“They…some of them are crying,” I whispered.
“I think they feared I was dead,” he remarked. “It has been quite some time since I’ve been home.”
I wasn’t sure if that was the reason. From what I’d seen in New Haven and Spessa’s End, he was well loved and respected by his people. My throat tightened as I looked around, seeing a blur of ecstatic, smiling faces. Nothing like this happened when the Ascended rode through their towns. Not even when the Queen or King moved about in public, which if I remembered correctly, had been rare. There had always been silence.
People jerked to a stop, their cheers falling to whispers. At first, I didn’t understand what the cause was.
They must’ve fallen back at some point, but now they returned to our sides. They prowled the street and swept over the sidewalks, moving between mortals and Atlantians alike. They didn’t snarl or snap, but their bodies were clearly tense.
My skin prickled with awareness as gazes moved from Casteel to the wolven and then to me. I stiffened, feeling their stares on my bloodied and dirtied clothing and the bruises surely visible. The scars.
“I would’ve taken a different route to Jasper’s home if it was possible,” Casteel told me, his voice low as we turned onto a road where the buildings reached for the clouds, and the crystal-clear waters of the Seas of Saion began to peek out from behind structures. I’d forgotten the offer Jasper had made at the Chambers. It was telling that Casteel rode there and not to his family’s holdings. “But this is the least populated way.”
This was the least populated area? There had to be…gods, there had to be thousands on the streets now, appearing in windows, and coming to stand out on ivy-smothered balconies and terraces.
“I know this is a lot,” he continued. “And I’m sorry we couldn’t delay this.”
I reached down to where his hand rested lightly on my hip. This time, I didn’t stop myself. I folded my hand over his and squeezed.
Casteel turned his hand over, returning the gesture. We didn’t let go of each other’s hands.
Part of me wanted to look away, to not allow myself to sense what the people were feeling, but that would make me a coward. I let my senses remain open, to stretch out just enough to get the briefest glimpse of their emotions in case I lost control of…whatever I was truly capable of. My pounding heart and wild thoughts made it difficult to concentrate, but after a few moments, I tasted…the tartness of confusion, and the lighter, springy flavor of curiosity coming from the people of Atlantia.
There was no fear.
Just curiosity and confusion. I hadn’t expected that. Not after the Temple. My body sank against Casteel’s, and I rested my head against his chest. The crowd’s emotions could change once they learned what I’d done, and what I may or may not be. But right now, I wasn’t going to worry about that. I started to close my eyes when deep blue fabric snagged my attention.
A white-haired woman stood on a balcony of one of the high-rise buildings, the wind tugging at the blue gown she wore. Holding onto a black railing, she slowly lowered herself to one knee and placed her fist over her thin chest. Her head bowed as the wind whipped her snowy hair. On another balcony, a man with gray hair in a long, thick braid, did the same. And on the sidewalks…
Men and women whose skin and bodies bore the signs of age lowered themselves to their knees, among those who stood.
“Liessa!” a man shouted, slamming a hand against the sidewalk, startling me. “Meyaah Liessa!”
Setti’s head reared as two children raced out from one of the buildings—one of them no more than five years old—their long, brown hair streaming out from behind them. One of them shifted right there, pitching forward as white-and-brown-streaked fur erupted from the skin. The wolven was so tiny as it yipped and bounced, ears flopping as the older child by only a year or so ran beside the pup.
Casteel’s grip on Setti tightened as the child shouted, “Liessa! Liessa!”
Liessa. I had heard that before when I’d had that nightmare in the Skotos Mountains and heard Delano’s voice. He’d said those words. Or I had dreamed him saying them, at least.
An older child grabbed the younger one and turned, chasing after the one who’d shifted. Younger men and women appeared on the sidewalks and above, babies held to their hips as they lowered to their knees. Shock rolled out from others in icy waves as the chant of “Liessa” grew in volume.
“What does that mean?” I asked Casteel as another small child shifted into a fuzzy little thing that was nudged back onto the sidewalk by one of the larger wolven following us. The little girl or guy nipped and then promptly started chasing its tail. “Liessa?”
“It’s old Atlantian. The language of the gods,” Casteel said, his voice rough. He cleared his throat as he squeezed my hand again. “Meyaah Liessa. It means: my Queen.”
Jasper’s home sat atop a bluff that overlooked the sea and a large swath of the city’s homes. Only the high-rises and a palatial home on another cliff rose higher. I assumed the latter was the King and Queen’s residence, and I had no idea if they had arrived in Saion’s Cove yet or if they’d heard the shouts.
That was one of those three things I had managed not to dwell on since I woke in the hunting cabin. Queen. I couldn’t process that, and I wasn’t even going to try as I scanned the hanging stems of white and violet flowers dangling from numerous woven baskets strung halfway up the walls of the courtyard. Not until I bathed, slept, and got some food in my stomach.
As we neared the stables, the center of the courtyard drew my gaze. Water splashed and spilled over tiered levels of a water fountain crafted from stone the color of midnight and even more reflective than the material used to build the Temples in Solis.
A man in tan breeches and a loose white shirt hurried from one of the stables. His gaze bounced from Jasper and Kieran to Casteel. Surprise flickered through him. He bowed deeply. “Your Highness.”
“Harlan,” Casteel acknowledged. “I know it’s been quite a bit of time since you’ve seen me, but you don’t have to call me that.”
I couldn’t help but try to imagine any of the Ascended—let alone the King or Queen—allowing such familiarity. Those who hadn’t greeted Duke Teerman formally tended to disappear shortly thereafter.
Harlan nodded as Jasper dismounted. “Yes, Your—” He caught himself with a sheepish smile. “Yes, it has been a while.”
As the man took Setti’s reins, I saw that his eyes were a dark brown. He was either mortal or of the changeling bloodline. I wanted to ask, but that seemed like a rather impolite question. He looked up at me, his gaze briefly lingering on my face before moving on.
“Harlan, I would like to introduce you to someone extremely important to me,” Casteel said as Kieran faced us. “This is my wife, Penellaphe.”
Despite everything, my heart still did a silly little leap.
“Your wife?” The male blinked once and then twice. A toothy grin spread across his face. “Congratulations, Your— Congratulations. Wow. I don’t know what is more surprising. Your return or that you’re married.”