“You see, I’ve always seen my dear Penellaphe as the future Queen of Atlantia.” Queen Ileana turned to Delano, her grin resurfacing as his lip curled in disgust. She raised a hand and snapped her fingers. I tensed, but it was a small horde of servants who answered her summons, filtering into the room, carrying trays of glasses. “Just married to the wrong brother.”
I choked on my breath as Casteel stared at her. “What?” I couldn’t have heard her right.
“Drinks anyone?” Queen Ileana offered, and none of us accepted, not even Emil or Naill, who both looked as if they could use an entire bottle at the moment. One shoulder lifted in a delicate shrug in response to their refusal.
“What was that supposed to mean?” Casteel pressed.
“I had planned for my Penellaphe to marry Malik,” she answered, and yes, I had heard her correctly the first time.
“It’s true,” Malik confirmed, plucking up a glass of what I sincerely hoped was red wine. He lifted it toward me. “I was your Ascension.” His lips curved into a smirk. “Or at least that’s what we could call it.” He winked and took a drink. “But I suppose it could be considered an Ascension of the…flesh?”
He shot toward his brother, lips peeled back, and fangs bared. He was fast, but Kieran launched himself at Casteel, wrapping both arms around his waist. “That’s what they want,” Kieran said. “Don’t give it to them, brother. Don’t.”
Queen Ileana’s laughter was like tinkling windchimes as she helped herself to a glass. “Please, do,” she said, and I saw the knights and guards back away from Malik and Casteel. “I’m curious to know who would win this fight. My bet is on Casteel. He has always been a fighter.” She grinned as she lifted one of Vonetta’s braids as she drifted past her. Vonetta’s lips peeled back in a silent snarl. “Even when he was on the verge of being broken.”
My head jerked to her. “Shut the fuck up.”
Her laughter died in a hush as she turned to me. The Handmaiden stepped back while Malik took another drink of his wine, one eyebrow arched. Ian edged toward me as Tawny paled. Casteel stopped struggling to get at his brother as he and Kieran turned to where I stood, my chest humming with eather and rage, rising and falling rapidly with my breaths.
“I am being kind, Queen Penellaphe, and hospitable. Because I will always have a great fondness for you, no matter where we stand,” she said, her voice cool as she smiled at Naill. “I’ve invited you to speak with me, so we could hopefully come to an agreement about what the future holds. I assume that’s why you two agreed.”
“It is,” I bit out.
“I’ve even had drinks brought in and offered food to your friends, even though they attempted to trick me into believing that it was you instead of her.” Queen Ileana gestured at Lyra with her glass, and the wolven snarled at her. “But do not mistake my fondness for weakness or for permission to speak to me as if I am nothing more than gutter trash. I am the Queen, so show some damn respect.”
I opened my mouth to tell her exactly what I thought of showing her respect, but Casteel spoke. “You are right about why we’re here. We are here to talk about the future. Yours.”
Standing before the dais, she faced us as the Handmaiden shadowed her on one side of the room and Malik from the other. “Then speak.”
Casteel had managed to get his anger under control while I was quickly losing my grip on mine. “We came with—”
“An ultimatum? I know,” she said, and Casteel snapped his mouth shut. “Release your brother and allow Atlantia to take back the lands east of New Haven? Or you will reveal the truth about the Ascended and Atlantia by using the once-Maiden as proof? Destroy us by collapsing our foundation of lies? Is that correct?”
All of us did.
“How?” growled Casteel. “How do you know that?”
“You have…or had an advisor who was very eager to rid Atlantia of the rightful heir to the throne,” she answered. “So eager, in fact, that he told several of my protégés of your plans.”
“That son of a bitch,” Naill muttered.
I could barely breathe through my anger. “I want to kill him all over again,” I seethed.
“He’s dead?” Queen Ileana smiled. “Gods, you have no idea how happy that makes me. Thank you.”
“Your gratitude is unwanted,” Casteel snapped.
She shrugged again. “Anyway, your plan is clever. If you two waltzed into Solis, loving and happy together, it would shake our control. It could even topple the—what do you call it? The Blood Crown? After all, they do believe the Maiden was Chosen by the gods. But you see, that would only work if you thought that any of us would simply relinquish Solis. I’d see the whole godsdamn kingdom burn before I ever allowed Atlantia to seize even one single acre of land.”
I inhaled sharply as Ian closed his eyes, lowering his chin.
“So that’s it?” Casteel stepped forward. “You really want war?”
“I want Atlantia,” she replied.
“Then it’s war,” I stated.
The ruby crown glinted as she shook her head. “Not necessarily.”
“I don’t see how there is any other option,” Casteel returned. “You’ve rejected our offer.”
“But you haven’t rejected mine.”
Casteel laughed darkly. “It’ll be a no.”
“You haven’t heard what I have to say.” The Blood Queen held her glass with both hands. “You will claim Atlantia in my name and swear sovereignty to me. You may retain your titles of Prince and Princess, but you will ensure that several of my Dukes and Duchesses are able to safely cross the Skotos to establish Royal Seats throughout Atlantia. You will dismantle your armies and convince the people of Atlantia that this is for the best, of course.” Her head cocked to the side. “Oh, and I want the former King and Queen brought to the capital, where they will be tried for treason.”
Malik showed no response as he now stood beside the Handmaiden. Not a flicker of emotion for what would be a death sentence for his parents.
“You’re out of your mind,” Casteel breathed, and he was right. There was no other explanation for why she would think we’d ever agree to that.
“If you refuse, then war is inevitable,” she continued as if Casteel hadn’t spoken. “But first, I do believe you should understand what you’ll be up against if your armies cross the Skotos. We have over a hundred thousand guards who have sworn an oath to the Royal Crown. They may be mortal, but they want coin and a lifetime of riches—which I can provide. They’re more than willing to fight and die for that, than hedge their bets on Atlantia being any different than what they have now,” she told us. “We have several thousand knights, and they will not be nearly as easy for you to fight in combat as you think. But that’s not all we have.”
“The Revenants?” I finished for her.
Queen Ileana’s brows lifted and then smoothed out. “Interesting,” she murmured, and my heart skipped a beat. I didn’t dare look at Ian. “But do you know what a Revenant is?” When none of us answered, she shifted her glass to one hand and summoned the Handmaiden forward.