“But back then, many of the Atlantians didn’t know that, and when they started Ascending others, they just assumed that I was the same.” Her eyes were closed. “Malec told me his plans. That he would pretend to side with Eloana and the Council and help eradicate the Ascended. Said that it was the only way. Because you see, he couldn’t let the Ascended continue. He understood their threat better than most did.” She laughed then, the sound without humor. “Even exiled, he would stay behind and fight because he had honor. But I bet no one speaks of that, do they?”
Eloana had, in a way. She had said that Malec was a good man and King for the most part. Just not a good husband.
“So, he snuck me out of Atlantia when the war had just begun, but I had to leave alone. It would’ve been too risky to bring anyone with me, even our son.”
My heart turned over as Casteel asked hoarsely, “A son?”
She nodded. “I had him before I was poisoned, and he was…he was like you, Penellaphe. A blessing. He was the most beautiful baby boy there ever was. And even as a small child, he had the touch. The gift.” A fine tremor ran through her. “Malec would find me. He promised that once he was able to leave, he would. He would keep our son safe and bring him to me, and we would simply spend an eternity together—just the three of us, no Crown and no kingdom. He promised to take us to Iliseeum.”
Her eyes opened, and they…they glistened with tears. “Years went by, and the war spread across the lands. I had to…I had to hide what I was. With my dark eyes, the other Ascended never questioned what I was, so I hid from the daylight and stayed among the Ascended, still believing that Malec would come for me. I never lost faith. I met many who sheltered me, and it was Jalara of Vodina Isles who I discovered would be gathering his forces outside of Pompay, where a sizable Atlantian force had gathered. I knew that was my chance to learn what’d happened to Malec and my son.” Her nostrils flared. “He would’ve been on the cusp of manhood by then, and he probably wouldn’t have recognized me, but I didn’t care. I knew I would help him remember.”
She came down a step. “So, I joined Jalara at Pompay, and you know what I saw? The newly crowned King Valyn Da’Neer, leading the Atlantian army. And I knew.” Her hands closed into fists as her voice quavered. “I knew then that my son was gone. That he had probably been gone since the moment I left Atlantia, and they would’ve only been able to get to him if they’d done something to Malec. For years, I waited for them, never giving up, and they took that from me! He was all I ever wanted,” she screamed, and I shuddered at her words. Her chest strained the gown as she inhaled deeply. “They took everything from me. My son. My Malec, and I did nothing wrong but love, and gods, I will never love like that again. That was all. That was it.” She sliced her hand through the air. “They could’ve stopped this at any point. They just had to tell the truth about Malec and I. That I was not a vampry. That he was exiled wrongly. But in doing that, they’d have to confess what they’d done. Tell all their lies. Admit to murdering children,” she hissed, and I flinched then because I…I knew that they had. “And they would have to give back the Crown if that was what Malec wanted. So, of course, they didn’t. And here we are,” she said quietly. “All of this?” She lifted her hands and spread her arms wide. “All of this is because of them. They created this fire and fanned it, and now it’s out of control because I am the fire, and I will take everything from them.”
Not even them, really. From her, was what she meant. From Eloana.
The breath I took lodged in my throat. The lies… So many damn lies soaked in blood. Both kingdoms were at fault for this mess.
“All of this for revenge?” I whispered. “You’ve created this kingdom of blood and lies for revenge?”
“In the beginning, yes, but it’s so much bigger than that now. Now, it’s more than me.” Isbeth’s eyes met mine. My mother’s eyes met mine. “You were going to take it all back for me. You’d marry Malik, and through you, I would seize Atlantia.”
I shuddered. “That’s why you made me the Maiden? Was there even another Maiden?”
“That doesn’t matter,” she said, pressing her hands together. “You had to be protected. That was how I kept you safe until it was time.”
“Time to marry a man you’ve kept prisoner for how many years?” I exclaimed.
“Does he look like a prisoner to you?” Queen Isbeth looked to where Malik stood beside the Revenant.
“I know what you did to Casteel. I am not foolish or naïve enough to be convinced that you didn’t do the same thing to Malik,” I said, voice low as I stepped in front of Casteel as if I could shield him from the words I’d just spoken. “No matter what either of you claim, and I am sorry, gods, I cannot believe I’m even saying this, but I am sorry for what was done to you and your son.”
“Who would’ve been your brother,” she said, eyes widening.
“He is my brother.” I pointed at Ian. “He is my brother,” I repeated. “What was done to you was wrong. What was done to your son was horrible.”
“It was,” she murmured. “It truly was.”
“But you are no better,” I said. “What you’ve done to children? To those given to the Temples that don’t have this Revenant trait. What about the ones who died of the wasting sicknesses—those fed on by vamprys that you helped create? What of the second sons and daughters that you conned into believing that the Ascension was an act bestowed on them by the gods? What about the people of Solis, who live in fear of the gods who aren’t even asleep? Who can barely fend for their families while being forced to give their children away? What about the Craven, Isbeth?” I demanded. “What about me? I’m your daughter, and you sent me off to live with a man whose favorite pastime was whipping me and humiliating me.”
Her chin lifted on a sharp inhale. “I didn’t know about that. I would’ve flayed the skin from his body and left him alive to be eaten by buzzards if I had known.”
“That doesn’t matter!” I shouted, tears clouding my eyes because this—all of this was so messed up. So wrong. “You can’t blame Eloana or Valyn or Atlantia for anything else. This was you. All you. You became this.”
Casteel side-stepped me then, forcing me back until I felt Kieran’s hands on my shoulders. “I think it’s safe to say that we do not agree to your terms.”
“You don’t really have that authority, do you?” Queen Isbeth said, her lips thinning. “I know what she is. She is the true ruler of Atlantia. You’re just a pretty accessory.”
“Oh, I’m pretty, all right.” Casteel’s chin dipped. “And I’m also a very deadly accessory. Don’t forget that.”
The Blood Queen smirked. “I haven’t. Trust me.”
Sickened by the knowledge—by the implications and the reality of what…what my mother had done to Casteel—to so many people—I nearly doubled over. “No,” I forced out. “No, we do not now, nor will we ever agree to your demands.”