“I know that. I did nothing to cause any of this,” I told him, speaking the truth. I didn’t blame myself for other people’s actions, but I was still a disruptive presence, whether I intended to be or not. It was a different kind of guilt.
We fell silent as my gaze shifted beyond Kieran to the sprawling city of Saion’s Cove. Ivory and sand-colored buildings—some square and others circular—gleamed under the fading sun, dotting the sweeping, rolling hills and valleys. Some structures were as wide as they were tall, sitting closer to the ground. Once again, it reminded me of the Temples in Solis, but these were not made out of the black, reflective stone that those were. These captured the sun, worshipped it. Other buildings were taller than even Castle Teerman, their sleek towers sweeping gracefully into the sky. And every rooftop I could see was covered in green. Trees rose from them, and vines spilled from the rooftops, all bursting with vivid pink, blue, and purple flowers.
Saion’s Cove was nearly the size of Carsodonia, and this was just one of Atlantia’s cities. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what Evaemon, the capital of Atlantia, must look like.
The first signs of life we saw were from the farms just outside the city. Cows and fluffy sheep grazed in the fields. Goats nibbled at weeds and low-hanging branches near the road. Orchards bearing yellow fruit were mixed among various crops, and seated back from the main road, cream-colored walls of homes peeked out from behind mossy cypress trees. Many buildings were there, among the trees, all of them spaced apart and large enough to house a decent-sized family. This was nothing like Masadonia or Carsodonia, where sprawling manors and estates were prevalent, and the workers either traveled from the city or stayed in barely livable huts on the properties.
The livestock took no notice of the wolven that followed us as we passed the farms. Perhaps they were used to their presence or sensed they were of no threat to them. Had the farmers or people in the city heard the wolven in the middle of the night as they came to the Temple of Saion? That must have been a sound to wake up to.
But thoughts of the wolven’s howls fell to the wayside as nervous energy jolted my system. The city suddenly appeared before us.
There were no gates, no inner walls or buildings heavily stacked upon one another. The scent of people forced to live in cramped, narrow spaces didn’t stain the air. That was the first thing one smelled when entering either Masadonia or Carsodonia. It always reminded me of misery and desperation, but Saion’s Cove smelled of fruit from the nearby orchards, and salt from the sea. The farmlands and moss-strewn cypresses simply transitioned into the city, and that was a statement.
There was no separation between those who fed the city and the tables that food sat on.
Seeing that brought forth a rush of faith and possibility, and I sat a little straighter. I didn’t know much about Atlantian politics, and I knew the kingdom wasn’t without problems. They were quickly becoming overpopulated, something Casteel hoped to alleviate through negotiations with Solis officials and by reclaiming the lands east of New Haven—a large and mostly uninhabited chunk of Solis. Some may not even notice how significant this one difference was, but it was huge. And it was proof that if Atlantia could do it, so could Solis.
But how could that happen? If Casteel and I were successful in overthrowing the Blood Crown, Solis would remain as it was, only safer for mortals because only the Ascended who agreed to control their thirst would survive. But the power remained with the wealthy. And the wealthiest were among the Ascended. They thrived in a stratified system, which would be harder to break than stopping the Rites and the murders of innocents.
And could the majority of the Ascended be trusted to change? Would the new King and Queen who replaced the ones who currently ruled the Blood Crown even agree? Would Solis really be any different? We had to try, though. It was the only way to avoid war and prevent further destruction and countless deaths. First, we had to convince Queen Ileana and King Jalara that, unlike what the Duchess had claimed about my union with the Prince, it would be the Ascended’s undoing and not the downfall of Atlantia. Both the Duchess and Alastir were wrong—and dead.
In a way, the Ascended had kickstarted their downfall by creating the Maiden and convincing the people of Solis that I had been Chosen by the gods—gods the mortals believed were very much awake and constantly vigilant. The Ascended had made me their figurehead and a symbol of Solis to the people they controlled through manipulation. My marriage to Casteel would serve two purposes. It would prove that the Atlantians were not responsible for the plague known as the Craven—another lie the Ascended had spun to cover their evil deeds and to incite fear to make controlling people easier. And the people of Solis would believe the gods had approved of the Chosen joining with an Atlantian. Because of their lies, we held the upper hand. The only way any Ascended could remain in power was if they understood that. Because if they turned against me, their entire kingdom of lies would crack underneath them. Casteel had been right when he’d said that Queen Ileana was clever. She was. She had to agree. We would prevent a catastrophic war and maybe be able to reshape Solis in the process—for the better.
But a voice inside me, a strange one that sounded a lot like mine but wasn’t and came from the same place that ancient thing in me had seemed to awaken, existed deep in the very core of my being. What that voice whispered left me unsettled and cold with dread.
Sometimes war cannot be prevented.
Two large coliseums sat on either side of the road we traveled on, reminding me of the ruins in Spessa’s End. Statues of the gods lined the interior of the columns and the outer walls farthest from the road were higher, full of rows and rows of seats. Bouquets full of bright purple flowers sat on each of the steps leading into the structures. They were empty, as were the smaller pavilions we passed, their gold and blue canopies rippling softly in the warm breeze, and in the windowed and roofed buildings, but it didn’t stay that way.
“Casteel,” Kieran said, his voice carrying a tone of warning.
“I know.” Casteel’s arm tightened around me. “I was hoping we’d be able to make it farther before we were noticed. That’s clearly not going to happen. These streets are about to fill.”
That odd voice inside me and the unease it stirred quickly faded as people slowly and cautiously ventured outside. Men. Women. Children. They didn’t seem to notice Jasper or Kieran, as if the sight of the former shirtless on horseback was a common occurrence. And maybe it was. Instead, they stared up at Casteel and me with wide eyes. Confusion radiated from anyone I looked at. Everyone appeared frozen, and then an older man in blue yelled, “Our Prince! Prince Casteel! Our Prince returns!”
A gasp went through the crowd like a gust of wind. Doors of shops and homes alike opened down the road. They must not have known that Casteel had recovered from the shadowshade flower. I wondered exactly what knowledge they had of what had occurred in the Chambers of Nyktos. Had the blood rain not fallen on the city? Surely, they had seen the trees of Aios, even though soaring buildings now blocked the mountains.
Shouts of excitement and cheers filled the streets as people clamored and spilled out of buildings or leaned from windows above. Arms rose and trembled as some yelled Casteel’s name, and others praised the gods. An older man dropped to his knees and clasped his hands together against his chest. He wept. And he wasn’t the only one. Women. Men. Many openly cried as they yelled his name. Casteel shifted behind me as my eyes grew to the size of the sun. I…I’d never seen anything like this. Ever.