A small smile appeared. “They do, and I’m also sure that it bothers them greatly to know that we took their title and made it mean something else.” The surge of gratification coming from her made me grin. “It is why you have never heard that title. I doubt many of the mortals alive or even some of the Ascended have heard it. They stopped using it several centuries ago, around the time the first Descenters left their mark behind, using those words. They sought to distance themselves from the title, but that is who they are.” Her gaze met mine before she strode forward once more. “The attack that killed your parents and gave you those scars? You are very lucky to be alive.”
It took me a moment to follow the shift in subject. “I am,” I agreed, and then I thought of something. “Do you think it’s because of my bloodline? Why I survived?”
“I would think so,” she said. “At a young age, Atlantians are nearly mortal, but you… You are different. The deity bloodline is obviously the strongest in you, and it protected you.”
“What?” She sent me a quick glance when I didn’t continue.
“It’s just that I spent a lot of my life wondering how I survived that night, why I was…Chosen to be the Maiden. And now that I know why, I have more questions because I was told so many lies,” I told her. “It’s just a lot to process.”
“But you appear to be doing just that.”
“Because I have no other choice. It’s not like I can deny this. It sickens me to think of what the Blood Crown may have done to create me.” It also scared me to think of why they had done all of this. But that was something I couldn’t focus on now. “Not only to who might have been my mother, but also to Malec. I know he wasn’t a good man, but he was still a person,” I said. “And yet, I feel…detached from it. I feel sorrow and sympathy for them, but they are strangers, and it doesn’t change who I am. No matter what Alastir or the Unseen believe. I am not the sum of the blood that courses through my veins.”
“No,” she said after a few moments. “I do not think you are.”
“Really?” I blurted out in surprise.
Another small smile appeared on her lips. “I remember the deities, Penellaphe. While many could be prone to all manner of misdeeds, not all of them were that way. The others? If they had gone to sleep like the gods, who’s to say what would’ve become of the deities? We’ll never know. But Malec…he wasn’t a bad man, Penellaphe.”
Even though I had just basically said that Malec was nothing more than a stranger to me, part of me filled with curiosity and the need to learn more about the man who was my father. That had to be natural. “He wasn’t?” I asked finally.
Her hair shone a blue-black in the sunlight as she shook her head. “He wasn’t a bad ruler. For a long time, he was fair and just. And he could be very generous and kind. He was never abusive toward me or intentionally cruel.”
“He was unfaithful. Repeatedly,” I said, and immediately wished I hadn’t voiced what I was thinking. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t—”
“No need to apologize,” she said with a low laugh. “He was unfaithful and, yes, repeatedly. The man had two heads, and I’m sure you can guess which one he used most.”
It took me a moment to realize what she meant, and then my eyes widened.
“But he wasn’t like that when we first met. It was only toward the end that I started to see this…stirring inside him. This great unrest that I came to believe, even before what he’d done with his mistress, was because he was becoming something else. I…I don’t know what happened, what changed him so that he was no longer satisfied with me and the life we were trying to build. Why the generosity and kindness that had once been second nature to him faded. But I know it was no fault of mine, and I have long since stopped wondering and caring about why he sought completion and purpose in the arms of others. What I am trying to say is that your father wasn’t a monster, Penellaphe. He was a deity—the most powerful one there was. But he was still a man who became lost.”
My respect for her grew. It would’ve been all too easy for her to paint him with one brush. I wouldn’t have blamed her if she had. But she wanted me to know that there was some goodness to the man. The breath I exhaled was a little looser, easier. I appreciated what she did more than she may realize.
But it also left me with another question. “You said you hunted him down because—”
“Because he would have sought revenge against me. Against Atlantia. When the Council demanded that he deal with the mistress he Ascended, he felt betrayed by them. And when I annulled the marriage, taking the throne with the support of the Council, it compounded that feeling. He couldn’t believe it. That he, a deity and descendant of Nyktos, could be overruled.” She brushed a wisp of hair back from her face. “And things had…greatly soured between us by the end. He would’ve come back, and after what he did, he was no longer fit to rule.”
“And you think Casteel will be fit?” I asked, even at the risk of rehashing what I had shut down earlier. “He did the same as Malec. He had no idea that I would not become a vampry.”
Her gaze slid to mine as we passed lavender and vivid red hibiscus bushes. “But I do not believe Casteel would’ve attempted to take the throne if you had become one. I know my son. He would’ve taken you and left, not risking your life or Atlantia. Malec wanted Atlantia and his vampry mistress. While the risk he took disturbs me, the situations are not the same.”
She was right. The situations weren’t the same. And she was also correct about what Casteel would’ve done.
Although if I had Ascended into a vampry, I imagined that Casteel would’ve laid waste to quite a few people before leaving.
Through the soaring spikes of purple and blue flowers, Kieran matched our movements through the garden as we fell silent. If he was trying to be inconspicuous, he was failing. Queen Eloana noted where my attention had gone. “You will need to get used to someone always a few steps away.”
My gaze shifted to her. “I had many shadows when I was the Maiden.”
“And my son was one of them.” She stopped in front of a towering shrub of pale pink blossoms that formed an arch over a stone bench.
“Would you mind if we sat?” she asked. “I am far older than I appear and haven’t gotten much sleep the last couple of nights.”
Wondering exactly how old she was, I sat.
“I have a question for you,” she said once she was seated beside me. “You and Casteel…” She drew in a short breath, but I felt it. The punch of potent anguish as she slowly exhaled. “You plan to find and free Malik?”
This was why she’d wanted to speak to me in private. I started to respond when I stopped myself from lying—because I didn’t have any reason to lie. Casteel and I were no longer pretending to be in love to gain what we both sought. We were in love, and that didn’t change what we believed or wanted to achieve. However, as I focused on her emotions, her anguish was a tangy, bitter taste in the back of my throat, and I didn’t want to add to that.