She rushed forward, tripping over the corner of a cream rug. Casteel was there, catching her before she even really stumbled. She laughed as she threw her arms around him. “I was so glad when I heard that you planned to see us today. Look at you.” Casteel’s mother drew back, clasping his cheeks. She brushed at his hair. “Look at you,” she repeated and then pulled him in for another hug, one tighter and longer than the first. Casteel didn’t just allow it, he welcomed it.
Watching him be held by his mother softened…well, it softened every part of me. He was Casteel, the Dark One. I’d seen him remove a man’s heart with barely a flicker of emotion and launch himself into trees and use his fangs to tear through throats. He was capable of great strength and terrible violence, and yet, right now, he was only a boy in his mother’s arms.
“Mother.” His voice was a bit rough around the edges. “You may be cracking a rib or two of mine.”
Her laugh was light and happy as she pulled back. “That’s doubtful.” She placed a hand on his cheek again. “Have you gotten taller?”
“You sure?” she asked.
“The boy stopped growing ages ago, right around the time he stopped listening to us,” his father finally spoke, and his tone was fond despite the words.
She laughed again, patting Casteel’s cheek. She may have said something else because Casteel nodded and then stepped aside. He extended a hand toward me. “I would like to properly introduce you to my wife,” he said, warm honey eyes meeting mine. “Penellaphe.”
Keeping my gaze locked with his, I came forward, placing my hand in his. He squeezed my hand as the sweet taste of chocolate filled my senses. I exhaled slowly, returning the gesture as I looked at his mother. Maybe it was my years as the Maiden because instinct guided my actions and had nothing to do with the hum of awareness that seemed to vibrate through my blood. I bowed at the waist and then straightened. “It is an honor to meet you officially.” The words spilled quietly from my lips. “Casteel has spoken so warmly of you.”
Amusement stretched from Casteel, but from his mother, I got what felt like a cool splash of water filtered back to me, mingled with an edge of disbelief. It was almost as if she were finally looking at me. And maybe this was the first time since I’d entered the room. There was no doubt in my mind that she had learned what had happened in the Wastelands, so I couldn’t exactly blame her for being shocked to see me standing before her, relatively normal and not a blood-hungry vampry.
A jolt ran through me because as unbelievable as it was, I sometimes forgot, if only for a few minutes, what had happened. When I remembered, like now, I also felt a dose of disbelief.
But Casteel’s mother had gone completely still as she stared at me, the blood draining rapidly from her features.
“Mother?” Casteel started toward her. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” she said, clearing her throat as her husband came forward a step. My spine stiffened as she continued staring at me. “It’s just—I’m sorry.” Her golden eyes widened as a weak smile formed. “I just can’t believe what I’m seeing. Valyn told me what happened—that you were Ascended.”
“I couldn’t let her die,” Casteel stated before I could. Anger simmered from him like a riptide under still waters. “I knew exactly what I was doing and what I did is on me. Not her.”
Queen Eloana’s gaze flicked to her son. “I know. That is what your father said. I don’t hold her responsible for what you did.”
My breath caught. “You shouldn’t hold Casteel responsible, either. I’m not a vampry.”
“I can see that,” she said, her gaze tracking over my features as if she were searching for a hint of the Ascended we all knew. “But what if you had become that?”
“What if?” Casteel challenged softly, releasing my hand.
His father took a long drink from the glass he held, and I had a feeling we were quickly veering down the same path Casteel and his father had taken about my Ascension. I truly didn’t want a repeat of that.
“We can’t change what was done to me or what Casteel did to save my life. It happened,” I said, clasping my fingers together tightly. “And, obviously, we are all lucky that I didn’t turn into a vampry. It seems rather pointless to continue discussing what could’ve happened when it simply did not. He understood the risk. He still took the chance, and I am still here. Not a vampry. It’s over.”
The anger receded in Casteel, but the coolness of his mother’s surprise grew. “It’s only over if what was done in those ruins remains between those who were present. If word of what happened were to ever make it out, some would possibly see you as no different than the Ascended, so it’s not simply over just because it seemingly turned out well.”
Her tone was level, but there was a condescending touch to it that scalded my throat and stung my eyes. Warm skin brushed against my arm. Kieran had stepped in closer to me, and the simple touch was another jolt, reminding me of how such a thing had been forbidden to me as the Maiden. And that made me think of all those years I had been forced to remain quiet. To allow anything to be said in front of me or about me or to me. To accept whatever was done to me.
And I’d been so worried about his parents accepting me, even before Casteel and I had stopped pretending and admitted that what we felt for one another was real. I still wanted their acceptance, but what was done to me had been done to both of us. We hadn’t chosen to be put into that situation. Those who called Atlantia their home had. Her people had. I pushed through the burn in my throat because I had to.
Because I wore no veil now.
Some instinct told me that what happened right now could very well shape the dynamics of my relationship with Casteel’s parents from here on out. The gods knew it was already on shaky ground, but they weren’t the Teermans, who had been my guardians when I lived in Masadonia. They were not Queen Ileana and King Jalara. And I didn’t escape one Crown only to be silenced and patronized by another.
I met and held her gaze as I shut down my senses, not allowing myself to read anyone in the room. At this moment, what I felt mattered. “It’s over because not only is lecturing Casteel irrelevant and serves no purpose other than to imply he’s guilty of something, when in reality, your people are the only ones who are guilty.” My chin lifted a notch. “But also because it’s a rather repetitive, tiresome conversation at this point.”
Queen Eloana’s nostrils flared as she inhaled a sharp breath. Her lips parted.
But I wasn’t done. “Furthermore, regarding what happened in the Wastelands spreading beyond those who were present, I’m not sure that is a concern. As I understand it, the wolven are loyal to me and won’t do anything that causes harm to come to me. Is that not correct, Kieran?”
“That is correct,” he answered.
“The Atlantians present are loyal to Casteel, and I do not believe he feels they will betray him,” I said, still holding the Queen’s gaze. “Am I right, Casteel?”
“You are,” he confirmed, his tone not nearly as dry as Kieran’s. Still, there was an undeniable smokiness to it.