“With the exception of the King, the remaining witnesses are dead, and it can be safely assumed they will not be sharing the events of the night anytime soon,” I continued, my fingers beginning to ache from how tightly I clasped them. “But in the rare, off chance that what happened that night becomes widely known, I am still unsure what there is to be concerned about. The Atlantian people appear to be intelligent enough to realize that since I have no fangs and can walk in the sun, I am not a vampry. Or am I overestimating the people’s common sense?”
No one responded.
It was so quiet in the room that a cricket could have sneezed, and we would have heard it.
Casteel broke the tense silence. “You have not overestimated the people, and not only is this conversation pointless, it’s also offensive, considering she was attacked by our people.”
“We had no knowledge of Alastir’s plans or that the Unseen were active and involved in this,” the Queen stated. “Nor did he give us any indication that he was plotting such a thing.”
“When Alastir came with Kieran to alert us of the Ascended’s arrival in Spessa’s End,” his father said, “he told us about your intention to marry, and his belief that it was tied to…Malik.” He took a quick drink, clearing his throat. I felt it though, push through the walls around my senses, before it vanished—the burst of tangy, almost bitter agony. “He said he was unsure how committed you two truly were to each other.”
“We’re committed,” Casteel advised as the rush of hot anger joined my irritation. “Very.”
“I do not doubt that,” his father drawled. “I think one would have to be blind to not notice that.”
I thought of the way Casteel had kissed me in front of his father, and my cheeks warmed. “Is that all Alastir said?” I asked. “Did he know that I was a descendant of the deities?”
“Alastir told us who you were and what you could do,” Queen Eloana acknowledged. “We knew what that meant. No average mortal with Atlantian blood could have those abilities. Any of us who is old enough to remember the deities would’ve known—though maybe not at first. No one would even be thinking of that. But at some point, Alastir became aware of your heritage and realized who you were.”
“But you knew the moment you saw me,” I said, remembering the look on her face as if I had seen it yesterday. “Alastir told you that it wasn’t too late.”
“Because he knew what it meant for the Crown, as did I when I saw you—saw how you radiated light. I knew what you were,” she told us. “I didn’t understand what he meant in the Chambers when he said it wasn’t too late, but after becoming aware of his plans, I imagine he believed we’d support what he hoped to accomplish.”
“Which was to hand me over to the Ascended so they could kill me?” I said, suppressing the shudder that rose at how close he’d come to succeeding. “Just like those in the Chambers who attacked me before you all arrived. I tried to stop them—”
“Tried?” King Valyn said with an incredulous laugh that reminded me so much of Casteel. “I would say you succeeded, Maiden.”
Casteel’s head snapped toward his father, tension stiffening his broad shoulders. “Her name is Penellaphe. And if you get my wife’s permission, you may call her that. If not, then you may call her Princess. Whatever rolls more respectfully off your tongue. But what you will never refer to her as is the Maiden. Do you understand me?”
I pressed my lips together. His words. His tone. I didn’t know why, but I wanted to smile.
His father drew back, eyes flaring wide, but his wife held up a hand. “Your father nor I mean any disrespect, Hawke.”
“You don’t?” I blurted out, and her golden gaze shot to me.
“No,” she stated, her delicate brow pinching. “We do not.”
I stared at the Queen—at my mother-in-law. “When you first saw me, you spoke as if Casteel had brought a curse back to the kingdom instead of a wife.”
“I was caught off guard by what I saw,” she responded, “as I imagine anyone would have been.” Her brow tightened even further. “I…I never expected you.”
“And I never expected any of this.” I held her stare, needing her to understand that I wasn’t the Maiden—that I wasn’t the Ascended’s tool like those in the Temple had believed. “Alastir wouldn’t have known this, but I was there when the Ascended delivered their gifts at Spessa’s End.” My chest squeezed as I thought of Elijah, Magda—of all of them who had been murdered so senselessly. “I fought them alongside Casteel. I killed the Duchess of Masadonia. I healed your people even as some of them looked upon me as if I were some kind of monster. I didn’t force your guards to attack me, and that’s who some of those people were, weren’t they? Guards of the Crown. Members of the Unseen.”
The Queen remained silent as I leaned forward. It didn’t go unnoticed how the King shifted as if he wished to stand and shield his wife, or how Hisa stepped forward. Maybe later, I’d feel ashamed for the savage rush of satisfaction that gave me. Or maybe I wouldn’t. “I don’t know what you might think of me or what Alastir shared with you, but I didn’t choose to be the Maiden or to wear the veil. I didn’t choose to be a descendant of some deity or come back here and break bonds or usurp any bloodlines. The only thing I have ever chosen is your son.”
Casteel’s head tipped back, and his chest rose with a deep breath, but he remained quiet, letting me speak for myself.
“Did Alastir tell you that when he arrived from Spessa’s End?” I asked.
“No,” his father responded quietly. “He did not.”
“I didn’t think so.”
Casteel spoke then. “We came here in hopes that you two could help us determine what my wife Ascended into. And on a personal note, I’d hoped that you’d get to know Penellaphe a little and vice versa. But if we’re going to rehash the past, then there is nothing left for us to do but take our leave.”
“But we must speak of the past,” his mother said, and Casteel went rigid. “Just not in the way you think,” she added with a heavy exhale. I finally opened my senses, letting them stretch out toward her. The tanginess of anguish was so extreme that I almost took a step back. She smoothed a hand over her already coifed hair as her husband joined her at her side in the same silent way Casteel often moved. He placed a hand on her shoulder as she said, “I need to apologize. I truly didn’t mean to cause offense, but I know that I have. My shock over the entire situation has obviously made a mess of me,” she said, reaching up and folding a hand over her husband’s. “But there is no excuse. Because you both are right.”
Her gaze swept back to me. “Especially you. What was done was not your fault or my son’s, and what I had planned to say to you was how sorry I am for what happened.” There was sincerity there, tasting of contrition, and I relaxed a little. “But both Valyn and I are relieved that you are…that you stand before us with our son.” There was a beat of emotion I couldn’t read because it came and went so quickly. “I should’ve said this as soon as you walked into the room, but I…” She trailed off, shaking her head. “I am deeply sorry, Penellaphe.”