It also could’ve been the sweet kiss that Casteel had given me after I woke this morning and before he left to shower. Or how his eyes were pools of warm gold when he looked upon me. Before he left the bed, he’d told me that his father’s visit had been borne of worry. That he hadn’t liked how things had ended between them in the Temple of Saion. I was glad to hear that they’d cleared the air between them—at least a little bit before those creatures showed. I also shared with him what I had confirmed with Kieran about being able to communicate with him. Casteel…well, he took in that newest development like he had everything else. He was curious, awed, and completely unbothered by it, and that helped me be somewhat unfazed by the fact that I had done something that only Nyktos could.
Either way, it could’ve been one or all of those things that’d made me feel prepared for everything Casteel and I had to discuss and figure out.
I found the clothing Vonetta had given me in Spessa’s End hanging among several other brightly colored garments that her mother had given Casteel for me to wear. The only visible white I saw in the entire wardrobe were two slips. A smile tugged at my lips, and I didn’t stop it—didn’t even have to think about concealing it like I had when I’d been the Maiden.
This was all him. He’d made sure there was little white to be found in my options.
Gods, I loved that man.
I started to reach for a tunic with frilly sleeves, but a stunning, cobalt blue, buttery-soft muslin drew my attention. The gown was simple, reminding me of what the Ladies in Solis called a day dress but was far better suited for the warmer climate of Saion’s Cove. The bodice was layered and cinched, erasing the need for a slip. The near-sheer gown was gathered at the waist and the hips by a sky-blue chain girdle, and the material bunched at the shoulders. It was sleeveless.
My gaze shifted back to the tunics and the other dresses that featured wide, elbow-length sleeves that offered a bit of coverage. I hesitated. Normally, I preferred to wear breeches or the lighter leggings and something that hid the scars on my arms, but the color was beautiful. I’d never worn anything like it. I’d never been allowed.
And I didn’t need to hide my scars.
I grabbed an undergarment and pulled the gown off the hanger. I changed into the dress, relieved that it fit well enough. I found a brush and worked out the tangles in my hair. There wasn’t much I could do with it outside of braiding it, so I left it down and then found a pair of sandals in the wardrobe that tied at the ankles. I hitched up the folds of the skirt, sheathing the dagger to my thigh.
Casteel was waiting for me in the sitting room, standing before one of the open lattice doors with his arms loosely folded across his chest. A warm breeze flowed into the room and was spun about by the dual ceiling fans. He started to turn as I walked under the archway. “There is some fruit. And, of course, your favorite, cheese…” He trailed off, his lips parting until the tips of his fangs became visible.
“What?” I stopped, glancing down at myself while smoothing an imaginary wrinkle from the skirt. “Do I look foolish? The bodice is a bit tight.” I fiddled with the cowl neckline. “Or is it outdated? I figure this must be one of Vonetta’s older gowns since she’s taller than I am, but the length is almost a perfect fit for—”
“I am unworthy of you,” he stated roughly. “You are a dream.”
My fingers fell away from the neckline as I looked over at him.
Casteel’s arms had fallen to his sides as his gaze swept over me. His chest rose sharply. “Your hair. That gown.” His eyes heated. “You are so beautiful, Poppy.”
“Thank you.” I felt my throat warm as my heart swelled. “And you are worthy.”
He smiled as he cleared his throat. “Please tell me you’re wearing your dagger.”
Fighting a grin, I lifted the right side of the skirt to my thigh.
Casteel groaned. “Gods, you’re perfect.”
“And you are demented,” I said. “Worthy, but demented.”
“I’ll take that.”
I laughed. “Did I hear you mention cheese?”
“You did.” He extended an arm to the table. “Help yourself.”
I did exactly that, seating myself at the table and immediately reaching for chunks of yumminess.
“What would you like to drink?” he asked, joining me. “There’s water, wine, and whiskey—the three Ws of life.”
I arched a brow. “Wine.”
He smirked as he poured the faint pink liquid and then fixed himself a glass of whiskey. I tentatively tasted the wine, pleased to find that it tasted like strawberries. “What do you think about the whole Iliseeum thing?” I asked since we hadn’t really talked about that.
“Honestly?” He let out a low laugh. “I really don’t know. I grew up believing that Iliseeum existed in a realm beside ours but not part of ours. Just like the Vale and the Abyss. And to think my parents always knew? Alastir? Jasper?” Casteel shook his head. “But then you really didn’t know Iliseeum was real at all. It had to be more of a shock to you.”
“It was,” I admitted, squinting. “But there is still so much I don’t know. I’m kind of in a constant state of surprise, but it’s amazing to think that at one time, when the gods were awake, they were right there. I wonder how often they interacted with Atlantians and mortals.”
“Not often from what I’ve been taught. But that too may not be exactly true.” He ate a piece of cheese. “The crazy thing, Poppy? Is that Malik, Kieran, and I must have gotten close to Iliseeum at some point. We traveled those tunnels heading east. We always ended up stopping, though, at some point.”
“Was there ever a reason for you to stop?”
His brows lifted. “At the time, no, but looking back now? Yes. We always started to feel weird, like we needed to go back home. It was something that none of us could explain. We chalked it up to us being afraid of getting caught for being gone too long. But now I think we were being warned away by the magic that guards Iliseeum. It made sure we never got too close.”
“I suppose that’s a good thing. Who knows what would’ve happened if you all had made it to Iliseeum?”
He grinned. “Well, if our presence woke the gods, I’m sure we would’ve won them over with our stunning personalities.”
I laughed. “I was thinking last night that your interest in the tunnels almost feels like divine intervention.”
“It does feel that way, doesn’t it?”
I nodded. A few moments passed, and I peeked over at him. He was quiet as he picked through the fruit, handing me a plump grape and then a dewy slice of melon. “I know we have to talk. You don’t have to delay it any longer.”
“We do.” Leaning back in his chair, he dragged his teeth over his lower lip as he continued rooting through the fruit. “Something I didn’t go into a lot of detail on this morning was something my father shared with me last night. Every member of the Guards of the Crown, from here to Evaemon, are being checked for possible involvement or knowledge of what the others were doing.”
“Have others been discovered?” I asked.