“But I’m kind of curious about this one,” King Valyn murmured.
“It’s really dumb,” Kieran advised.
“It is.” I glanced at Casteel before continuing. “Do you know if deities have to…if they need blood? I did when I first woke up after Casteel gave me his blood, but I haven’t felt a…hunger for it since then.”
King Valyn’s brows lifted. “As far as I know, deities didn’t need to feed.” He looked at his wife, who nodded. “On the other hand, I do remember reading something long ago about gods needing to feed if they’d been wounded or physically exerted themselves too much. Your need could’ve stemmed from receiving so much Atlantian blood,” he said, his brow furrowing. “That could’ve been a one-off thing or something that becomes a necessity.”
Casteel smiled faintly as I nodded. The idea of drinking blood was still a strange thing for me to consider, but I could get used to it. I snuck a glance at Casteel. He would definitely get used to it.
His mother’s gaze met mine. “Would you like to take a walk? You and I?”
Casteel stiffened beside me, and inside me, my heart turned over heavily. “I don’t know about that,” he said.
Sorrow spiked in his mother, bright and raw. “I only wish to get to know my daughter-in-law. There is no nefarious reason to the request, nor any other shocking news to share.”
There wasn’t—at least, I didn’t sense hostility from her or dread, only sadness and maybe the nutty flavor of resolve. I wasn’t exactly sure I was prepared to be alone with his mother. The mere idea made it feel like a hundred flesh-eating butterflies were in my chest, and that provided momentarily disturbing imagery.
“I promise,” his mother said. “She has nothing to fear from me.”
“I don’t,” I agreed, and she looked at me. “I don’t fear you at all.”
And that was the truth. I was nervous, but that was not the same as fear.
The Queen stared for a moment and then smiled. “I would think not. My son would only choose a bride whose bravery equaled his own.”
The Queen of Atlantia and I walked a path made of ivory stone and lined with soaring blossoms a bluish-purple shade. We weren’t alone, although it might appear that way at first to some. Hisa and another followed at a discreet distance. Kieran also followed, and I was sure I’d spotted a flash of black when we first stepped onto the path. I believed that to have been Lyra, moving through the shrubs and trees.
“My son is…very protective of you,” Queen Eloana noted.
“He is,” I said. Casteel hadn’t exactly been thrilled when I agreed to walk with his mother. He worried, and I think he feared that she might say something that would hurt my feelings or perhaps overwhelm me. But I didn’t expect instantaneous friendship from his mother, and I had grown accustomed to existing in a near-constant state of being overwhelmed.
And, honestly, what more could be shared that would be more shocking than what I had already learned? The fact that I was able to walk and think about anything else was proof that I had most likely moved beyond being overwhelmed.
“Though I have a feeling you are more than capable of protecting yourself,” she commented as she stared ahead.
There was a faint smile on her lips when I glanced over at her. “You like gardens?” she asked, but it was more of a statement than a question.
“I do. I find them to be very—”
“Yes.” I smiled tentatively. “Do you?”
“Gods, no.” She laughed, and I blinked. “I am far too…what does Valyn say? Too frenetic to find peace among flowers and greenery. These gardens,” she said as she gestured with her arm, “are beautiful because Kirha has a green thumb and took pity on me. She enjoys spending hours removing spent blossoms, and I enjoy spending those hours distracting her.”
“I finally met Kirha today,” I ventured. “She has been very kind.”
She nodded. “That, she is.”
I took a deep breath and said, “But I don’t think you wanted to speak to me about Kirha.”
“No.” Glancing at me, her gaze flickered over my face before returning to the pathway. Several moments passed. “I would love for us to talk about something normal and mundane, but that will not be today. I wanted you to know that we were aware of you when you were the Maiden, before Alastir returned with news of Casteel’s intention to marry you. Not that you were the child he had…met all those years ago. Only that there was a girl the Blood Crown claimed was Chosen by the gods, one they called the Maiden. Admittedly, it was not news we paid much attention to. We figured it was some ploy the Ascended had created to strengthen their claims—their behaviors, like the Rite.”
“There was supposedly another before me,” I commented after a moment. “Her name is not known, and it is said that the Dark One killed her.”
“The Dark One?” she mused. “Is that not what they call my son?”
“It is, but I know he didn’t kill her. I’m not even sure she existed.”
“I haven’t heard of another. That doesn’t mean one didn’t exist,” she said as we neared the jacaranda trees. “You were raised in Carsodonia?”
Clasping my hands together in front of me, I nodded. “After my parents were killed, I was.”
“I’m truly sorry to learn of your parents’ deaths.” Empathy flooded my senses as she turned to the right. “And they were the ones who cared for you—the ones you remember. They are your parents, Penellaphe.”
“Thank you.” A knot formed in my throat as I glanced up at the cloudless, blue sky and then looked over at her. “I’m sure you know that I spent many years with Queen Ileana.”
Tension bracketed her mouth as she echoed, “Ileana.” Her nostrils flared in distaste. “The Queen of Blood and Ash.”
Shivers erupted over my skin as I stopped walking. “What?”
The Queen of Atlantia faced me. “She is called the Queen of Blood and Ash.”
Not only had I never heard that, it didn’t make sense to me. “But the Descenters and Atlantians—”
“Use that phrase? We were not the first to do so, just like the Descenters weren’t the first to wear those masks,” she replied. “When the Blood Crown began their dynasty, they called themselves the Queen and King of Blood and Ash, referencing the power of blood and what remains after destruction.”
“I…I didn’t know that,” I admitted.
“Those words—that title—are important to us because it means that from the blood of those who have fallen at the hands of the Ascended, and from the ash of all they have destroyed, we will still rise.” She cocked her head to the side. “To us, it says that despite what they tried to do to us, we were not defeated. And because of it, we will rise again.”
I thought that over as the Queen began to walk again, and I followed her. “Do the Ascended know that is why the Descenters and Atlantians say that?”