As was the woman who wore it.
Queen Ileana looked just like I remembered—beautiful in a sultry way few could ever achieve and carrying a warmth to her features even fewer Ascended had ever been able to master. Our gazes locked, and I couldn’t look away as memories of her brushing my hair back from the ruined side of my face, of reading to me when I couldn’t sleep, of holding me when I cried for my mother and father, rushed into me, over and over.
And maybe that was why I didn’t see who stood just behind her, to her right. Maybe that was why it took more than a moment for me to register the sudden explosion of icy shock rolling off Casteel, and that he’d jerked back a step. My gaze shifted to the man who stood there. It wasn’t King Jalara.
This man’s hair nearly reached his shoulders and was a light brown that showed hints of blond, but the sharp cheekbones, the straight nose, and the proud line of his jaw were uncannily familiar. And then his full mouth curved upward, as he stared up at us. And a…a dimple appeared in his left cheek. The smile, though, it was all wrong, lacking warmth and any trace of humanity.
“Brother,” the stranger said, and a rolling tide of shivers shot straight down my side at the deep, gritty sound of his voice. “It has been far too long.”
Casteel had stiffened beside me. “Malik.”
“What a happy reunion,” Queen Ileana announced, her smile tight as she took in the two brothers staring at each other.
I hardly heard her—was barely aware of the Handmaiden drifting in and out from between us like a wraith, coming to stand on the other side of the Queen.
What I was staring at didn’t make sense.
And I wasn’t the only one who appeared frozen in shock as we stared at Prince Malik Da’Neer. How was he even free? Standing beside the Blood Queen, seemingly healthy and whole? He looked nothing like the emaciated, frail man we’d seen in the cage below. His golden bronze skin lacked the haggardness of starvation. His hair gleamed, and the polished shine of his boots, the cut of his breeches, and the tailored shirt and deep grey vest he wore dripped with wealth and privilege.
It didn’t make sense.
Or it couldn’t, because the only reason he’d be here was unfathomable.
“Gods,” Kieran uttered, lifting a hand and then halting.
“Malik.” Casteel’s voice was hoarse, and the agony slicing through him stole my breath. I reached out, grasping his hand. His gaze swung between his brother and the Blood Queen. His—and all the others’—shock pelted me like icy rain. “No.”
His brother’s head tilted as his gaze flicked to where my hand was wrapped around Casteel’s. “I see you’ve gotten yourself married, Cas,” he said, and Casteel flinched as the breath he took punched from him. “Wish I could’ve been there.” Bright, golden eyes met mine, and I felt Kieran shudder from where he stood beside me. “Congratulations.”
“What has she done to you?” Casteel demanded, rattled to his very core.
“Opened my eyes,” Malik replied.
“To what?” Casteel choked.
“To the truth.” His head straightened, and I reached out with my senses, finding a thick wall shielding his emotions. “Just as she will open all your eyes.”
Casteel took a step back, his disbelief as potent as his sorrow. “This can’t be real.” His head swung toward the Queen. He started toward her, but I tightened my grip on his hand as several of the knights stepped forward. They weren’t my concern. It was the Handmaiden, whose gaze sharpened on Casteel. “What in the fuck have you done to him?”
“Casteel.” Her voice reached us like a snake in the grass.
His entire body went rigid beside mine, and her red lips curved up as she extended a hand toward him.
I reacted without thought, grabbing her arm. The silk of her sleeve wrinkled under my grip. “You will never lay a finger on him again.”
The Handmaiden stepped forward, but Queen Ileana held up a hand as her dark gaze slid to mine. “Penellaphe.” Those dark eyes roamed my face, touching briefly on the scars and then continuing on. And I thought…gods, I thought her features softened and warmed. “I have no interest in laying a hand on your husband. That would be incredibly disrespectful.”
“As if you care for what is respectful,” I shot back.
Her brows rose, and then she laughed softly. “Ian,” she called, and I saw my brother stiffen from the corner of my eye. “You didn’t tell me that our dear Penellaphe not only found her tongue but also sharpened it.”
Ian said nothing.
Queen Ileana tugged on her arm, but I held on for a moment more. I didn’t know why. Maybe just to prove I could, that my tongue wasn’t the only thing about me that now had sharpened edges. I slowly let go, lifting one finger at a time.
An eyebrow rose as she stared at me. Then she leaned her head in, and the scents of rose and vanilla reached me. “Poppy,” she said softly, holding my gaze. As close as she was, I thought her eyes…weren’t as dark as an Ascended’s normally were. I could see her pupils. I opened my senses, but I felt nothing from her, which wasn’t a surprise. “How quickly you’ve turned on me, after all the years I protected you, cared for you, and kept you safe.”
Her words did nothing to my heart. “You mean after spending years lying to me and keeping me in a cage?”
“You were not caged, child. I am sure your dear Prince can tell you that.”
Casteel’s head whipped in her direction, and his fury blasted my skin. “A room and a life of lies is still a cage,” I bit out, refusing to look away. “And I am not a child, nor is he a Prince.”
Queen Ileana’s brows knitted and then smoothed out as she glanced at Casteel. Another soft laugh left her as she pulled back. “Well, that explains so much.” She looked over her shoulder at Malik. “The younger brother surpasses the eldest.” She turned back to us. “And the Maiden becomes the Queen.” The corners of her lips lifted again. “Just as I had always hoped for you.”
Warning bells rang, but they’d been ringing since she entered the room with Prince Malik at her side, as if he were her Consort. “Where is the King?” I asked.
“In the capital,” she answered, eyeing Kieran. She reached to straighten the collar of his tunic but caught my move toward her. “Territorial, aren’t you? Never would’ve expected that. I have a question for you, dear. One that may make Ian very uncomfortable.” Her crown glimmered as she tipped her head back. “Are you Joined to this wolven? Or is it the pretty blond one? Or one of those oh-so-gorgeous females?”
The fact that she knew of the Joining didn’t escape any of us. “I’m bonded to them,” I answered, waiting for her gaze to settle on me. “To all of them.”
Her eyes widened slightly, and then she clapped her hands together, surprising me. Casteel shot me a quick glance as the Queen looked over her shoulder at Malik. “Look at what you’ve missed out on.”
“I’m looking,” he replied dryly. “And I’m seeing.”
“What in the hell is that supposed to mean?” Casteel snarled, his shock at seeing his brother—at the betrayal— giving way to fury that tasted of blood instead of anger.