“He likes to go big or go home,” Kieran commented as he patted his horse’s side. “In case you’ve forgotten that.”
Harlan chuckled as he scratched at his mop of blond hair. “I guess I have.” He looked at me again. “It’s an honor to meet you, Your Highness.” He bowed then with far more flourish.
Kieran raised his brow at me as he mouthed, Your Highness.
If I weren’t so tired and uninterested in making a second bad first impression, I would’ve jumped from Setti and punched the wolven in the face. Hard. Instead, I unglued my tongue from the roof of my mouth. “Thank you,” I managed, hoping I didn’t sound as strange to him as I did to myself. “You don’t have to call me that either. Penellaphe is fine.”
The male grinned, but I had a feeling my suggestion went in one ear and skipped right out the other.
“Setti has been on the road for quite some time. He could use some extra care,” Casteel commented, thankfully drawing the attention away from me.
“I will make sure he and the others receive it.” Harlan held onto the reins as he rubbed the side of Setti’s muzzle.
Casteel leapt down with a fluid grace that made me wonder if he were a pit of endless energy and then immediately reached for me. I took his hands, and he lifted me from the saddle, placing me on the ground beside him. His hands slid to my hips and lingered there. I looked up at him, and he bent down, pressing his lips to my forehead. The sweet kiss tugged at my heart.
“Just a couple of more minutes,” he murmured as he tucked several tangled strands of hair over my shoulder. “And we’ll be alone.”
I nodded. His arm stayed around me as we turned.
Kieran and Jasper had stopped in front of us, but the wolven not in their mortal forms caught and held my attention. They had followed us into the courtyard, and there were…gods, there had to be hundreds of them. They prowled along the stables and the estate. Dozens leapt onto the walls of the courtyard. Others climbed the wide steps of the manor and stood between the pillars. They parted, creating a path between us and the bronze doors. But before Casteel or I could move, they shifted. All of them at once. Fur thinned and gave way to flesh. Bones cracked and shrank, fusing back together. Limbs straightened and claws retracted into nails. Within seconds, they stood in their mortal forms. There was a whole lot of skin on display. More than I ever needed to see. My cheeks started to heat as I struggled not to look, well…anywhere. I started to ask Casteel what was happening, but the wolven moved simultaneously.
Right hands balled into fists. They placed them over the center of their chests and then sank onto one knee, lowering their heads as the ones on the street had done. All of them—the wolven in the courtyard, the ones on the wall, on the steps and between the pillars.
I felt a little dizzy as Jasper and Kieran turned to us and followed suit.
“They have never done that for me,” Casteel remarked under his breath.
Kieran lifted his head just enough for me to see that he smirked.
“I don’t know why they’re doing it for me.”
He glanced down at me, his brows knitted. “It’s because you have the blood—”
“I know,” I said, my heart starting to pound again. “I know, but…” How could I put into words how crazy this was to me? People bowed before me as the Maiden, but this was different, and it had nothing to do with the fact that naked people prostrated themselves before me.
Though, that seemed important, too.
Kieran rose, meeting Casteel’s stare. He nodded. I had no idea how they communicated to one another if there was no bond. Hell, I had no idea how they did it when there had been one. He said something to Jasper, and his father shifted back into his wolven form. The others followed suit, and again, I was left wondering how they all acted in unison. I watched them move away from the home, spreading out through the courtyard and beyond the walls, wondering if it was some sort of instinctual drive or something beyond that.
Casteel’s hand dropped to the center of my back as he started forward. “Well, that was fun, wasn’t it?”
I looked up at him, my brows raised. “That was a lot of…nakedness.”
A half-grin appeared as he looked down at me.
“You’ll get used to it,” Kieran stated as he climbed the steps.
I wasn’t so sure about that.
“More like you’re sort of forced to,” Casteel said as Kieran walked in through the open doors. “Wolven tend to find clothing cumbersome.”
I thought about all the breeches and shirts they seemed to go through, and I could sort of understand why they felt that way.
A warm breeze stirred gauzy curtains as Kieran led us past several large sitting rooms full of oversized chairs in vibrant hues. The air carried a hint of cinnamon that lingered as we followed him into a canopied breezeway. I didn’t see any sign of Kieran’s mother or anyone else, and I wondered if she was among the wolven who had been outside.
We ended up back inside, in a different wing of the house, walking down another long, seemingly never-ending hall. My steps slowed, and I sighed as we passed yet another door. “How many people live here?”
“Depends on the time of year,” Kieran answered. “At times, every room is filled, and we have a lot who come and go, those in need of temporary housing.”
“Oh,” I answered, internally sobbing when we passed two more doors. “How long is this hallway?”
“Not much longer,” he said, and Casteel’s hand moved in a slow, comforting circle on my back. A moment later, the hall curved, and I saw the end—thank the gods. Kieran stopped in front of cream-colored double doors. “I figured you’d want to stay in your old rooms.”
“You’ve stayed here a lot?” I asked as Casteel’s hand slipped from my back. I missed the weight of it immediately.
He nodded, opening one side of the doors. “My parents don’t come here a lot, and especially not after everything happened with Malik,” he answered, and I thought that made sense. “I’d rather be here than in an empty estate.”
I couldn’t even imagine how big his parents’ home here or in the capital was if this was the size of Jasper’s.
“I’ll make sure your bags are brought in from the stables,” Kieran offered.
“That would be amazing. Thank you.” Casteel glanced at him as he reached over, taking my hand. “We’re going to need some time before we have visitors.”
A wry grin appeared on Kieran’s face. “I’ll make sure my mother understands that.”
For some reason, my stomach flip-flopped at the thought of meeting Kieran’s mother.
Kieran slipped away then, and he did so with impressive quickness. Maybe he was half-afraid I would start asking questions. Little did he know, he didn’t have to worry about that. I shuffled into the room as Casteel nudged the door open farther.
Where was the bed?
That was all I could think as I walked across the cream-colored tile floors into the space where a pearly-hued settee and two wide chairs were situated in the middle. Behind the sitting area was a table with marble legs carved into vines, and two high-backed dining chairs upholstered in a thick gray material. A chaise lounge was positioned in front of closed, lattice doors, and above, a ceiling fan churned lazily.