The ​Crown of Gilded Bones

Page 96

But if I had any hope of fostering a relationship with Casteel’s mother beyond a rather antagonistic one, I couldn’t build it on a foundation of lies. “We do plan to find and free Malik.”

“And that is why my son took you?” she asked, her amber eyes bright—too bright. “In the beginning? He kidnapped you?”

I nodded. “He planned to use me as a bargaining chip, and that is why we initially agreed to marry.”

Her head tilted slightly. “Why would you agree to that?”

“Because I need to see my brother, to learn what he has become. And I would’ve had better luck achieving that with Casteel at my side than alone,” I confessed. “That’s why I originally agreed to marry him, and it doesn’t matter to me if Ian is a brother by blood or not. He’s my brother. That’s all that matters.”

“You’re right. He is your brother, just as the ones you remember as your parents are that.” A moment passed. “What do you think you will find once you see your brother?”

Her question was so similar to Casteel’s, I had to smile a little. “I hope to find my brother as I remember him—kind, nurturing, patient, and funny. Full of life and love.”

“And if that is not what you find?”

I briefly closed my eyes. “I know Ian. If he’s been turned into something cold and immoral—something that preys upon children and innocents? That would slowly kill him—kill whatever part of who he really is that remains inside him. If that is what he’s become, I will give him peace.”

Queen Eloana stared at me as something that reminded me of respect pierced through her grief. It was accompanied by the warm, vanilla taste of empathy. “You could do that?” she asked quietly.

“It’s not something that I want to do.” I watched the breeze stir the towers of blossoms. “But it’s something I have to do.”

“And now? This is still your plan?”

“It is,” I told her, but I didn’t stop there. “But we aren’t pretending to be in love to accomplish our goals, Your Majesty. I do love your son, and I know he loves me. When I said that he was the first thing I’d ever chosen for myself, that wasn’t a lie. He is…” I smiled through the knot of emotion swelling in my throat. “He is my everything, and I would do anything for him. I don’t know when it changed for us exactly, but we were both falling for each other long before I knew that Hawke wasn’t his first name. None of that changes how we got here—the lies or the betrayals. But we are here now, and that’s what matters.”

Her throat worked on a swallow. “You’ve truly forgiven him for that betrayal?”

I thought about that for a moment. “I think too much value is given to forgiveness when it’s easier to forgive but far harder to forget. That understanding and acceptance is far more important than forgiving someone,” I said. “I understand why he lied. That doesn’t mean I agree with it or that it’s okay, but I have accepted it, and I’ve moved on. We’ve moved on.”

She inclined her head, nodding. I had no idea if that meant she believed me. Her internal pain overshadowed anything else she may be feeling. Several moments passed. “Do you think Malik lives?”

“Casteel believes that he does.”

Her gaze sharpened on me. “I asked if you believe Malik lives. Not if my son believes it.”

I stiffened, glancing through the garden to where Kieran stood with his back to us. “He…he has to be alive. Not because I want him to be alive for Casteel and for your family’s sake, but how else would my brother have Ascended? We’re not entirely sure that they have another Atlantian held captive,” I said, thinking of the unnamed and faceless woman who could possibly be my birth mother. “And Duchess Teerman claimed that Malik was. She wasn’t the most trustworthy of sources, but I think she spoke the truth. I just don’t…”

“What?” she prodded when I fell silent, sensing a small measure of hope from her.

“I just don’t know what kind of…state he will be in.” I twisted my fingers together in my lap, bracing myself for the raw wave of pain that came from her. Tears pricked my eyes as I glanced at her. Her lips trembled as she pressed them together. “I’m sorry. I can’t imagine how you feel. Knowing that they turned my brother and possibly my dearest friend is hard enough. But this is different. I’m so sorry.”

She breathed as if the air were full of shards of glass. “If he is alive and they’ve had him this long?” Her gaze touched mine and then flicked to the sky. “It would almost be better if he…”

She didn’t finish her sentence, but she didn’t need to. “If he were dead?”

Her shoulders jerked as she blinked rapidly. “That is a terrible thing to think, isn’t it?” She pressed a hand to her chest as she swallowed several times. “Especially as a mother, it’s a terrible thing to wish for your child.”

“No. It’s just…real,” I said, and her eyes flew to mine. “Feeling that way doesn’t mean you don’t love or care for him or even hope that he’s not still alive.”

“How can you say that when you know that a part of me wishes he had passed on to the Vale?”

“You know that I can sense emotions,” I stated, and tension bracketed her mouth. “I can feel your anguish, but I also felt your hope and your love for your son. I know that’s real,” I repeated, searching her gaze. “And I think wishing that any loved one was at peace isn’t wrong. I love my brother. What I may have to do doesn’t change that.”

“No,” she agreed softly. “It just proves how much you do love him.”

I nodded. “The same goes for you and Malik.”

She stared at me for several seconds and then a small, trembling smile appeared. “Thank you,” she whispered, reaching between us and patting my arm. “Thank you.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I said nothing. I simply watched her pull herself together. Queen Eloana swallowed once more and then let out a deep, slow breath. Her anguish eased off then, returning to levels that reminded me of how Casteel had felt when I first met him. Her features smoothed out as she cleared her throat, lifting her chin ever so slightly. And, frankly, it was an awe-inspiring thing to witness because I knew just how deep and how terrible her pain was.

Casteel’s mother may never care deeply for me, and we may never grow close, but that didn’t change the fact that she was an incredibly strong woman, one to be respected and admired.

“So,” she began, folding her hands in her lap, “how is it that you and my son plan to achieve this?”

“We will offer the Blood Crown an ultimatum. They will release his brother, agree to stop making more vamprys and killing those who are willing to feed them, and they must relinquish control of the lands east of New Haven to Atlantia.” I was unsure how much of this she may already know. “If they refuse, there will be war.”

She watched a tiny, blue-winged bird jump from branch to branch on a nearby rose bush. “And you think that the Blood Crown will agree to this?”

“I think the Ascended are smart, and I think they know that their control of Solis has been built upon nothing but lies and fear. They told the people of Solis that I was Blessed and Chosen by the gods. And they’ve also told the people that Atlantia was forsaken by those very same gods. I’m sure you know what the people of Solis are told about Atlantians—about how your kiss is a curse that creates the Craven.” I watched her roll her eyes and couldn’t stop my smile. “My union with the Prince of Atlantia will prove that to be untrue. It will serve as a crack in the lies. The people of Solis believe what they’ve been told because they’ve never been allowed to see any other truth. We will change that. The Ascended won’t have a choice.”

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