Do not lie to your people.
Or kill them.
But the bar wasn’t set very high in Solis. Atlantia was entirely different.
“And the fact that you are willing to give people who might’ve been involved in a plot to harm you a second chance proves you are far more suited to rule than I am.”
I frowned, lifting my head. Our gazes met. “You would make a wonderful King, Cas. I’ve seen you with people. It’s evident that they love you as much as you love them.”
His eyes warmed. “But I am not nearly as generous, compassionate, or as forgiving as you—all qualities that can bring down a Crown if they’re absent,” he told me, pausing to brush a wisp of hair back from my face. “If we were to do this, I would need to learn some things—areas I would need your help with. But the fact that you are afraid of failing speaks volumes, Poppy. It should scare you. Hell, it terrifies me.”
He nodded. “Do you think I don’t fear failing the people? Making the wrong choices? Setting the entire kingdom on the wrong path? Because I do, and I know my parents still do, to this very day. My father would probably tell you that you would most likely do just that if you stopped being afraid of failing. He would also say that kind of fear keeps you brave and honest.”
But couldn’t that kind of fear make you indecisive, too? Stop you before you even traveled down a road? The fear of failing was powerful, just as fear of the unknown and uncharted destinies was. And I’d felt that kind of terror a hundred or so times in my life. When I went to the Red Pearl. When I smiled at the Duke, knowing what would come from doing so. When I joined Casteel under the willow. I’d been scared then. I’d been terrified when I finally admitted to myself what I felt for Casteel, but I hadn’t let fear stop me then. This was different, though. So much more important than forbidden kisses.
This was more important than us.
“What about your brother? Ian? How would that be affected?”
“The only thing that would change is that we would negotiate as the Queen and King instead of the Princess and Prince,” he answered.
“I doubt that would be the only thing that changed,” I said wryly. “We would come to the table with far more power and authority, I imagine.”
“Well, yeah, that too.” Casteel’s arms tightened around me. “You don’t have to decide today, Poppy,” he said, much to my relief. “You have time.”
Some of the knots loosened in my stomach. “But not a lot.”
“No,” he confirmed as his gaze swept over my face. “I would’ve liked for you to see a little of Atlantia before you made up your mind. What happened last night—”
“Shouldn’t have anything to do with me seeing Atlantia.” I sat up, meeting his gaze. “It shouldn’t interfere with us carrying through with our plans, or with us at all. I absolutely refuse to allow this group of people to put me in a different sort of cage. I’m not going to stop living when I just started to do so.”
Casteel’s eyes were as warm as the summer sun as he lifted a hand to my cheek. “You never cease to amaze me.”
“I’m not sure what I said that is so amazing.”
His lips curved up. The dimple appeared. “Your determination and will to live, to enjoy life no matter what is happening or how confusing things are, is one of the many things I find amazing about you. Most wouldn’t be able to handle everything you have.”
“There are moments when I’m not sure I can,” I admitted.
“But you do.” He slid his thumb over my lower lip. “And you will. No matter what.”
His faith in me touched a small, insecure spot deep inside me that I wasn’t sure I knew existed until that moment. A part of me that worried I asked too many questions, understood too little of this world, and that I was only stumbling from one shock to the next. But he was right. I was still standing. I was still dealing. I was strong.
I started to lean in to kiss him, but a knock on the door stopped me.
Casteel let out a low growl. “I don’t normally like to be interrupted, but especially when you’re about to kiss me.”
Dipping my head, I kissed him quickly before hopping out of his lap. He rose, shooting me a sultry look that scalded my skin as he went to the door. Hoping I didn’t look as flushed as I felt, I turned to see Delano standing there. The smile tugging at my lips froze the moment I connected with his emotions.
All I could taste was bitter, heavy cream. Sorrow and concern. I started toward the door. “What happened?” I asked as Casteel looked over his shoulder at me.
“A man is here to see you,” Delano answered, and Casteel’s head snapped back to the fair-haired wolven.
“For what reason?” Casteel demanded as I joined them.
“Their child has been injured in a carriage accident,” he told us. “She’s extremely—”
“Where is she?” My stomach dropped as I stepped forward.
“In the city. It’s her father who’s here,” Delano began, his gaze darting between Casteel and me. “But the girl—”
At once, the talk of the Crown, the Unseen, and everything else fell to the wayside. There was no thinking about what I could do to help. I brushed past him, my heart thumping. I’d seen the results of carriage accidents in both Masadonia and Carsodonia. They almost always ended tragically for tiny bodies, and I’d never been allowed to step in and ease their pain or fright.
“Dammit, Poppy.” A door slammed behind Casteel as he entered the hall.
“Don’t try to stop me,” I tossed over my shoulder.
“I wasn’t planning to.” He and Delano easily caught up with me. “I just don’t think you should go rushing out there when the Unseen just tried to kill you last night.”
I looked over at Delano as I kept walking. “Did the parents or the child have a face?”
His brows knitted at what definitely sounded like a weird question. “Yes.”
“Then they’re obviously not Gyrms.”
“That doesn’t mean they aren’t part of the Unseen, or change the fact that you should proceed with at least a measure of caution,” Casteel countered. “Which, I know, you are not on friendly terms with.”
I sent him a dark look.
He ignored it as we rounded a bend in the hall. “Is it just the father?”
“Yes,” Delano answered. “He appears very desperate.”
“Gods,” Casteel muttered. “I shouldn’t be surprised that they learned of her abilities. There have been arrivals from Spessa’s End over the last couple of days.”
None of that mattered. “Has anyone sent for a Healer?”
“Yes.” Delano’s sadness thickened, and my heart skipped. “The Healer is actually with the child and mother now. The father said the Healer told them there’s nothing to be done—”
Grasping the skirt of my gown, I took off running. Casteel cursed, but he didn’t stop me as I ran down the never-ending hall, vaguely aware that I didn’t think I had ever run this fast before. I rushed out into the warm, sunny air and started for the doors at the end of the breezeway.
Casteel caught my elbow. “This way will be quicker,” he told me, guiding me out from between the pillars and onto a walkway crowded by bushy shrubs covered in tiny starbursts of yellow.