“I like you,” I murmured, pressing my fingers into his chest. “You know what it means to me, having that choice. That freedom.” Emotion swelled in my chest and burned its way up my throat. “It means everything to me.”
He slid his hand around to my cheek, tilting my head back. Dipping his head, he kissed me softly. “I know.”
“You are worthy of me, Cas. I need you to know that.”
“With you in my arms, I feel worthy,” he said, pressing his lips against mine once more. “I do.”
“I want you to feel worthy of me when I’m not in your arms.” I placed my fingers against his cheeks. “Why would you think you’re not? After all you’ve done for me?”
He was quiet, and I could feel the sourness of shame as thick lashes lifted. “What about all I’ve done to you? I know you’ve accepted these things, but that doesn’t change that I lied to you. That because of those lies, you were hurt. Because of what I did, people died—people you loved.”
My heart ached. “Neither of us can change the past, Cas, but because you lied, I saw the truth of the Ascended. People were hurt—Loren, Dafina.” I drew in a shaky breath. “Vikter. But how many lives have you saved? Countless, I’m sure. You saved mine in more ways than we probably even know.”
A small smile appeared and then faded, and I sensed it was about more than just what had happened to me. His shame and guilt ran so much deeper than that.
“Talk to me,” I whispered.
“I mean, really talk to me.” I smoothed my fingers along his cheeks. “What makes you think you’re unworthy of me?”
His throat worked on a swallow. “Are you reading my emotions?”
“No.” I sighed when he arched a brow. “Kind of.”
He chuckled, the sound hoarse. “I don’t know, Princess. There are things that…come into my head sometimes. Things that lived in my head when I was caged by the Ascended. I don’t know how to put them into words, but even if I did, neither of us need to deal with that right now.”
“I disagree,” I said empathetically. “We do.”
One side of his lips tipped up. “We have a lot on our plates. You have a lot on yours. I’m not going to add to that. I don’t need to,” he added when I opened my mouth. “I’m okay, Poppy. Trust me when I say that.”
He kissed me, capturing my lips in a deep, drugging sort of kiss. “I’m okay, Princess. I swear.”
Sensing I would get nowhere with him right now, I nodded, then curled my hands around his wrists as he tucked my head back under his chin. This wouldn’t be the last time we talked about this, I would make sure of that. We sat there in silence for several minutes as I thought about everything from the time he was held prisoner to the decisions I had to make. My natural inclination was to turn down any claim to the Crown immediately. It was the only sensible reaction. I had no idea how to be a Queen of anything, not even a pile of ashes. And while Casteel might not have been raised from birth to take the throne, he had been raised a Prince. I’d seen him with his people and already knew he would make a wonderful King. But me? I was raised as the Maiden, and very little of that upbringing would be of any use. I had no desire to govern people, determine what they could and couldn’t do, and assume that kind of responsibility. Where was the freedom in that? The freedom to live my life as I saw fit? I had no hunger for power, no great ambition…
But I said nothing as I sat there, enjoying the simple feel of Casteel’s hand stroking my hair. I would’ve enjoyed his touch even more if I hadn’t realized there was an entirely different way to look at this. I had no idea how to rule, but I could learn. I would have Casteel at my side, and who would be a better teacher? Governing people did not necessarily equate to controlling them. It could mean protecting them, just as I knew Casteel would—like I knew his parents had done to the best of their ability. How they may or may not feel about me didn’t change the fact that they cared for their people. That they were nothing like the Royals of Solis. That kind of responsibility was frightening, but it could also be an honor. I had no thirst for power, but maybe that was the key to being a good leader? I wasn’t sure. But I knew I had great ambitions. I wanted to free the people of Solis from the tyranny of the Ascended, and what could be more ambitious than that? But how could I achieve that when I refused to bear the burden of a Crown? Who knew what kind of influence Casteel and I would be able to wield regarding Solis if we were forced to abandon Atlantia, leaving it to be ruled by someone who could have very different intentions when it came to Solis and the Ascended? Someone who may never see Ian as anything but a vampry. And maybe that was all that Ian was now. Possibly even Tawny. I didn’t know, but what if my brother was different? What if other Ascended could change like Casteel had said a few had? What would happen if someone took the throne and declared war against them? I didn’t know, but freedom was the choice. It was in the way I chose to live my life. And what kind of freedom would there be if I was the reason Casteel had to leave his people? His family?
That kind of knowledge carried with it a different type of cage, didn’t it? Just like fear was another prison, and I was…
“I’m afraid,” I admitted quietly as I stared at the sun-drenched ivy beyond the open terrace door. “I’m afraid of saying yes.”
Casteel’s hand stilled on my back. “Why?”
“I don’t know how to be a Queen. I know I can learn, but do the people of Atlantia have the patience for that? The luxury of waiting for me to gain the same kind of experience as you? And we don’t even know what I am. Has Atlantia ever had a Queen that was possibly neither mortal nor Atlantian nor deity? You don’t have to answer that. I already know it’s a no. And what if I’m a terrible Queen?” I asked. “What if I fail at that?”
“First and foremost, you won’t be a terrible Queen, Poppy.”
“You have to say that,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Because you’re my husband, and because you’re afraid I’ll stab you if you say otherwise.”
“Fear is not remotely what I feel when I think you might stab me.”
My nose scrunched as I shook my head. “That is twisted.”
“Perhaps,” he noted. “But back to what you said. How do I know you wouldn’t make a terrible Queen? It’s the choices you’ve made time and time again. Like when you sought to help those who were cursed by the Craven, risking the gods know what kind of punishment to ease their passing. That is just one example of your compassion, and that is something any ruler needs. When you went up on the Rise during the Craven attack? When you fought at Spessa’s End, willing to take the same risks as those who’d taken an oath to protect the people? Those are only two examples that prove you have the courage and the willingness to do what you would ask of your people. That is something a King and a Queen should be willing to do. You have more experience than you realize. You proved that in the hunting cabin when you spoke of power and influence. You paid attention when you wore the veil. More than any of the Royals ever noticed.”
He was right about that. I had watched and listened without being seen. From that, I had learned what not to do when in a leadership position, starting with the simplest of things.