Stars shone across the sky as the rippling light of numerous torches became visible through the soaring trees, casting an orangey glow over columned sides nearly as tall as the surrounding cypress.
Kieran joined his father as they darted between the trees, racing toward the wide steps of the enclosed Temple. People stood on the colonnade, dressed in black, and I knew without asking that these were Casteel’s men and Guardians of Atlantia. Those he trusted.
As several of the wolven climbed the steps, Casteel slowed Setti. “We will most likely see my father first. He needs to see that you didn’t Ascend.”
I nodded as nervous energy and something rawer buzzed within me.
“Then we will handle Alastir,” Casteel continued, the arm around my waist shifting. His hand slid across my stomach, leaving shivers in its wake. “I’ve gotten all I can get out of Alastir that will be of use to us, so you know how tonight will end?”
Nervousness settled as resolve crept over me. I knew how tonight would end. Determination inked itself onto my skin, carving its way into my bones and filling the center of my chest. My chin lifted. “With death.”
“By your hand or mine?” he asked, his lips grazing the curve of my jaw.
Casteel and I climbed the steps to the Temple of Saion, our hands joined. Nearly two dozen wolven prowled the colonnade while Jasper and Kieran stood in front of doors as black as the sky and nearly as tall as the Temple.
The tartness of uncertainty and the fresher, lemony flavor of curiosity saturated the air as those waiting between the columns took notice of Casteel and then me. Whatever Casteel had sensed that was different about me, they felt it, too. I saw it in the way the Guardians stiffened, their hands reaching for their scabbards and then halting as their heads tilted to the side while they tried to understand what it was they sensed. I felt no fear from any of them, not the Guardians or the others. I wanted to ask one of them what they felt when they looked at me—what made them first go for their swords but then stop. However, Casteel’s grip tightened on my hand, preventing me from wandering over to one of the women—which I had apparently been in the process of doing.
Then again, only the gods knew what I looked like at the moment with my hair a curly, knotted mess, the too-tight breeches and boots, and Casteel’s cloak over a too large, borrowed tunic. It was quite possible they thought I was a Craven.
One of the Atlantians stepped forward as we reached the top of the steps. It was Emil, his auburn hair redder in the torchlight as his gaze slid from Casteel to me. His nostrils flared as his throat worked on a swallow. His handsome face paled slightly as he clasped the hilt of his sword, bowing slightly at the waist. “I am relieved to see you here, Your Highness.”
I gave a small jerk. The use of the formal title caught me a little off guard, and it took me a moment to remember that as Casteel’s wife, that was my formal title. It had nothing to do with the whole issue with the Crown. “As am I,” I said, smiling. Another ripple of shock came from Emil as he looked at me as if he couldn’t quite believe I was standing there. Considering the state I had been in the last time he’d seen me, I couldn’t blame him for that. “Thank you for your help.”
The same look Naill had given me earlier when I’d thanked him crossed the Atlantian’s face, but he inclined his head with a nod. He turned to Casteel. “Your father is inside and isn’t exactly thrilled.”
“I bet,” Casteel murmured.
One side of Emil’s lips curved up as Naill joined us. “And neither are the handful of Atlantians and mortals who found their way here, attempting to free Alastir.”
“And how did that go?” Casteel demanded.
“It was a little…bloody.” Emil’s eyes glowed in the torchlight as he looked at his Prince. “Those who are still alive are being kept with Alastir for your…enjoyment.”
A tight, dark smile appeared as Casteel tipped back his head. “Has anyone else become aware that my father’s being held here?”
“No,” Emil answered. “Your mother and the Guards of the Crown believe he is still with you.”
“Perfect.” Casteel looked over at me. “Ready?”
Emil started to step back but stopped. “I almost forgot.” He reached to his side and under his tunic. I stiffened at the low rumble of warning as Jasper took a step forward, his head lowering. Casteel shifted ever so slightly beside me, his body tensing. The Atlantian shot a nervous glance over his shoulder at the large wolven. “This belongs to her,” he said. “I’m just giving it back.”
I looked down to see him withdraw a blade—one that gleamed reddish black in the firelight. Air lodged in my throat as he flipped it over, offering me the bone handle. It was my bloodstone dagger. The one Vikter had gifted me on my sixteenth birthday. Other than the memories of the man who risked his career and most likely his life to make sure I could defend myself, it was the only thing I had left of him.
“How…?” I cleared my throat as I closed my fingers around the cold wolven bone. “How did you find it?”
“By pure luck, I think,” he said, immediately stepping back and nearly bumping into Delano, who had silently crept up behind him. “When I and a few others went back to look for evidence, I saw it lying under the blood tree.”
I swallowed the knot in my throat. “Thank you.”
Emil nodded as Casteel clasped the Atlantian on the shoulder. I held onto the dagger, slipping it under the cloak I wore as we walked forward, crossing the wide colonnade. A young, slim male stood against the wall, and I almost didn’t recognize the somber, soft, almost fragile lines of Quentyn Da’Lahr’s face. He wasn’t smiling—he wasn’t chattering away, brimming with energy like he normally was as he came toward us with hesitant steps. The moment my senses connected with his emotions, the tang of his anguish took my breath. There was uncertainty in him and the sourness of guilt, but there was also an undercurrent of something…bitter. Fear. My chest seized as my senses rapidly attempted to decipher whether his fear was directed at me or… Then I remembered that he had been close to Beckett. The two had been friends. Did he know what had happened to his friend? Or did he still believe that Beckett had been involved in the attack? I wasn’t sure, but I couldn’t believe that Quentyn had been involved. He wouldn’t be standing here if he were.
Casteel’s cool amber gaze shifted to the young Atlantian, but before he could speak, Quentyn dropped to one knee, bowing his golden head before us. “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice carrying a slight tremor. “I did not know what Beckett was going to do. If I had, I would’ve stopped—”
“You have nothing to apologize for,” I spoke, unable to allow the young Atlantian to carry guilt that was so very wrongly placed. I realized that the others must not have learned what had truly happened. “Beckett was guilty of nothing.”
“But he…” Quentyn lifted his head, his golden eyes wet. “He led you to the Chambers and—”
“That wasn’t him,” Casteel explained. “Beckett committed no crime against Penellaphe or me.”
“I don’t understand.” Confusion and relief echoed through the Atlantian as he rose unsteadily to his feet. “Then where has he been, Your Highness—I mean, Casteel? Is he with you?”