The ​Crown of Gilded Bones

Page 13

“Your mother was a favorite of the counterfeit Queen, but she was no Lady in Wait destined to Ascend. She was a Handmaiden to the Queen.”

Handmaiden? Something about that struck a chord of familiarity. Out of the churning chaos of my mind, I saw…women who were always with the Queen. Women in black who never spoke and wandered through the halls of the palace like shadows. They…they’d scared me as a child. Yes. I remembered that now. How had I forgotten about them?

“Her Handmaidens were her personal guards.” Alastir’s brows knitted, and the scar on his forehead deepened. “Casteel knows they were a unique sort of nightmare.”

I lifted a hand and froze. Casteel had been held by the Queen for five decades, tortured and used by her and others. He’d been freed before my mother was born, but his brother took his place.

But my mother, my gentle, soft, and helpless mother couldn’t have been like that. If she were one of the Queen’s personal guards, nightmare or not, she would’ve been trained to fight. She would’ve—

She would’ve been able to defend herself.

I didn’t understand. Didn’t know if any of that was true. But I knew what was. “You,” I breathed, my entire being turning numb as I stared at the man I’d befriended. That I’d trusted. “It was you. You betrayed them, didn’t you?”

“It wasn’t me who struck down your father. It wasn’t me who betrayed your mother,” he replied. “But in the end, it doesn’t matter. I would’ve killed them anyway. I would’ve killed you.”

A harsh laugh erupted from me as rage and disbelief twisted my insides. “If it wasn’t you, then who was it? The Craven?”

“There were Craven there that night. You carry their scars. They were led right to the doors of the inn.” He didn’t blink. Not once. “He led them there. The Dark One.”

“Liar!” I shouted. “Casteel had nothing to do with what happened.”

“I never said Casteel did. I know it wasn’t him, even though I never saw the face behind the cloak and hood he wore when he came to that inn,” Alastir replied. “Other things were at play that night. Darkness that moved outside of my influence. I was there to help your parents. That is what I did back then. But when they told me what you could do, I knew—I knew who you came from. So, when the darkness came to those doors, I let it in.”

I didn’t know if I believed him or if it even mattered if my parents had died by his hand or not. He had still played a role in my parents’ deaths, leaving Ian and I and everyone else there to die, as well. Leaving me to be torn apart by claws and teeth. That pain. That night. It had haunted me for my entire life.

A breath shuddered out of him. “I let it in and walked away, believing that the dirtiest part of my duty was done. But you survived, and here we are.”

“Yes.” The word rumbled out of me in a growl that would’ve surprised me at any other time. “Here I am. Now what? You going to kill me? Or leave me here to rot?”

“If only it were that simple.” He leaned on one hand. “And I would never leave you here to die such a slow death. That is far too barbaric.”

Did he even hear himself? “And chaining me in these bones and roots isn’t? Leaving my family and me to die isn’t barbaric?”

“It was a necessary evil,” he stated. “But we can’t just kill you. Maybe before you arrived—before the Primal notam locked into place. But not now. The wolven have seen you. They’ve felt you.”

My gaze sharpened on him. “Why didn’t you change like the others? The way the King and Queen spoke, it was like they had no control over their forms. They had to answer my call.”

“It’s because I can no longer shift into my wolven form. When I broke my oath to King Malec, I severed the connection between myself and my wolven side. So, I wasn’t able to feel the Primal notam.”

Shock flickered wildly through me. I hadn’t known that. “Are you…are you still a wolven, then?”

“I still have the lifespan and the strength of a wolven, but I cannot shift into my true form.” His gaze clouded over. “Sometimes, it feels like a missing limb—the inability to feel the change come over me. But what I did, I carried out knowing full well what the consequences would be. Not many others would’ve done that.”

Gods, that had to be unbearable. It had to feel like…I had when they forced me to wear the veil. Part of me was impressed by Alastir’s loyalty to Atlantia and to the Queen. And that said a lot about his character—who he was as a man, a wolven, and what he was willing to do in service to his kingdom.

“You did that, but you won’t kill me?”

“If we were to kill you, you would become a martyr. There would be an uprising, another war, when the real battle lays to our west.” He was talking about Solis—about the Ascended. “I want to avoid that. Avoid creating even more problems for our kingdom. And soon, you will no longer be our problem.”

“If you’re not going to kill me or leave me in here to die, I’m a little confused by what you plan to do,” I bit out.

“I will give the Ascended what they were so desperate to keep,” he said. “I will give them you.”

Chapter 5

I couldn’t have heard him right. There was no way he planned to do what he’d stated.

“None will be the wiser until it’s too late,” he said. “You will be beyond their reach, like all the others the Ascended have taken.”

“That…that doesn’t even make sense,” I said, stunned when I realized that he was serious.

“It doesn’t?”

“No!” I exclaimed. “For several reasons. Starting with how you plan to get me there.”

Alastir smiled at me, and my unease grew. “Penellaphe, dear, you’re no longer within the Pillars of Atlantia. You’re in the Crypt of the Forgotten Ones, deep within the Skotos Mountains. If anyone even learns that you are here, they will not find you. We will already be gone by then.”

My insides chilled as disbelief rose. “How did you get past the Guardians?”

“Those who were unaware of our presence felt the kiss of the shadowshade.”

“And those who weren’t?” I asked, already guessing what’d happened to them. “You killed Guardians?”

“We did what needed to be done.”

“Gods,” I whispered, swallowing the anger and panic that swirled within me. “They protected Atlantia. They—”

“They were not the true Guardians of Atlantia,” he cut me off. “If they were, they would’ve struck you down the moment you appeared.”

My lip curled as I forced my breathing to remain even. “Even if you hand me over to them, how will I not be Atlantia’s problem if you give me back to the people who plan to use my blood to make more vamprys?”

He lifted his weight from his hand and sat straight. “Is that what they plan?”

“What else would they plan to do?” I demanded. All of a sudden, I remembered Duchess Teerman’s words at Spessa’s End. She had claimed that Queen Ileana would be thrilled to learn that I had married the Prince. That I would be able to do what she’d never been able to do—destroy the kingdom from within. Before I could allow those words to mix with what Alastir had said about me being a threat, I shoved them aside. Duchess Teerman had told a lot of lies before she died, starting with what she’d said about Queen Ileana, a vampry incapable of bearing children, being my grandmother. She’d also claimed that Tawny had gone through the Ascension, using Prince Malik’s blood. I couldn’t believe that, either.

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