“Maybe you never stopped loving Malec.”
“Maybe,” she whispered, staring at her lap now. “I love Valyn. I love him dearly and fiercely. I also loved Malec, even though I don’t think I…knew anything about him. But I think Malec will always own a part of my heart.”
And the part owned by Malec would always belong to him, and that was…that was just sad.
“Isbeth is my mother,” I told her, and her eyes shot to mine. “I’m the daughter of her and Malec. And I married your son.”
She paled once more.
“It was a part of her plan,” I continued as Vonetta leaned into my leg. “That I would marry Malik and take Atlantia. With my bloodline and a Prince at my side, there would be absolutely nothing that could be done. But in a twist of fate, I married Casteel instead.”
“Her plan worked, then,” she rasped.
“No, it hasn’t,” I replied. “I will not take Atlantia in her name.”
“She has Malik and Casteel,” she countered, her tone hardening. “How has she not won?”
“She won’t kill them. Malik is helping her, and she can use Casteel against me like she used your sons against Atlantia,” I told her.
Her lips thinned. “I still don’t see how she hasn’t won.”
“Because I’m not you.” I noted the faint wince, and I didn’t even want to feel bad for inflicting it. “I have been used my entire life in one way or another, and I will not be used again. I know what I am now. I know what it means to have had the power in me this whole time. My brother’s death wasn’t in vain. Neither was Lyra’s. I understand now.”
Eloana’s brows puckered. “What are you saying?”
“I can summon Nyktos’s guards, and I will. Isbeth may have her Revenants, her knights, soldiers, and those who support her.” My grip tightened. “But I will have the draken.”
Visibly shaken, it took Eloana a few moments to respond. “Can you even—? I’m sorry. You can. You are a god.” She smoothed a hand over her gown, a nervous habit, I realized. “But are you sure? The draken are a fierce bloodline. There is a reason they went to sleep with Nyktos. Only he can control them.”
“I am his grandchild,” I reasoned, but I really had no idea how the draken would respond. I could only assume that what Nyktos had said also meant that they’d do so favorably. “And I don’t seek to control them. I just need their help.”
Understanding flickered through her. “I thought you and Casteel wanted to prevent war. You won’t once the draken are awakened.”
“By holding Casteel, she thinks she can stay my hand. But, sometimes, war cannot be prevented,” I said, echoing her words—ones I knew the Consort had whispered to me before when I first entered Saion’s Cove.
And that was something I’d realized on the journey back to Atlantia. There would be no more talks or ultimatums. What was to come couldn’t be stopped. It never could be. And in a way, the War of Two Kings had never ended. There had just been a strained truce, like Isbeth had said. All the years Casteel sought to move pieces behind the scenes, to free his brother and gain land for Atlantia hadn’t been wasted. It had given Atlantia time to gain what they didn’t have before.
“No,” Eloana agreed quietly, sadly. “Sometimes, it cannot.”
I glanced to where Hisa stood beside Naill. “Can you please send word to the Blood Crown that I will meet with them in the woods outside of Oak Ambler by the end of next week?” I told her. “Make sure they understand that whoever they send had better be fit to receive a Queen. That I will only speak to her or to the King.”
The corners of the commander’s lips curved up as she bowed at the waist. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
“A message?” Eloana asked. “What are you planning?”
“First, I brought my friend back from Solis. The one I believed to have Ascended. She hasn’t, but she was wounded with what I believe was shadowstone, and my abilities aren’t working on her.” I dragged my palms over my knees. “Delano took Tawny to one of the rooms and summoned a Healer. I would ask that you look after her. She is…” I inhaled deeply. “She was my first friend.”
Eloana nodded. “Of course. I will do all that I can to help her.”
“Thank you.” I cleared my throat. “I’m going to take a bath.” A shower was… I couldn’t do that and not think of Casteel, and the only way I was surviving currently was by not thinking of him. “I’m going to Iliseeum. Once I return, I will send the Blood Queen the kind of message only Casteel would be proud of.”
“Knowing what my son would be proud of,” she said, voice thickening, “I can only imagine what kind of message that will be.”
I felt my lips curve up in a tight, savage smile. “And then I’m going to finish what you started centuries ago. I will return these lands to Atlantia, and I will return with my King at my side.”
Golden eyes locked with mine. “And if you fail?”
I slept for a few hours and ate a couple of mouthfuls of food only because I had to. Then I dressed in breeches and a simple white shirt that belonged to Casteel. It was far too large, but the black bodice worn over the shirt kept me from swimming in it.
Many tunics and shirts of mine now lined the walk-in wardrobe, but it felt good to have Casteel’s shirt against my skin. And he’d liked it when I wore the bodice like this the…the last time I’d seen him.
I stopped at the bed, my gaze straying to the nightstand, to the little wooden horse. My heart squeezed. I hurried over to it, taking the toy in my hands. In the chest by the doorway, I found a pouch. Placing the horse in it, I left the bedchamber and then the quarters as I tied the bag to my waist.
I checked on Tawny, finding her the way I’d left her—asleep and far too still. The dark veins had traveled to the curve of her chin. Eloana sat at her side. “I summoned Willa,” she said, and the breath I took was painful. “She will bring one of the oldest Healers. He will know how to treat her.”
“Thank you,” I said, inhaling and exhaling slowly.
She nodded. “Be careful, Penellaphe.”
“Always,” I whispered and then left the room, my chest aching.
Kieran waited for me in the foyer, and from there, we joined Hisa in the Temple of Nyktos. It would only be the two of us who made the trip this time. Vonetta would remain as their parents were en route to Evaemon with their new sibling. I’d told Kieran that he should stay, but that had gone in one ear and out the other, even when I pulled the Queen card and then the I-am-a-god-obey-me line. He insisted on accompanying me, claiming that none of the others would remember the path we’d taken last time. Maybe he was right. Maybe he just couldn’t sleep or stay still either, his thoughts swirling from one horrific possibility to another. What if my plan failed? What if the draken refused? What if she hurt Casteel? What if he needed to feed? What if I needed…to feed? What would I do? I couldn’t even think about drinking another’s blood. What if I lost him? What if he lost himself again?