He didn’t move for several heartbeats and then stiffly returned to sit beside me. The muscles under my hands remained tense as Hisa stepped back to her post by the window, her hand easing away from the hilt of her sword.
“How?” Casteel demanded raggedly. “How could either of you continue a friendship with that bastard after knowing what he did?”
That was an excellent question.
His father’s chest rose with a heavy breath. “Because we thought that he was acting in the best interests of Atlantia.”
“He allowed a child to be attacked by Craven,” snarled Casteel. “How in the fuck is that in the best interests of Atlantia?”
“Because Malik was gone, you showed no interest in taking the Crown, and a descendant of Malec, raised among the Ascended, cared for by a Handmaiden of the Blood Crown, would’ve been able to claim the throne,” his mother said, and I felt Casteel flinch. “And even not knowing the extent of the blood that she carried in her, there was no way that Alastir or either of us believed it to be a coincidence that a Handmaiden was masquerading as the mother of a child who was the heir to Atlantia.”
Masquerading as the mother…
“Gods,” Kieran muttered, dragging a hand over his face.
Casteel sat back, a muscle flexing in his jaw as he looked at me. “Poppy, I—”
“Don’t. Don’t you dare.” Releasing his arm, I clasped the sides of his face. “Don’t you dare apologize. This isn’t your fault either. You were trying to find your brother then. You had no idea what Alastir would do or that I even existed. Don’t you take on that kind of guilt. Please.”
“She’s right, son.” His father cleared his throat. “This is not on you.”
“And you truly think you hold no responsibility in this?” Casteel said, his eyes never leaving mine.
“No, we do,” his mother said quietly. “We didn’t like what was done, but we did not disagree with it. And that is something we’ve lived with since then and will continue to live with.”
“Just like those you killed to protect the location of Iliseeum?” Casteel broke my hold as he turned to his parents. “Is that another thing you both live with?”
“It is,” King Valyn confirmed, and if either were surprised that we had learned about Iliseeum’s location, they didn’t show it. “And if you become King, you will have to do many things that will turn your stomach, haunt your dreams, and that you’ll have to live with.”
The truth in that statement silenced Casteel. For a second. “I’m sure there will be, but if I discover that any of my people took part in harming or killing a child, they will find themselves in the Abyss, where they belong. That will never be blood that sits on my hands.”
Sorrow pierced through the walls surrounding King Valyn. “I hope and pray that it never does.”
“Prayers aren’t needed,” Casteel replied coolly as he picked up my hand and pressed a kiss to the center of my palm.
“Wait,” Kieran blurted out, startling me. “I don’t understand how Malec is her father. I know it’s never been stated what happened to him, but it’s been safely assumed that he’s not alive, and hasn’t been for centuries. After all, why wouldn’t he have returned to claim the throne?”
I jerked. That was what hadn’t made sense about Malec being my father. Yes, no one appeared to know what had happened to him or Isbeth. But how could he still be alive?
“It was a safe assumption,” Casteel’s mother said, rising. “And that’s why it’s also impossible.”
I blinked once and then twice. “Come again?”
“It’s impossible that Malec sired a child nineteen years ago.” The skirts of her gown snapped around her ankles as Queen Eloana strode to the oak credenza, picking up a decanter of amber liquid. “Are you sure none of you wants a drink?”
Kieran looked like he needed one when he said, “I really don’t understand what is happening.”
“After I had the marriage annulled, and Malec was dethroned, he disappeared,” she said, pouring herself a glass and placing the topper back on the decanter, her hand remaining there as she stood with her back to us. “At that time, I was otherwise occupied with the growing threat of the Ascended, and the beginnings of the war, but it wasn’t until some years later, after Valyn and I married and the War of Two Kings ended, that I found him.” Her shoulders were tense as she took a drink— a nice, long one.
“I knew I had to. If not, he would forever pose a risk to not only Atlantia but also to the family I was trying to build. I knew him.” She looked over her shoulder as she took another drink. Her lips peeled back, revealing the tips of her fangs. “He would have sought revenge for what I’d done. So, I hunted him down, deep within Solis, and entombed him.”
“You...you used the bone chains?” I asked.
She gave a curt nod. “It is extremely difficult to kill a deity. Some would say impossible without the aid of another or a god,” she said, and I remembered what Alastir had said about Malec. That he had killed many of the other deities.
Not only was my…father prone to chaotic violence and was a habitual adulterer, he was also apparently a murderer.
But that was if he was my father. And that was something Queen Eloana had yet to explain.
“That was some four hundred years ago.” She faced us, holding the glass to her breasts. “It would’ve taken more than half of those years for him to become weak enough to die, but he would’ve been dead by the time you were born.”
Casteel’s brows furrowed as he looked over at me and then back to his mother and then his father. “Then how is Malec Poppy’s father?”
“Maybe you’re wrong,” Kieran suggested. “Maybe Malec isn’t her father.”
King Valyn shook his head. “There are no other deities. Malec killed the last of them when he ruled. But it’s not just that.” His gaze flicked to me. “You do look like him. Too much to be a child several generations removed.”
I opened my mouth, but I didn’t know what to say.
“And what you did for that child yesterday?” his mother said. “From what we’ve heard, she was too far gone to be healed. Malec could do the same.”
“But he rarely did?” I said, repeating what Alastir had said.
She nodded. “He did when he was younger and less embittered and bored with life and death.” She took another drink, and I noticed her glass was nearly empty. “He actually saved my life. That’s how we met.” Her throat worked on a swallow as I glanced at Casteel, unsure if he had known that. “No other deity could do that. Only those who carried the blood of Nyktos. And there was only ever Malec. And he was Nyktos’s grandchild. That was why he was so powerful. That partially explains why you are so powerful, as Nyktos would be your great-grandfather.”
“Besides that, Malec was the oldest deity.” Casteel’s father sat forward, rubbing his palm on his right knee. “The rest were the children of great-grandchildren, born of the gods.”
Which meant that if Casteel and I had children, they would be…they would be like the deities who once ruled Atlantia. Perhaps a little less powerful due to Casteel’s elemental bloodline, but still…powerful.