Behind me, Casteel had stiffened. “The guards are new,” he said to Kieran.
Guards weren’t usually posted at the entrances to where the King and Queen were currently staying?
“That they are.” Kieran drew his horse closer to ours as he eyed the guards. “But not entirely a surprise.”
“No, they are not,” Casteel agreed.
The guards bowed deeply, but they watched the wolven with wary gazes. Suspicion tinged with curiosity radiated from them as we rode through the breezeway. I didn’t pick up on any outright hostility as I guided Setti past them, but they were definitely watchful as we entered the courtyard where a tiered fountain gurgled water. Crimson roses climbed the basin, scenting the air as we dismounted from the horses. Several stable hands appeared, taking the reins.
Placing a steadying hand on my lower back, Casteel guided me toward the rounded steps. A man dressed in a golden tunic stood at the door, bowing before opening both sides. My nervousness resurfaced with a vengeance as we entered a short hall that opened to a circular chamber. The last of the sunlight shone across the numerous rows of empty benches, and light spilled from electric-powered wall sconces inside alcoves on either side of the vast chamber. The space could easily accommodate several hundred, and I couldn’t help but notice how different this was from the Great Hall in Masadonia. There was little to no separation between where the people sat and the dais before them.
My eyes were trained on the white banners hanging on the back wall as Casteel led us to the left. In each banner’s center was an emblem embossed in gold, shaped like the sun and its rays. And at the center of the sun was a sword lying diagonally atop an arrow. It was then when I realized that the arrow and sword were not equally crossed. They met at the top instead of the middle, and I didn’t know how I hadn’t noticed that before or why it stuck out to me now. But situated this way, the sword was actually longer, more prominent than the arrow.
“Has that always been the crest?” I asked.
Kieran shot me a quizzical look as we stopped before the banners. “You ask the most random things.”
Honestly, I did, so I couldn’t even muster up a retort.
“The crest can change with each ruler if they want.” Casteel glanced at the banners. “But it always contains the three symbols—the sun, the sword, and the arrow.”
“So this isn’t the one your mother and father chose?”
He shook his head. “I believe this was what King Malec chose,” he told me, and I was a little surprised to hear that his choice for a crest hadn’t changed.
“The sun represents Atlantia?” I surmised, eyeing the crest. “And, let me guess, the sword represents Malec, and the arrow your mother?”
“You would be right,” Casteel answered. “You don’t like it, do you?”
I shook my head.
“What about it don’t you like?”
“The sword and arrow aren’t equal,” I told him. “They should be equal.”
One side of his lips curved up. “Yeah, they should be.”
“They were equal at one time,” Kieran said, now looking up at the banners. “Before Malec, and when two deities sat on the thrones. I imagine the sword is more prominent because, technically, Malec was far stronger than Queen Eloana.” He sent Casteel an apologetic look. “No offense.”
“Technically or not, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth,” I said before Casteel could respond.
Kieran’s wintery gaze met mine. “If you take the Crown, many will expect the arrow to become more prominent, as you are more powerful than Cas.”
“If I take the Crown, the arrow and sword will be equal,” I returned. “A King and Queen should be of equal power, no matter what blood courses through their veins.”
The wolven grinned. “I would expect nothing less from you.”
I opened my mouth, but he brushed past me, walking along and leaving me staring at his back. “He’s annoying,” I muttered to Casteel.
“But he’s right.” Casteel looked down at me, his eyes like warm honey. “I would expect nothing less from you, either.”
I glanced back at the banners, thinking they needed to be changed, whether I took the Crown or not.
Pulling my gaze from the banners, we caught up with Kieran as we moved through a hall that opened to breezeways on either side and flowed straight into a large banquet hall. The table could seat an army, but it sat empty with only a vase of peonies in the center. We walked through a smaller room, one with a smaller, round table that appeared recently wiped down, and chairs with gray seat cushions. I caught a glimpse of my wide eyes in a mirror on the wall and quickly looked ahead. In front of us was a door, slightly ajar, and two Guards of the Crown. Both men bowed, and then one stepped aside as the other reached for the door.
The muted sounds of conversation drifted out of the room, and my heart skipped several beats. My steps slowed. What if Kirha was wrong? What if Casteel’s parents had only grown angrier after their shock faded? His father hadn’t been rude the night before, but we had only been in each other’s presence for mere minutes.
And I had thought he’d been about to use the sword on me. His father had known that, too.
I stared at the door, heart thrumming. Who could blame them if they never accepted me? I was an outsider, the former Maiden of the Ascended, who’d taken their son and was possibly on the verge of taking more than that.
Casteel’s gaze met mine. Sensing a thread of concern in him, I nodded before he could question me. A faint smile appeared, and then he motioned for the guard to open the door.
The airy, brightly-lit room smelled of coffee, and the first person I noticed was his mother. She sat on a dove gray settee, wearing a simple short-sleeved gown of pale blue. Her onyx-hued hair was once again twisted in a simple knot at the base of her neck. She had just placed a small cup on a low-profile table and appeared frozen there as she stared at Casteel with bright amber eyes. A rush of emotion poured from her— relief, joy, love, and underneath all of that was something tangy. Sorrow. There was a throbbing, steady current of grief as she rose, reminding me very much of what I’d often felt from Casteel when we first met.
My gaze inched away to where the faired-haired man stood at the back of the room, a short glass of amber liquid in his hand. Neither he nor the Queen wore their crowns, and I wasn’t sure if that was common or not while in their private residences. I was almost convinced that Queen Ileana and King Jalara wore theirs to bed.
Goosebumps pimpled my flesh as Casteel’s father stared directly at me. I didn’t hold his stare in challenge but simply looked elsewhere. I felt barely anything from him. Casteel’s father was either very reserved or knew how to block his emotions. They weren’t the only people in the room.
Standing by a large window overlooking a garden was the Commander of the Crown Guard. Hisa stood quietly, her hands clasped behind her back.
“Hawke.” The nickname was a soft breath on the Queen’s lips as she refocused on her son.
“Mother,” he said, and I noticed a roughness to his voice that stung my eyes. It struck me then that they hadn’t had a chance to even speak since his return.