“Part of what you said is correct. We have been biding our time,” she said after a pause of silence. “But what you are wrong about is our lack of empathy toward the people of Solis. We know that they are victims. At least, the vast majority of us know that.”
“I hope that is true.”
I said nothing.
One side of her lips curled up. “You haven’t had the greatest experiences with the people of Atlantia. I can’t blame you for doubting that.”
That did factor into my disbelief, but it wasn’t the only reason. “If the Atlantians are sympathetic to the people of Solis, then they should be willing to try to prevent war.”
“But again, the ones who make that decision are those who have lived through the last war or grew up in its aftermath. Their thirst for retribution is as strong as an Ascended’s hunger for blood,” she countered, and once more, her word choice snagged my attention.
“What are you really saying to me, Your Majesty?” I asked.
“Call me Eloana,” she offered, and I blinked, not exactly understanding at what point in our conversation we’d gone from formal titles to intimate names. “What if your ultimatum fails?”
The fact that she didn’t answer my question didn’t go unnoticed. “Then, like you said, sometimes war cannot be prevented.” A chill that was hard to ignore swept over me as I said those words. “But at least we tried. We didn’t just take our armies into Solis and set the kingdom on fire.”
“And that’s what you think we will do?”
“We want to be able to make use of those lands, Penellaphe. We do not want a dozen more Wastelands on our hands,” she pointed out. “But we would burn Carsodonia. Cut the head off the snake. It is the only way.”
I stared at her, aghast. “Millions of people live in Carsodonia.”
“And millions could die,” she agreed, exhaling softly. I felt a spike of anguish, one I didn’t think had anything to do with Malik. “I don’t want that. Neither does Valyn. Gods know we have both seen enough blood—spilled enough of it. But we have decided, as have the Elders, to go to war. It is done,” she advised. My heart thumped heavily in my chest. I hadn’t expected to hear this today. I could sense that Kieran hadn’t either. His shock was just as potent as mine as Eloana’s jaw clenched and then relaxed. “Only the King and Queen can stop war from happening now.”
“Then stop it,” I exclaimed.
Slowly, she turned her head to me, and the next breath I took hitched in my throat. I knew what she was saying without vocalizing the words—I knew what she meant when she continued saying that her generation wouldn’t give the Ascended the chance to negotiate—that neither she nor King Valyn could do that again.
Whereas Casteel and I could.
Her focus returned to the roses. “I love my kingdom almost as much as I love my sons and my husband. I love each and every Atlantian, no matter how much Atlantian blood courses through their veins. I would do anything to keep my people safe, healthy, and whole. I know what war will do to them, as does Valyn. I also know that war is not the only thing my people have to fear or worry about. A different kind of battle will be brewing soon within the Pillars of Atlantia, between those who cannot trust a stranger ruling over them and those who see you as the rightful Queen—the only Queen.”
My hands clenched in my lap once more.
“It wouldn’t matter if you absconded. The divisiveness will be as destructive as war, and it will only serve to weaken Atlantia,” she continued, confirming what Casteel had said and then proving just how well she knew her son. “Casteel loves as fiercely as his father and I do, and given what little I know of your past, he will not force this choice onto you. I also know what that means. I could potentially lose both of my sons.”
My heart twisted sharply in my chest.
“And I do not bring this up for you to carry that burden. From what I can tell, you already carry enough. I have a feeling if you were asked to take the Crown today, you would refuse.”
I stared at her. “Would you want me to accept it?”
“I want what is best for my kingdom.”
I almost laughed again. “And you think that’s me? I’m not even nineteen. I barely know who I am or understand what I am. And I don’t know a single thing about ruling a kingdom.”
“What I think will be best for my kingdom is my son and you.” Amber eyes met mine. “Yes, you are young, but so was I when I became Queen. And when mortals ruled the lands before our kingdoms existed, there were Kings and Queens younger than you. You’re a deity, descended from the King of Gods. That is who you are now, and no rules prevent you from discovering who you will become while you rule.”
She made it sound so simple, and yet she had to know it wasn’t.
“I also have to disagree with you saying that you know nothing about ruling a kingdom,” she continued. “You have proven that is not the case in just this conversation with me.”
“Just because I don’t want to make war doesn’t mean I am fit to rule.”
“Because you are willing to think of the people, speak your mind, and do what is necessary even if it kills a tender part of you, means you are fit enough to wear the crown,” she returned. “Ruling a kingdom can be learned.”
All I could do was stare at her. I was willing to consider taking the Crown, but I hadn’t expected her to support it.
“Why do you not want to be Queen?” she asked.
“It’s not that I don’t want to. I just never considered such a thing.” I’m afraid. But I didn’t say that. Sharing that with Casteel was one thing. “It’s not what I chose.”
“I’m going to be blunt once more,” she advised, and I wondered when she’d stopped. “I am sorry for everything that was forced upon you in your life. I can imagine that your need for freedom and to have control over your life is as great as the need many have for retribution. But I honestly do not care.”
Oh. Okay. That was really blunt.
“That may sound cruel, but many have had horrific things forced upon them throughout their lives—their freedoms, their choices, and their lives unfairly stripped away from them. Their tragedies are no greater than yours, and yours is no greater than theirs. I am empathetic to what you have suffered, but you are a descendant of a god, and because of what you have experienced in your short life, you of all people can wear the weight of a crown.” She didn’t mince words. Not once. “But if you do decide to take what is yours by birthright, then all I ask is that you do it for the right reasons.”
It took me a moment to gather enough of my wits to respond. “What do you consider to be the right reasons?”’
“I don’t want you to take the Crown just to find my son or your brother. I don’t want you to take the Crown just so you can save lives or even stop the Ascended,” she said. I was thoroughly confused now since they all seemed like excellent reasons to take the Crown. “I want you to take the Crown because you love Atlantia, because you love her people and her land. I want you to love Atlantia as much as Casteel does, as much as his father and I do. That is what I want.”