A sharp slice in my chest accompanied the mention of the young wolven’s name. Then I thought of Alastir’s great-niece. “What about Gianna? Since he hoped you’d marry her, do you think she could also be involved in this?”
“To be honest, I can’t answer that for sure. I haven’t seen Gianna in years. When I knew her, she was strong-willed and kind of did her own thing. But she would be a virtual stranger to me now,” he explained. “She isn’t here, by the way.”
“Hmm?” I murmured, attempting to appear disinterested in that little piece of knowledge.
Casteel smiled at me, and the dimple winked into existence. Apparently, I hadn’t been that convincing. “I asked Kirha when I saw her this morning. Gianna’s in Evaemon.”
I was a little relieved, but also strangely disappointed. I wanted to see her. I didn’t even know why.
“There’s something else we need to talk about before we inevitably meet with my parents.” Casteel finished off his glass, and having a feeling of where this was going, I tensed. “We need to discuss your claim to the throne.”
It felt like the floor rolled under my chair as I swallowed. A ball of uncertainty rested heavily in my stomach.
Casteel set his empty glass down and leaned back in his chair as he studied me. “You have the blood of the gods in you, Poppy. How much and what that truly means is unknown, but what is clear is that the kingdom is yours. Alastir knew it. My mother recognized it. And despite what my father said about her reacting with emotion, he realizes what it means. The bonds with the wolven breaking and shifting to you is further confirmation. The Atlantians you saw on the street when we entered Saion’s Cove? Many who saw what the wolven did were confused, but word of what you are has already begun to spread. It will reach the capital before too long, especially if the Elders have been contacted.”
“Do you…do you know what has been said about the trees of Aios? I’m sure it was noticed.”
“It was. From what my father said, the people see it as a sign of great change.”
“Not something bad?”
“No. Most do not see it as such.” His eyes never left mine. “But some aren’t as positive. As I’m sure you already realize, some Atlantians will be resistant to what this signals, only because they do not know you,” he quickly added. “Only because they fear change and differences. They will see you as an outsider.”
“And the Maiden,” I pointed out.
The line of his jaw hardened. “If so, that is a misconception I will quickly rectify.”
I lifted my chin. “As will I.”
Casteel’s smile brimmed with approval. “We will both rectify that quickly,” he amended. “But most will see you for who you are. Which is the next Queen of Atlantia.”
The breath I took went nowhere.
His steady gaze met and held mine. “Just like I see you for who you are. My Queen.”
Shock flooded my senses. That was only the second time he’d called me that, and I realized then that since his mother had taken off her crown, he’d only called me Princess a handful of times. “But you don’t want to be King,” I exclaimed.
“This isn’t about what I want.”
“How can it not be? If I’m the Queen, you are the King—something you don’t want to be,” I reminded him.
“It was something I never believed I would need to be,” he said, and so quietly, every part of my being focused on him. “It was something I needed to believe because it always felt like if I accepted my future, I was also accepting Malik’s fate. That he was lost to us.” He drew his fingers over the curve of his jaw as his gaze shifted to his empty glass. “But at some point, I began to realize the truth. I just didn’t want to accept it.”
My heart skipped a beat. “You…you don’t believe he still lives?”
“No, I believe he does. I still believe we will free him,” he stated, his brows lowering. “But I know—gods, I’ve known for longer than I care to admit to myself, that he won’t be in the…right frame of mind to take the throne. The gods know I wasn’t exactly all there when I was freed.”
An ache pierced me once more. Kieran had already accepted that, too, and a part of me was relieved to know that Casteel understood the reality of what he’d face upon freeing his brother. It would still hurt, but not nearly as fiercely. “But you found yourself.”
“Unfortunately, Atlantia doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for him to do the same. My parents have already sat on the throne for too long,” he told me. A King and Queen could only rule for four hundred years. And as he said, his parents were far past that. “There has been pushback, Poppy. It’s a combination of fear of what the future holds if we can’t sustain our population, and the general unease that comes with any two people ruling for too long.”
“You told me there had been no challenges to the throne.”
“And you also know I didn’t want to tell you the truth because I didn’t want to freak you out,” he reminded me. “And you appear to be seconds away from—”
“Throwing a plate of cheese at you? Yes, I am seconds away from doing just that.”
“Don’t do that.” Amusement crept into his expression, irritating me further. “You’ll be upset when you don’t have any more cheese to eat.”
“It will be your fault,” I snapped, and a dimple appeared in his right cheek. “Stop smiling. You should’ve told me. Just like you should’ve told me about the damage that was done to the crops and the vandalism.”
“I only learned of the worst of it when I spoke with my father last night.” His amusement faded. “I wanted to hear it from him before I shared.” He tilted his head. “There haven’t been any official challenges, Poppy, but pushback will eventually become that, with or without your arrival.”
“My arrival has nothing—”
“Do not continue denying what you are. You’re smarter and stronger than that,” he interrupted, and I snapped my mouth shut. “You do not have the luxury of doing so. Neither do I, and neither does the kingdom. Your arrival changes everything.”
I sat back, weighed down by the truth of his words. After I left the shower, I’d told myself that I was ready to discuss all of this—to face it all. Right now, I was proving that to be a lie. I was also proving childish. My unexpected heritage, what Casteel had done to save me, and its implications, wouldn’t go away simply because I had a hard time acknowledging them. I had to face this.
A kernel of panic took root in my chest where that strange energy hummed quietly. I stared at the fruit and cheese. “When we free your brother, he won’t need the extra pressure of being expected to take the throne. It wouldn’t be right to thrust that upon him.”
“No,” Casteel agreed solemnly. “It would not.”
But what if Malik did want what he’d grown up believing was his birthright once he did find himself? I wasn’t sure the question even mattered at the moment. The bridge hadn’t even been built to cross yet. I swallowed the heavy feeling in my throat. It made sense why Casteel had refused the throne. I could see what that signified to him. “So you want to be King now?”