“Same.” His gaze met mine and he smiled again, but it didn’t reach his eyes as he studied me. “Poppy.”
“What?” Wondering if I was starting to glow, I glanced down at my skin and saw that it appeared normal.
“You’re not a monster,” he said, and that nice, deep breath got lodged in my throat. “Not today. Not tomorrow. Not an eternity from now, if that is the case.”
I smiled at his words, my heart swelling. I knew he believed that. I could taste his sincerity, but I also knew that when Alastir had spoken of the deities, he hadn’t been lying. He’d told the truth, whether or not it was the one he believed or the real story. Still, others alive today had been around the deities. They would know if it truly was because they had grown too old and too embittered—or if it was something else.
Casteel’s parents would know.
“I know it’s a little hard to move on from that topic,” Kieran began, and for some reason, I wanted to laugh at the dryness of his tone.
“No, I want to move on from that,” I said, pushing some hair back that had fallen once more. “I kind of need to so my head doesn’t explode.”
A wry grin appeared on Kieran’s face. “We wouldn’t want that to happen. It would be far too messy, and there are no more clean towels,” he said, and I laughed lightly. His pale eyes warmed. “Did Jansen speak of anyone else who could be involved? Cas compelled Alastir to tell us all he knew, but either he truly had no idea of who else was involved, or they were smart enough to make sure most of their identities weren’t known.”
“As if they had planned for someone to use compulsion?” I said, and they nodded. That was smart.
Pressing my lips together, I thought through the conversations with them. “No. No one by name, but both spoke as if they were a part of an…organization or something. I don’t know. I think Alastir mentioned a brotherhood, and all of the ones I saw, except for when I first arrived in the Chambers, were male—at least from what I could tell. I don’t know if they were truly a part of what Alastir spoke of or if they were somehow manipulated into their actions. But I do know that Alastir must have been working with the Ascended. He insinuated that they knew what I was capable of and that they planned to use me against Atlantia.” I told them what Alastir believed the Ascended would do, my mind always drudging up the memory of the Duchess.
“He figured that the Ascended would kill me when I attacked them, but he also had a backup plan. I didn’t get it when he said that I would never be free again. He must’ve given the others an order to kill me if the plan with the Ascended failed. He said he’d rather see a war among his people than have me…unleashed upon the people.”
“He’s a fucking idiot,” Casteel growled, rising from the bed. “Part of me wanted to give Alastir the benefit of the doubt at first in the Chambers. That he wouldn’t be that fucking stupid.”
“I don’t think any of us thought he’d do something like this,” Kieran said. “To go as far as to betray you—your parents. Kill Beckett? That’s not the man I know.”
Casteel cursed again, dragging a hand through his hair. Sadness settled on my shoulders. I couldn’t stop the image of Beckett in his wolven form, tail wagging as he bounded alongside us as we arrived in Spessa’s End. Anger mixed with the distress. “I’m sorry.”
Casteel turned to me. “What do you have to apologize for?”
“You respect and care for Alastir. I know it has to bother you.”
“It does, but it is what it is.” He tilted his head to the side. “But it would not be the first betrayal by one who shares his blood.”
An ache pierced my chest, even though he had his emotions locked down. “And that makes me even more sorry because you spent the last several decades protecting him from the truth.”
A muscle flexed in Casteel’s jaw, and a long moment passed before Kieran said, “I believe Alastir cares for your family, but he is loyal to the kingdom first and foremost. Then to Casteel’s parents, and then to himself and Malik. The only reason I can come up with for why he’d be involved in something like this is that he somehow realized what you were before anyone else did, and he knew what that meant for Atlantia and for the Crown.”
I hadn’t told them about Alastir’s involvement, and I didn’t think that was something that would’ve even come during compulsion. My stomach tightened, and the center of my chest hummed.
“It’s because he did know.”
Both of them stared at me.
“He was there the night the Craven attacked the inn. He was there to help my parents relocate to Atlantia,” I said, shaking my head. “They trusted him. Told him what I could do, and he knew then what it meant. He said that my parents knew what the Ascended were doing—that my mother was a…a Handmaiden.” I looked at Casteel to see that he’d stilled.
“I didn’t remember them until he mentioned them, but then I recalled seeing these women dressed in black that were often around Queen Ileana. I don’t know if that memory was true.”
Tension bracketed Casteel’s mouth. “The Handmaidens are real. They are the Blood Queen’s private guards and cohorts,” he said, and I shuddered. “I don’t know if your mother was one of them. I don’t see how she could have been. You said she didn’t defend herself, and those women were trained in every manner of death known.”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I don’t remember her fighting, but…” I had gotten those glimpses of her holding something in her hand that night. “I really don’t know, but Alastir said that he didn’t kill them. That something else led the Craven there. He said the Dark One did. Not you, but someone else.”
“That sounds like a load of bullshit,” Kieran muttered. “Also sounds like he got lucky with the Craven showing up to do his dirty work.”
I agreed, but again, there were those glimpses that lingered on the fringes of my consciousness. They were like smoke, though. When I tried to grab them, they slipped through my fingers.
I sighed. “Much of the way he behaved toward me was an act.” That hurt, because Alastir…he reminded me a little bit of Vikter. “He came to me more than once to ask if I wanted aid in escaping. That he wouldn’t be party to me being forced into a marriage. I thought that meant he was a good man.”
“It could’ve been a genuine offer at first,” Kieran said. “Who knows?”
“And his offer held an ulterior motive later?” I looked over at Casteel. “Do you not find it odd that he wanted you to marry his great-niece?”
“It wasn’t just him,” Casteel stated. “It was also my father.”
“And he is your father’s advisor,” I pointed out. “It’s just strange to me that he would want that when you were engaged to his daughter. Maybe it’s not that odd since so many years have passed, but I just…it’s weird to me.”
“It is odd but not unheard of.” His eyes squinted thoughtfully. “I can think of several examples of widows and widowers becoming involved with siblings of the deceased years later.”