“He has no idea what he’s talking about,” Casteel claimed as the hand that had been resting on my hip inched across my lower stomach. His thumb moved, idly drawing circles around my navel.
“I think I’ll believe Kieran,” I decided.
“How dare you?” he teased, and I felt the nip of his sharp teeth against the curve of my neck. I jerked as a rush of heat flooded my system. “I am very shy.”
“And very delusional,” I retorted, glancing at the tall trees. With the thinness of the tunic, it felt like there was next to nothing between his hand and my skin.
It was hard not to show any reaction to his touch as glimpses of sandstone structures peeked out between the trees crowding the path. The farther we traveled, the lower his pinky finger roamed, and I began to see people behind the trees, loading carts and wagons with bushels and baskets. I wiggled a little when his finger danced lower, looking over my shoulder at him.
A look of pure innocence had settled on his features as he met my gaze. “Yes?”
I narrowed my eyes.
One side of his lips kicked up. The dimple in his right cheek appeared as a horse-drawn wagon neared the path. The driver’s wide-brimmed hat obscured his features, but I felt the cool jolt of surprise as he and the younger man, who appeared barely in his teens, walked alongside the large, gray horse.
The driver waved, and the young man quickly dropped to one knee before rising to also wave.
I started to lock up but forced myself to relax and behave somewhat normally by returning the greeting, along with Casteel and Kieran.
Feeling rather proud of myself, I smiled at the wolven as they passed the two on the road. While I wondered which of the wolven was Lyra, a woman appeared between the trees several yards ahead, the bright orange tunic flattering against her deep black skin. She kept an eye on a small child who chased after a golden-winged bird that hopped along the tree’s lower branches. Upon seeing us, a wide smile broke out across her face as she placed her hands on the child’s shoulders and whispered to her. The little girl looked over with an excited squeal and immediately started jumping on one foot and then the other.
Casteel chuckled under his breath as the woman shook her head and bowed at the waist, patiently coaxing the child to do the same. They too waved, and this time, I wasn’t frozen. I waved back like Casteel and Kieran had done, and it felt…less awkward. Like my arm wasn’t as stiff as it had been before. But I quickly forgot about what my arm looked and felt like as the little girl all but rushed from her mother and nearly tackled the black-and-white wolven. Choked laughter came from Kieran as the girl wrapped tiny arms around the wolven.
“Oh, gods, Talia,” the woman exclaimed. “What have I told you about randomly hugging people?”
I grinned as she gently untangled the girl from the wolven, who playfully nipped at one of her arms. A riot of giggles erupted from the child, and a second later, she was back to chasing the bird. The wolven she’d hugged trotted on, and I swore it smiled.
Once we passed, I looked back at Casteel. But before I could ask the same question as I had nearly every time we passed someone yesterday when I couldn’t tell if they were of Atlantian descent or one of the bloodlines, Casteel beat me to it. “Both were Atlantian,” he said, his thumb resuming the slow and utterly distracting circles. “The first were of Atlantian descent. Mortals. The last two were elemental.”
“Oh,” I whispered, focusing ahead. Atlantians had always been cooler toward me, with a few exceptions like Emil, Naill, and Elijah. My heart squeezed painfully as I thought of Elijah and Magda—of all those Atlantians, Descenters, and wolven senselessly murdered by the Ascended. Even then, I could hear Elijah’s deep belly laugh.
But yesterday, the vast majority of those we came across had been warm and welcoming, just like the ones we passed now. Could it be that those of like mind as the Unseen were truly a small fraction of the populace? Just as a tiny kernel of real hope formed in my chest, Casteel’s arm tightened around me.
Sometimes, I wondered if he knew where my thoughts had gone, which made me think of something else. “Do you have a changeling in your bloodline, Cas?”
“Not sure, but I can tell you something’s changing in my pants right now,” he murmured.
“Oh, my gods.” I barked out a loud laugh as several of the nearby wolven made rough, huffing sounds. “That was so...”
“Witty?” he suggested, while Kieran snorted.
“Stupid,” I said, biting down on my lip as a giggle snuck free. “I can’t believe you said that.”
“Neither can I,” Kieran agreed, shaking his head. “But the Da’Neer bloodline is purer than his thoughts.”
I grinned as we passed small groups of people heading in and out of the narrow roads.
“It’s not my fault my thoughts are less than innocent,” Casteel countered, waving as someone stopped to bow. “I didn’t introduce myself to the world of Miss Willa.”
“Oh, my gods,” I grumbled, half-distracted by my attempts to read the emotions of those we passed.
“To be honest,” he continued, “I think I was more shocked about the fact that I was right, and she is Atlantian, than by anything else your father said.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” I muttered.
Casteel laughed, and as we continued on, the nervousness from earlier returned. But then he handed over Setti’s reins and let me control and guide the horse. Eventually, the trees cleared, giving way to lush green grass that flowed to the very bluffs overlooking the sea. Ahead of us, a hedge of sorts surrounded a large circular Temple set on a high podium, its white columns rising against the deep blue of the sky. Beyond it, a row of lavender-colored, trumpet-shaped blossoms of jacaranda trees struck a familiar chord inside me. I’d loved the trees that grew abundantly around the garden outside Castle Teerman. They made me think of Rylan, a guard of mine who’d been killed by Jericho—a wolven who had been working with Casteel. A heaviness settled in my chest. Rylan hadn’t deserved to die like that.
And Casteel hadn’t deserved everything that had been done to him.
Two wrongs never made things right or better, nor did they cancel one another out. They just were.
All thoughts about what I’d done on the road here faded to the background as the wolven appeared at our sides as we rode past the Temple and under the shade of the mildly honey-scented jacaranda trees. I could see a garden of sorts through the hedge, one that must’ve opened to the Temple. The other end flowed to an elegant building of limestone and marble. Gold scroll accents were painted around open windows where gauzy white curtains swayed in the salty breeze from the sea. The center was a wide structure with numerous windows and doors, several stories tall, with a domed glass ceiling and spires that I’d seen upon my arrival. Sweeping, two-story wings connected by vine-covered breezeways flanked each side. Balconies jutted from the second floors, the curtains swept to the sides and cinched to pillars. Underneath, private verandas separated by walls covered by ivy and tiny pale blue blossoms rested. The Cove Palace wasn’t half the size or nearly as tall as Castle Teerman and would be dwarfed by Wayfair Castle, where the Queen and King of Solis resided. But it was beautiful, nonetheless.