I watched Casteel’s father dip his chin to kiss his mother’s temple, an act that tugged at my heart, reminding me of Casteel. The breath I took no longer scalded my throat, even if my skin still pricked with pent-up frustration. But Casteel’s parents had been dealt a shock. I couldn’t forget that she likely knew I shared the same blood as her first husband. I was a painful reminder of a past she probably wished never to think of.
And while the part of me that existed in the center of the hum in my chest wanted me to turn around and leave, I knew that would be as pointless as lecturing Casteel. Besides, I was capable of compassion, and I did feel empathy for his mother—for both of his parents. I was not what they expected. Ever.
“It’s okay. You haven’t had a chance to really see Casteel, let alone speak to him. And I can understand why you’d be shocked to see me as I am and not as one should be after an Ascension,” I said. There was no missing the twin bursts of surprise from both his parents.
Queen Eloana blinked rapidly while her husband stared at me as if I’d sprouted a third arm. His mother recovered first. “Thank you for being so understanding, especially when we are the ones who have much to atone for. Please,”—she extended an arm to identical settees that sat across from the one she had been seated upon—“have a seat.”
Casteel glanced back at me, the question clear in his eyes. He was leaving it up to me, whether we stayed or left. I reached out to him, welcoming the weight and feel of his fingers around mine. I nodded.
Relief was evident from both his parents. “Would either of you like something to drink? Kieran?” she asked.
We passed on the offer as we sat in the thickly cushioned settee—the kind I could easily imagine curling up in to read a book.
Just not that damn diary.
Kieran remained standing, taking up a guard position behind the settee, and it didn’t escape me that that was exactly what he was doing. He was standing guard directly behind me, his hand resting on the hilt of his sheathed sword.
That had to send a rather uncomfortable message.
“I hope what you saw of Atlantia yesterday has shown you that your experiences with us so far are not who we are,” King Valyn stated, his stare nearly as intense as his son’s as he revealed their knowledge of how we’d spent the day before. He and his wife sat. “And those you may have met yesterday are more of a representation.”
“I want nothing more than for that to be true,” I admitted. “What I’ve seen so far of Saion’s Cove has been lovely.”
His father nodded. “I want to make sure that is the only truth you come to know.”
“We learned last night that we owe you our gratitude, something else I should’ve said already.” The Queen’s citrine-bright gaze fixed on me. I tasted the lemon of curiosity, a tart blast of confusion, and the tangy undercurrent of sorrow. “Thank you for aiding the child who was injured in the carriage accident. You prevented a great, unnecessary tragedy.”
I glanced at Casteel, unsure of how to answer. You’re welcome seemed like an odd way to respond in this situation. His hand tightened around mine. “I…I only did what I could to help her.”
The King arched a brow. “Only did what you could? You saved that child’s life. That was no simple act.”
I shifted in my seat, uncomfortable.
“My wife is far humbler than I am,” Casteel asserted, and there was a soft, barely audible but recognizable snort from behind me. The corners of my lips turned down as Casteel’s gaze slid to mine. “If I were capable of doing what she did, I would have my greatness inked on my skin.”
“Really,” I replied dryly. “That sounds excessive.”
“But as you already know, I am excessive in all things,” he told me in a voice that was all lush, decadent smoke.
Warmth crept into my cheeks as a wicked heat settled low in my belly. Immediately, I thought of what we’d done on the beach the night before. That had been…excessive.
His father cleared his throat. “Have you always been able to do what you did with the child?”
Pulling my gaze from Casteel, and my mind from very inappropriate places, I answered. “No, I haven’t,” I said and then gave a brief recap of the evolution of my abilities. “They were changing before I Ascended.”
“I figured it had to do with the Culling,” Casteel supplied.
“The Culling would explain the change,” his mother agreed.
“And this was before the Ascension? I know of no other half-Atlantian to go through the Culling.” His father eyed me closely. “Or any Ascended mortal with Atlantian blood who went through a Culling and did not become a vampry. But then again, I know of no other half-Atlantian descended from the gods, who is alive today.”
“Me, either,” I said and then cringed. Obviously, I didn’t. Gods.
Amusement trickled in from Casteel, and surprisingly, his father. A faint grin appeared on the King’s face as Casteel said, “You said you know of no other that is alive today. Are you saying there were others like her before?”
I almost wanted to smack myself for not catching that earlier.
The Queen nodded. “It didn’t happen often, but deities did create children with either Atlantians or mortals. When that happened, the eather of the deity often manifested in the child in one way or another. Of course, that manifestation was stronger if the other parent was Atlantian.”
“The children? The ones from those who were mortal?” I asked, my need for answers great. “They were still mortal?”
She nodded as she picked up her small white cup from the table. “From what I remember, they healed faster than most mortals from injuries, and they were not often sick,” she explained as she looked to her husband, taking a sip. I had always healed fast, and I rarely ever got sick. “But they remained mortal—aging the same as any other. They probably would’ve lived slightly longer if it weren’t for their need to chase after death.”
“What does that mean?” Casteel asked.
“Those who carried the blood of the gods were often warriors—the first to stop a fight, and sometimes start one,” the King explained. “They were the bravest men and women I’ve ever known, fighting in the trenches alongside Atlantian soldiers. Most, if not all of them, died in the war or were taken captive by the Ascended once they realized the blood they carried within them.”
My stomach soured. They were probably fed upon or used to create more Ascended, facing a brief but no less horrific taste of what Casteel had suffered, and his brother currently lived. My lip curled as I shook my head. “Gods.” I swallowed hard as Casteel squeezed my hand. “How long have the Ascended been doing this?”
“As long as they have breathed,” the King said, and I shuddered. “They have committed atrocious sins against Atlantians, mortals, and the gods.”
None of what he said was an understatement.
“The thing is, though,” his father continued as he rested his elbow on the settee, “not even the children of a deity and an Atlantian had abilities that manifested so strongly in them as they have for you. What you did at the Chambers is something not even the most powerful elemental Atlantian can do,” he said, sliding a thumb along his jaw as he looked between Casteel and me. “You asked me in the Temple of Saion if I could explain what happened to you when Casteel Ascended you.”