Eloana’s lips trembled. “Whose blood—?” Her voice cracked as she glanced at the wolven. “Whose blood stains your clothing?”
“My brother’s.” I flattened my palms against my knees. “He was slaughtered when I refused to join the Blood Crown, uniting the kingdoms under the sovereignty of Solis. He didn’t even see it coming. They cut his head from his shoulders, and he did nothing to deserve that. Nothing. She did it because she could.” My fingers curled into my knees, where the material was stiff with dried blood. “Now ask me where your son is.”
Her eyes started to close—
“No.” I tipped forward. “Don’t you dare close your eyes. I didn’t when I watched a sword slice through my brother’s throat. Don’t you dare close your eyes. You’re stronger than that.”
Her chest rose with a heavy breath as her eyes remained open. “Where is my son?”
“She took him,” I forced out, the words cutting into my skin. “And you know why? You know exactly why she wanted your sons. It’s not just to make more Ascended. It’s personal.”
Her lips moved, but no sound came out.
“You knew. This whole time. You knew who Queen Ileana really was.” Rage heated my blood, sparked off my skin. She leaned back an inch. “You knew she was Isbeth and that she was never a vampry.”
“Malec gave her his blood when you poisoned her.” I reclaimed what distance she’d gathered. “He couldn’t make a vampry with his blood. Isbeth was never the first Ascended.”
“I didn’t know that at first,” Eloana spoke. “I swear to you. I had no idea that she wasn’t a vampry. She had black eyes just like the others that were made after her—”
“Because her eyes are black but not like the Ascended,” I interrupted. “They’ve always been black.”
“I didn’t know,” she repeated, one of her hands curling into a fist. “I didn’t know until I found Malec and entombed him. That is when I learned that Isbeth had never been a vampry, that she had Ascended into something else—”
“Something like him,” I cut her off, not even truly caring if she spoke the truth at this point. “When you learned the truth doesn’t matter. What does is that you knew Ileana was Isbeth, and you didn’t tell us. You didn’t prepare us for the fact that we weren’t dealing with a vampry but with something far more powerful than that. That is why your son is not with me.”
“I…” She shook her head, her features beginning to crumble. “Is my son alive?”
Her eyes widened. “W-what do you mean?”
“Are you asking about Malik or Casteel?” I said. “Malik is alive. He’s actually doing just fine, all cozied up with Isbeth.”
She didn’t move. I didn’t think she even breathed. I could’ve broken the news to her in a far kinder way, but she could’ve also told us the whole truth.
“No,” she whispered.
“Yes.” I nodded as Isbeth’s voice haunted my thoughts. “It was him who retrieved Casteel.”
A tear fell from her eye, streaking across her cheek. “Is Casteel alive?”
I lifted my left hand, showing her the glimmering marriage imprint. “He is.” I swallowed hard. “But I’m sure you understand that means very little at this point.”
She shuddered, and I didn’t know if it was from relief or fear. A long moment passed. “Oh, gods,” she whispered on a ragged breath, closing her hands over her face. Her shoulders shook.
Forcing myself to sit back, I waited until she’d pulled herself together…and she did, just like I knew she would. It took a couple of minutes, but her shoulders stilled, and her hands lowered. Puffy, glassy eyes stared out from behind tear-soaked lashes. “It’s my fault.”
“No shit,” I snapped. At least, partially, it was. Because I…I had lost control. I’d given Isbeth the opening she needed.
She flinched. “I…I didn’t want people to know she’d won.”
I stilled. Everything in me stilled. “What?”
“It was…it was my ego. There’s no other way for me to say it. I loved Malec once upon a time. I thought the moon and sun set and rose with him. And she wasn’t like the other women. She sank her claws into him, and I knew…I knew he loved her—loved her more than he loved me. I didn’t want people to know that in the end, even with Malec entombed, she didn’t just win, she became a Queen,” she admitted hoarsely. “Became the Crown that forced us to remain behind the Skotos Mountains, used our people to make monsters, and took—took my children. I didn’t want Casteel to know that the same woman who’d taken my first husband was who’d held him and then his brother. She won in the end, and…she’s still managing to tear my family and kingdom apart.”
Now I was the one struck speechless.
“I was embarrassed,” she continued. “And I didn’t…I know it’s no excuse. It just became something that was never spoken. A lie that became a reality after hundreds of years. Only Valyn and Alastir knew the truth.”
“And their son?” I said. “What did you do with Isbeth and Malec’s son? Did you have him killed? Was it Alastir who carried it out?”
Pressing her lips together, she looked up at the ceiling. “Alastir did. He knew of the child before I even did. Valyn doesn’t know about the child at all.”
I stared at her. “Is that why you didn’t want to go to war? Because doing so would mean that Ileana’s real identity would be revealed, along with everything else?”
“Partly,” she admitted as she wiped the heels of her hands under her eyes. “But also because I didn’t want to see more Atlantians and mortals die.” She lowered trembling hands. “Malik is…is well and—” She cleared her throat. “He’s with her?”
“He appeared well, and he supports the Blood Crown. That is all I know,” I told her, sinking farther into the chair. I didn’t know how much of what she said was the truth now, but I did know that the agony I felt from her hadn’t just been sorrow. I recognized that the agony was partly shame now, something she’d carried for hundreds of years and would continue to shoulder. To be honest, I didn’t know what I would’ve done if I had been in her place. The war between her and Isbeth had started long before the first vampry had been created, and it’d never ended. “Malec wasn’t a deity.”
“I…I can see that.” She sniffed. “I mean, I saw that when you showed Gregori what you were. But I don’t understand. Malec —”
“He lied to you,” I said, spreading my hands along the arms of the chair. “I don’t know why, but he is one of Nyktos’s sons. He’s a god.”
Her surprise couldn’t be fabricated, and it cooled some of my anger. “I didn’t know—”
“I know.” I curled my fingers around the edges of the arms. “Malec confided in Isbeth. She knew.”
Eloana flinched as she let out a low whistle. “That stings more than it should.”