I blew out a thin breath as the knot expanded in my throat. The two words I spoke hurt. “I will.”
“Thank you.” Valyn nodded as he shifted his helmet to his other hand. “We will await your return in the foothills of the Skotos, from the cusp of the Wastelands to the walls of Spessa’s End, Your Majesty.” He bowed and took his leave.
I watched him as he strode back to where his horse waited. I would see him after I sent my message.
“That took a lot for him to ask,” Kieran said, already mounted on his horse.
“I know.” Holding onto Setti’s reins, I swung myself up as Vonetta prowled forward in her wolven form beside Delano.
Several dozen wolven rose from where they rested in the plush grass and the warm rays of the afternoon sun as the gates of the northern wall opened, one after another. Led by Valyn and the Guardians, they rode out in groups of several hundred, their gold and silver armor shining under the morning sun. The sound of a thousand hooves clacked off stone and echoed around us as banners were lifted all the way down the line. My breath caught as I saw the Atlantian Crest. The arrow and sword now crossed over the center.
I inhaled sharply, eyes stinging as the banners rippled in the Atlantian sun. I closed my eyes, telling myself that Casteel would see them.
A low rumble came, a sound similar to thunder. Another higher-pitched, keening call followed. I opened my eyes as the wolven stopped, lifting their heads to the sky. Their ears perked. My one-handed grip on the reins tightened as Setti pranced nervously beneath me as I reached down, placing my hand over the small pouch at my hip. The ridges of the small toy horse pressed against my palm. I stared at the banners, at the crest that represented Casteel and I, as large, winged shadows fell over the armies of Atlantia as they rode west.
Four days later, we waited in the forest outside of Oak Ambler, among the bowed trees. When the last of the sun reached us, and stars came to life in the night sky, I slipped the horse into the pouch and rose from where I’d been sitting on the raised, flat surface of a rock.
“You should’ve slept some,” Delano murmured as he came over to me.
Concern seeped from every one of his pores. I hadn’t lied. Not really. I had slept for an hour or so, and then I was awake and spent those hours like I spent all the hours when we took breaks to rest or eat.
I practiced fighting like a god.
Picking up the short sword, I sheathed it as I looked around with a slight frown. “Where are…?”
“The draken?” Delano’s eyes glimmered with amusement as he nodded to where the cluster of trees still stood straight and proud. “Reaver is over there, currently engaged in an epic stare down with Kieran.”
A faint grin tugged at my lips as I squinted. I could just make out the form of Kieran, lying low on his belly. Several feet from him, a relatively large-sized draken, idly picked at its front teeth with its claws. The draken wasn’t as big as Nektas, but he was the length of five Settis and about three times the width.
Reaver was the one who’d almost bitten Kieran.
I arched a brow. I hadn’t even seen Reaver in his mortal form. Nektas, who’d remained behind in Iliseeum, was the only one I’d seen for any length of time in their mortal form. I’d only learned Reaver’s name because another, a female draken called Aurelia who’d been in her mortal form briefly, had given me their names. She and another were the only two females who’d awakened. Apparently, female draken were rare.
“It’s time,” I called out, securing the hook on my cloak. “Remember the plan.”
A huffing sound came from Reaver as he rose, stretching his large, purplish-black body as he lifted his wings. That made me a wee bit concerned that he would not follow said plan. Kieran rose, and I half-expected him to flounce away from the draken, but he managed a rather sedate prance over to me.
I turned to where Vonetta and the remaining wolven waited with Naill and Emil. “Be safe.”
Steely determination rose from them as I turned and began walking toward the city with Delano at my side, in his mortal form. If things went the way I hoped, there would be no risk to most of the wolven. The crunch of dried leaves alerted me to the progress Kieran made and the rattle of branches above told me that Reaver had taken flight.
Traces of moonlight cut through the bent trees as I glanced down at my left palm. The marriage imprint glowed softly. Closing my hand, I lifted the hood on the cloak just enough that the crown was hidden. I slid my right hand inside my cloak as I saw a row of torches through the bowed limbs.
“I see them,” Delano said quietly. “There’s about a dozen.”
Less than I thought there would be, which was kind of offensive.
Kieran hung back as Delano and I neared the edges of the trees. I could see a line of guards, their mantles blending into the night, even in the moonlight. Knights. My opened senses confirmed as much, but there was another—one who stood off to the side, dressed in black. A younger male with dark hair. I sensed…nothing from him, but it wasn’t the utter emptiness of an Ascended. The one with his arms crossed was not a vampry, and I was willing to bet it was a Revenant.
The knights moved in unison before Delano and I stepped out of the trees, lifting shields with the Royal Crest carved into the metal. Swords were held at their sides. I stared at the crest—a circle with an arrow piercing the center. It symbolized infinity and power, but I realized that I was the arrow on the Atlantian Crest. Not the sword. I now saw the Royal Crest in a whole new light. I smiled.
“I don’t know why you’re smiling,” the Revenant spoke. “I don’t believe things went well for you the last time you were here.”
I flicked a brief glance in his direction. “I truly hope it is not you that they sent to speak with me. If so, I can assure you that tonight will not end well for you.”
The Revenant lifted a dark brow. “Ouch.”
“Stand aside,” came a voice from behind the knights. A voice I hadn’t heard in years.
The knights parted, lowering their shields, and I saw who stood behind them.
The golden hair was longer than I remembered, brushing the tips of his ears, but I recognized the features of a good-looking man—the heavy brow, the straight nose, the square jaw, and the thin lips that I’d rarely ever seen curved into a smile. The ruby crown glinted darkly in the moonlight.
I almost couldn’t believe that I was staring at the Blood King, dressed in a white cloak trimmed in red and black with crimson crisscrossing his chest. She had answered my request and sent the King to meet with me. Laughter rose so quickly, it almost burst free from me, but then I realized that there was only one Revenant among a handful of knights to protect the actual King of Solis. It was obvious that the Blood Crown truly saw me as no threat.
And, well, now I truly was offended.
“Maiden,” King Jalara spoke, and I stiffened. “It has been quite some time, has it not?”
“It has,” I answered, aware of the rise of anger from Delano and where Kieran remained hidden in the shadows of the trees. “A lot has changed, starting with the fact that I am no longer the Maiden.” I lifted my left hand, tugging down the cloak’s hood. “But you already know that.”
There was a slight widening of his eyes. “The gilded crown,” King Jalara murmured, sounding as awed as I’d ever heard an Ascended, which was a lukewarm reaction at best. His jeweled hand winked in the moonlight as his grip on his sword increased. “My, my, my, Penellaphe,” he murmured, eyeing the crown as he stepped forward. “Look at you.”