit here and answer for crimes or choices or decisions that the Ascended or the deities made before me. I have already paid dearly for their sins.” My gaze returned to Ambrose. “I will not entertain doing so again.”
The Atlantian swallowed. “We have heard of the resurgence of the Unseen and the attack on you. We condemn it and do not stand for such actions.” His hand flattened on the table. “But—”
“There is no but,” Casteel interrupted, his tone soft but full of smoke.
Ambrose’s mouth tightened, but he nodded stiffly. “Understood.”
I started to relax, but Casteel’s head tilted. “You were not in the reception hall when we arrived.”
“I was not, Your Majesty.”
“You did not bow upon entering the room,” he continued, and I glanced at him.
“Cas,” I started softly.
“It’s a common courtesy,” Casteel said, his gaze trained on the Atlantian. “The most basic of them. Nor have you once referred to your Queen as ‘Your Majesty’ or even ‘Your Highness’ as you spoke to her. Again, the most basic of common courtesies and respect.” Silence fell throughout the room. “Am I not right, Father? Mother?”
“You are right,” Eloana answered. “Those who did not greet either of you as such in the hall should have done so once within sight.”
“Lord Ambrose, you did bow to my son,” Valyn added.
Anger simmered in Lord Ambrose, as did embarrassment. He said nothing.
“You will bow before your Queen.” Casteel eyed the Atlantian coolly. “Or you will bleed before her. It is your choice.”
A low growl of agreement echoed from where Vonetta was crouched beside me.
I tensed. I wanted to intervene, to put a stop to this before something unnecessarily bloody happened during our very first Council meeting as rulers, but instinct warned that an example was being made—one that would indicate whether or not Casteel or I would tolerate disrespect. And respect was important. If we didn’t have the Elders’ respect, how would we have the kingdom’s respect? Still, the threat made my skin itchy.
Wood scraped against stone as Ambrose rose. He bowed stiffly. “I apologize, Your Majesty,” he said to me. “I meant no offense.”
I nodded, and as he straightened, I called on what Casteel had said before. “You may sit.”
Ambrose did just that, and the thread of tension eased from the room.
“Now, can we get started?” Casteel asked as he scanned the Elders and was met with several nods. “Good, because we want to stop a war before one starts.”
Sven leaned forward. “This, I am very interested in hearing.”
Others seemed to share his sentiment, and some didn’t, but they all listened to our plan to meet with the Blood Crown in Oak Ambler and offer our ultimatum, explaining why we believed it would work.
“It could,” Lady Cambria stated, brows pinched. “You’re ripping out the foundation that holds all their lies together. The Ascended are a lot of things, but they are not stupid. They know what that will do to their people.”
I glanced at Valyn. “It will lessen, if not destroy, their control over the people of Solis and destabilize their society. I do not believe they will risk that.”
“None of us want war,” Lord Gregori stated, looking around the table. “Those who were alive during the War of Two Kings are still haunted by those horrors. But you’re asking for us to agree to give the Ascended a second chance? To prove they control their bloodlust? We’ve been down that road before.”
“We know. Right now, we are asking that you understand our decision to keep the soldiers in the north at bay,” Casteel said, making it clear he was not asking for their permission. “Once we meet with the Blood Crown and have their answer, then we can reconvene and discuss whether or not you feel that you can give any of them a second chance. But we haven’t crossed that bridge yet, and we have no intention to burn it before we do.”
“I have innumerable reasons for why I want to see the Ascended killed,” a female Atlantian stated. Her sand-colored skin was without a trace of wrinkles and her brown hair was free of any gray or white. I believed her name to be Josahlynn. “But I only need one. My husband and son died in that war.”
My heart clenched. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.” Her chest rose with a deep breath. “As the rest of you know, I’ve been on the fence about what to do. If we can prevent more husbands and wives, sons and daughters from dying, we should.”
There were many nods of agreement, but Lady Cambria leaned forward, resting her arm on the table. “But it is far too dangerous for you two to be the ones to meet with the Blood Crown. You are the King and Queen—our Liessa. Someone else should be sent in your place. I will gladly go.”
“As will I,” Sven announced, and so did many others.
I felt Kieran’s wry amusement the moment our gazes touched. “Neither of us will ask any of you to do what we are not willing to risk ourselves,” I said. “Plus, it will be far safer for us than it will be for any of you. The Blood Crown does not want us dead.”
“We will also enter the city before we’re expected,” Casteel explained. “Giving us time to see what they may have in store for us.”
“And who set up this meeting?” Ambrose asked.
I braced myself. “My brother, who was Ascended.”
As expected, this created several outbursts and questions. Once they quieted, I explained who Ian was to me, and that even if we shared no blood, he was still my brother. Throughout the discussion, Casteel had extended his arm, placing his hand on the back of my neck where his fingers moved in slow, soothing circles. There were echoes of empathy from around the table, mingled with blunt pity. “Before we left, Ian told me that the only way we could defeat the Blood Crown—force them into taking our ultimatum—was by waking Nyktos and gaining the assistance of his guards.”
“We plan to travel to Iliseeum in the morning,” Casteel explained.