And there were a lot of paintings of the gods—both of them together and individually. It was easy to pick out the ones depicting Nyktos since his face was always obscured by either glowing light, or his features were simply not rendered in detail.
“Remember what I told you about how he was depicted with a wolf?” Kieran said, drawing my gaze to a painting of the King of Gods standing beside a tall, grayish-black wolf.
“This represents his relationship with the wolven?”
Kieran nodded. There were many like that, even small sculptures of Nyktos with a wolven by his side. And farther down the long wall was a sketch with a white wolf drawn behind him, symbolizing his ability to take the shape of a wolf.
“I wonder what is in the museums in Solis,” I said as we stopped before a painting of the Goddess Ione, cradling a swaddled infant. “Do they have paintings like this? Did they copy them?”
“Is it true that only the upper class could enter the museums?” Kieran asked.
I nodded, stomach souring. “Yes. Only the wealthy and the Ascended. And so very few mortals are wealthy.”
“That is an archaic and brutal caste system.” Casteel’s eyes narrowed upon a landscape of what appeared to be Saion’s Cove. “One purely designed to create and strengthen oppression.”
“By creating a gap between those who have access to all the resources, and those who have access to none,” I said, my chest becoming heavy. “And Atlantia is really not like that? Not even a little?” The last bit I asked of Kieran, as I thought of those who needed to be reminded of who the wolven were.
“We are not like that,” he said. “Atlantia has never been that way.”
“That doesn’t mean that we’ve been perfect.” Casteel’s hand threaded through my hair. “There has been strife, but the Council of Elders was formed to prevent anyone from making a choice or decision that could jeopardize the people of Atlantia. That doesn’t mean the Crown doesn’t have ultimate authority,” he explained. “But the Council has a say, and it would be very unwise for their opinions to go unheard. It has only happened twice before, and the end results were not favorable.”
“When Malec Ascended Isbeth, and the others started following suit?” I surmised.
Casteel nodded. “The Council was against allowing it to occur, having the opinion that Malec should apologize, make what he did right, and forbid future Ascensions.”
“And what do you mean by make things right?” I had a sinking feeling I already knew.
“He was advised to rid himself of Isbeth, one way or another,” he said. “He did none of those things.”
“And so, here we are,” Kieran murmured.
I swallowed. “And what of the other time?”
A thoughtful expression pinched Casteel’s features. “It was back before Malec ruled, when there were other deities. The Council was started then, when the bloodlines began to outnumber the deities. The Council suggested that it was time for the crown to sit upon the head of one of the bloodlines. That was also ignored.”
Alastir hadn’t mentioned that in his cruddy history lesson. If they had listened to the Council, would the deities have survived?
A couple with two young children hastily bowed as we rounded a corner. Their shock at seeing us was evident in their widened eyes. As Casteel and Kieran greeted them with a smile and words of hello, I saw that they were most likely mortal. I followed suit with the greeting, hoping I didn’t come across as stiff.
Moving onto a case containing what appeared to be some sort of clay vase, I said, “Can I ask you two a question and have you give me an honest response?”
“Can’t wait to hear what this will be,” Kieran murmured while Casteel nodded.
I shot the wolven a dark look. “Do I seem awkward when I meet people?” I could feel warmth suffusing my cheeks. “Like back there, when I said hello? Did it sound right?”
“You sounded like anyone saying hello.” Casteel lifted a hand, tucking a strand of hair back from my face. “If anything, you seem a little shy, not awkward.”
“Really?” I asked hopefully. “Because I…well, I’m not used to actually interacting with people. In Solis, people didn’t really acknowledge me unless it was in a situation where it was allowed. So I feel weird, like I’m doing it wrong.”
“You’re not doing it wrong, Poppy.” The lines of Kieran’s face softened. “You sound fine.”
Casteel dropped a quick kiss to the bridge of my nose. “We swear.”
Feeling a little better after hearing that, we continued on. If I were to become Queen, I supposed I’d have to get over these annoying insecurities.
Unsure of how that would happen, we slowly made our way past paintings and statues, many depicting the gods or fantastical cities that stretched into the clouds. Casteel claimed those were the cities in Iliseeum. They were all beautiful, but I stopped in front of a charcoal drawing. Some of it had faded, but it was clearly a sketch of a man seated upon a large throne. The lack of features told me it was Nyktos who sat there, but it was what sat at his feet that snagged my attention—and held it. Two extraordinarily large felines rested before him, their heads tilted in his direction. My eyes narrowed as I cocked my head to the side.
“This is a really old drawing,” Casteel said as he idly ran his hand up and down my back. “Supposedly drawn by one of the deities.”
It took me a moment to realize what those sketched cats reminded me of. “Are they cave cats?”
“I don’t think so,” Kieran answered as he stared up at the drawing.
“They look like them,” I said. “I saw one of them once…” I frowned as the dream I’d had while in the crypts resurfaced. “Or maybe more than once.”
Casteel glanced down at me. “Where did you see one? In a painting or drawing like this?”
“No.” I shook my head. “There was one caged in the castle at Carsodonia.”
Kieran’s brows lifted. “I don’t think that’s what you saw.”
“I saw a cat as large as you are in your wolven form,” I told him. “Ian saw it, too.”
He shook his head. “That’s impossible, Poppy. Cave cats have been extinct for at least a couple of hundred years.”
“What? No.” I looked between them. Casteel nodded. “They roam the Wastelands.”
“Who told you that?” Casteel asked.
“No one told me that. It’s just…” I trailed off, my gaze returning to the drawing. It was something that was just known. But in reality, it was the Ascended who had said as much. The Queen had told me that when I asked about the creature I’d seen in the castle. “Why would they lie about something like that?”
Kieran snorted. “Who knows? Why have they erased entire gods and created ones that don’t exist like Perus? I think they just like to make things up,” he countered—and he had a good point.
I stared at the two cats. “Then what was in that cage?”
“Possibly another large wild cat,” Casteel answered with a shrug. “But I think these two felines are supposed to symbolize the children of Nyktos and his Consort.”