The ​Crown of Gilded Bones

Page 61

“In a way, they were mimicking what Nyktos had done,” Kieran added as he wiped the back of his hand across his face. “It was obviously a fairly lame attempt, but whatever.”

“How did the wolven feel about that?” I wondered aloud.

“I don’t think it bothered them at the time,” Casteel’s father answered as Jasper prowled around us, constantly searching for signs of intruders. “Both the Unseen and the wolven had the same goals then: protect the deities. Or at least that was what the wolven believed.”

Had the same goals then. It was obvious that those goals had splintered and changed.

“The Unseen were nothing like the wolven. They were more like a group of extremists,” Casteel said. “They would attack anyone they believed was a threat to the deities, even if the person was simply raising questions or disagreed with what the deities wanted.”

“That reminds me of the Ascended.” My bare toes curled against the stone. “You couldn’t question anything. If you did, you were seen as a Descenter, and that didn’t end well for you. But if the Unseen were designed to protect the deities, then why would they come after me?”

“Because that was how they started. It wasn’t how they ended.” His gaze briefly met mine. “The Unseen swore an oath to the Crown and to the kingdom but not the heads those crowns sat upon. Eventually, they turned on the deities. What caused it is still unclear, but they began to believe that some of the deities’ choices regarding the mortals were no longer in the best interests of Atlantia.”

Immediately, I thought of Alastir and Jansen. That was what both had claimed. That what they’d done was in the best interest of their kingdom.

“So they were disbanded,” King Valyn continued. “Or at least that’s what everyone has believed for at least a thousand years.”

“You really believe Alastir was involved with them?” Casteel asked with a sneer. “A group of men who feel emasculated by the fact that the actual Guardians of Atlantia are all female, so they desperately cling to their special, secret group?”

“Alastir said he belonged to a brotherhood of sorts,” I reminded Casteel. “He called himself a Protector of Atlantia.”

“I had no knowledge of Alastir’s involvement in any of this before the attack at the Chambers,” his father said. “But after seeing those masks at the ruins, I began to wonder if it was the Unseen. If they have returned, and if they are behind much more.”

I thought of what Kieran had shared with me before. Casteel was thinking along the same lines. “You’re talking about the destroyed crops, fires, and vandalism?”

His father’s lips were pressed into a hard line as he nodded.

“We don’t think they’ve been active this entire time,” Hisa said. “Or if they have been practicing, they weren’t acting upon any perceived notions of oaths. That’s changed, however. And it changed before news of the Prince’s…” She trailed off, her brow pinching as she appeared to search for how to phrase what she wanted to say next. “It changed before news of our Prince’s entanglement with you.”

Entanglement sounded vastly less awkward than capture, so I had to give it to her. She knew how to be tactful.

“How can you be sure they are responsible for the vandalism?” Kieran asked.

“The mask.” Hisa lifted the one she still held. “We found one of them at the site of a fire that destroyed several homes near the water. We weren’t sure it was connected—there is still no hard evidence. But with this?” She looked around the now-empty courtyard. “And them wearing these masks at the ruins? They have to be connected.”

“I think it is,” I said. “It reminds me of the Ascended. They used fear, half-truths, and outright lies to control the people of Solis. They would often create hysteria like the Duke did after the attack on the Rise. Remember?” I glanced at Casteel, who nodded. “Placing the blame of the Craven attack on the Descenters when, in reality, they had been the ones to create those monsters. But by doing so, by creating unrest and suspicion among the people, it made them easier to control. Because the people were too busy pointing fingers at one another rather than joining together and looking toward the Ascended as the root of their woes.” I tucked a strand of my hair back, unused to having so many listening—so many looking at me.

“I was just thinking that if the Unseen were behind the destruction of crops and vandalism, they could be doing it to create more unrest—to get people angry or suspicious, just in time for them to provide someone to blame for what is happening.”

“That someone being you?” the King asked.

Tension crept into my muscles. “It appears that way.”

King Valyn inclined his head as he studied me. “Unrest and unease are two very powerful destabilizers of any society. No matter how great one is, they can be taken apart piece by piece from the inside, often weakening the foundation to the point of collapse before anyone realizes what is happening.”

“I have a lot of questions,” I announced the moment Casteel ushered me back into our room, and King Valyn left.

“Not a single person in the entirety of either kingdom would be surprised by that,” Kieran stated as he closed the veranda doors behind him. “Not even remotely.”

Casteel’s lips twitched as my glare swung toward the wolven. “I’m sorry, but maybe faceless people is a common occurrence in Atlantia, but it’s not something I’m used to.”

“That is not a common occurrence,” Casteel replied as he tried to lead me to the bathing chamber.

“And you and I need to have a quick chat,” I continued, stopping. Casteel sighed heavily.

“We do?” Kieran raised his brows.

“Oh, yes, we need to talk about what you tried to do out there.”

Casteel’s head turned slowly toward the wolven. “What did you try to do?”

Kieran folded his arms across his chest. “I tried to get her to stay inside and remain safe.”

A loud, rough laugh burst out of Casteel. “And how did that go?”

“As painless as you can imagine,” Kieran retorted dryly. “I was only pointing out that you would prefer that she remain unharmed, and that who she is to you, to me, and—”

“Casteel has never once asked that I not engage,” I cut him off. “And he is my husband.”

Casteel dropped his head to mine as a deep, rumbling sound radiated from his chest. “Husband.” He pressed his lips to my temple. “I love hearing you say that.” He lifted his head to look at Kieran. “My wife can defend herself. You know that.”

“I do.”

My eyes narrowed. “Seems like you forgot.”

“I didn’t.” Kieran’s jaw flexed as his stare held Casteel’s. “Things are different now, and you know that.”

“No, they are not.” I pulled free of Casteel. “I am not a Queen, but like I said before, even if I were, I would never be the kind that expects others to risk their lives while I sit back and do nothing. That will never be me, and I seriously doubt Casteel would be that kind of King.”

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