I grinned as we stepped outside the room, my nervousness easing a bit. “Maybe,” I said, even though I’d totally left it down because I knew he liked it like this.
And because I’d spent years with the heavy length pinned tightly back and up.
“Did you still want to see Kirha before we leave?” he asked.
I nodded. I’d mentioned this morning that I wanted to thank her for the clothing and her hospitality before we left to meet with the current Queen and King of Atlantia. Casteel had already sent word ahead of our impending arrival. With his hand folded around mine, he led me out into the breezeway, where ceiling fans churned overhead, stirring the scent of cinnamon and cloves that seeped out from the open windows of rooms facing the pathway.
If it weren’t for the faded, oily stains on the walkway and the darkening of the dirt every couple of yards, it would be hard to imagine that those faceless creatures had been here two nights before. But they had, and Casteel and I were prepared in case the Gyrms appeared once more. I carried the wolven dagger hidden beneath my tunic, and Casteel had two short swords strapped to his sides. We also weren’t alone.
A wolven with fur as dark as Stygian Bay prowled along the top of the courtyard wall, tracking our progress. I had a feeling he or she wasn’t the only wolven nearby as we stepped out from the breezeway and onto an earthen path lined with tall palms. The fan-shaped leaves provided adequate shade from the late-morning sun as we followed the winding walkway. Bursts of color from tiny wildflowers and vivid pink and purple blossoms peeked out from the tangled vines that swept over the walls in some sections and blanketed most of the garden floor. The garden was nothing like the showy and wildly diverse ones in Masadonia, but I liked the earthy, natural feel of it. And I had a feeling that no matter how many times one walked the pathways, they would find something new among the foliage.
We rounded a bend, and a patio became visible. Several stone benches and wooden stools that appeared to have been crafted from the trunks of trees encircled a large fire pit. The gray stone patio led straight to the open doors of an airy, sun-drenched room.
Among the plants placed on small tables and growing from large clay pots on the tile floor, oversized chairs with thick cushions and brightly colored ottomans were situated in clusters next to wide couches and settees. Large floor pillows in every shade of blue imaginable were scattered across the floor, but Kirha Contou sat on a plush, teal rug in the center of the room, legs crossed, and her head bowed. Narrow rows of small, tight braids were swept up and pinned back from her face as she rooted around in a basket of yarn. Her son was with her.
Wearing all black, Kieran stood out rather starkly in the colorful room. He sat beside her, leaning against one of the chair backs, his long legs stretched out in front of him. He held a ball of orange yarn in one hand and a white one in the other. Several more lay in his lap, and the image of him sitting there, a faint smile softening the handsome lines of his face as he watched his mother, would be forever imprinted on my brain.
Both of them looked up as Casteel and I neared the doors. My senses were open, and their emotions immediately stretched out, the cool splash of surprise I felt from Kieran as the orange ball of yarn fell from his hand and rolled across the rug caught me a little off guard. If Kieran had been aware that Casteel and I had witnessed his…activities in the shadows, he showed no sign of it as we’d ridden back to his family home under a sky blanketed by endless stars.
Even if he did, I didn’t think that was the source of the surprise. I had no idea what it was as I focused on the woman beside him.
His mother was utterly beautiful—the spitting image of Vonetta from her deep, rich brown skin and broad cheekbones to the full mouth that seemed to hint at a laugh. What I felt from her also reminded me of her daughter. The taste of smooth vanilla was as comforting as a warm blanket on a cold night.
I realized I had seen her before when I first arrived here. She’d been in the crowd of wolven and had smiled as Casteel and I bickered.
“Kieran,” Casteel drawled. He squeezed my hand as we stepped through the doors and then let go. “Are you knitting me a shirt?”
The wolven’s expression smoothed out. “That is exactly what I’m doing,” he replied, his tone flat.
“He’s actually very good with the needles,” Kirha said, placing the basket aside.
The syrupy-sweet taste of embarrassment radiated from Kieran as his cheeks deepened in color. His gaze narrowed on his mother. My brows lifted as the image that had been branded in my mind was now replaced by one that included Kieran knitting a shirt.
That was something that would never leave my mind.
Kirha started to rise as Casteel rushed to say,” You don’t need to get up.”
“Oh, but I do. I’ve been sitting for so long, I feel like my legs have gone numb,” she replied as balls of yarn spilled from Kieran’s lap and tumbled across the carpet. He took hold of his mother’s arm, aiding her.
Kirha murmured her thanks as she straightened. Under the lavender, sleeveless gown she wore, her swollen stomach pulled at the light material. She pressed a hand behind her hip and stretched her back. “Good gods, this better be the last baby.”
“Yeah, well, someone needs to make sure your husband gets that through his thick skull,” Kieran muttered.
“Your father will when he’s constantly changing diapers again. I birth them, he cleans them,” she remarked, grinning when Kieran wrinkled his nose. “That’s the deal.”
“I’ll have to remember that,” Casteel murmured.
My stomach dropped so fast I almost toppled over as my wide eyes shot to Casteel. For some reason, I hadn’t even thought about…babies since the cavern—since I had thought he didn’t want to have children with me. I’d been hurt then, which had been irrationally silly, considering we hadn’t even admitted our feelings to one another yet. He was still taking the herb that prevented pregnancy, and as a Maiden, I’d believed I would Ascend. Having children was never something I’d ever considered, so it wasn’t something that lingered in my mind. But now it was dancing at the center. A baby. Babies. Casteel’s and my baby. Casteel holding a small, swaddled infant. My lips parted on a thin inhale. That was really something I did not need to think about at the moment.
“Poppy looks faint.” Kieran smirked.
Casteel turned to look at me, his brows lowering as concern echoed through him. “Are you all right?”
I blinked, shoving the unnecessary image out of my head as I stepped forward. “Yes. I’m fine.” I plastered a big smile across my face before either of them could ferret out where my mind had gone. “We didn’t mean to interrupt. I just wanted to thank you for allowing me to stay here, and for the clothing.”
A ready smile appeared on Kirha’s face as she clasped my arms. “No need to thank me. Our home has always been open to Cas. Therefore, it will always be open to you,” she said, and the sincerity in her words was clear. “I’m glad you like the clothing. I must say, you look far too beautiful for this one over here.” She jerked her chin at Cas.
“Ouch,” Casteel murmured, placing a hand over his heart. “My feelings. They hurt.”
Kirha laughed as she pulled me into a close hug—well, as close as I could get with the belly between us, but the embrace was warm and unexpected and so…nice. It was the kind of hug I hadn’t felt in ages. One I secretly hoped I’d receive from Queen Eloana upon my arrival. This kind of embrace was the type a mother would give, and it brought forth a rush of bittersweet emotions. Nothing about my smile was forced when she pulled back, clasping my arms once more. “I am so happy to meet you.” Her gaze swept over my face, not lingering on the scars. “I hope you are feeling well?”