I leaned back, a little surprised that I didn’t fall off the bench.
“If you don’t love Atlantia now, I don’t blame you. Like I said, you haven’t had the greatest of experiences, and I fear that you will not have the time to fall in love before you must make your choice.” Concern broke through the grief. She was worried about this—gravely so.
I felt like my heart was beating too fast. “How long do I have?”
“Days, maybe. A little over a week, if you’re lucky.”
“If I’m lucky?” I laughed, and it sounded as dry as bones. Casteel had insinuated that we didn’t have long. But days?
“News of your arrival and who you are has already reached the capital. The Elders know. There are questions and concerns. I’m sure some doubt your heritage, but after yesterday—after what you did for that little girl—that will change,” she told me, and I tensed. Her eyes narrowed. “Do you regret what you did? Because of what it confirms?”
“Gods, no,” I asserted. “I will never regret using my gifts to help someone. The Ascended wouldn’t allow me to use them, giving me excuses, but I now know why they didn’t want me to use my abilities. What I could do revealed too much. I hated it—hated being unable to help someone when I could.”
“But did you? Did you find ways to help people without being caught?”
I nodded. “I did. If I could find a way, I helped people—eased their pain. Most never knew what was happening.”
Approval drifted through her, reminding me of buttery cakes, and a quick smile appeared. “We cannot leave the people of Atlantia hanging in limbo for too long.”
“In other words, the plans to enter Solis with your armies will happen in a few days?”
“Yes,” she confirmed. “Unless…”
Unless Casteel and I stopped it.
“I know you got to see a little of Atlantia yesterday, but you didn’t meet nearly enough people. You don’t have long, but you can leave today for Evaemon. You’d arrive tomorrow morning and could then take as many days as we have to explore what you can of Atlantia. To talk to the people. Hear their voices. See them with your eyes. Learn that not all of them would’ve taken part in what happened at the Chambers or would stand by Alastir and the Unseen.” She reached over, placing her hand over mine. “You don’t have much time, but you can take what you do have to give the people of Atlantia the chance you are willing to give our enemies. My son’s plans and yours can wait a few days, can they not?”
Casteel was definitely his mother’s son.
I looked at the gently swaying spikes of purple and blue flowers. I wanted to see more of Atlantia, and not just because I was curious to see the capital. I needed to because I had a choice to make—one I’d never planned on, but one I had to come to terms with sooner rather than later. I swallowed, turning back to the Queen.
Before I could speak, the sound of footsteps reached us. We both turned to the path we’d followed and stood. My hand drifted to the hem of my tunic as Kieran stepped out from the tall cones of blossoms, only a few feet from me.
“It’s Casteel and his father,” he told me.
“Well,” the Queen said, smoothing her hands over the waist of her dress, “I doubt they grew bored enough to interrupt us.”
Neither did I.
A moment later, they rounded the corner, the sun turning Casteel’s hair a blue-black. A heavy, thick feeling followed by a tart taste reached me. He was concerned. And conflicted.
It was not just him and his father who came down the cobbled pathway. A tall, striking figure was behind them, her skin the beautiful shade of night-blooming roses and thin, narrow braids hanging to her waist.
Confusion rose as I glanced at her brother. He appeared just as surprised as I was by her presence. She had remained in Spessa’s End to help protect and build the city, only planning to return when her mother gave birth.
My gaze shot back to Casteel. Muscles tensing with awareness, I drew in a deep breath. Visions of the Duchess’s gifts filled my mind, along with the fires they’d set at Pompay. “What happened?”
“A convoy of Ascended has arrived at Spessa’s End,” he answered.
“Does it still stand?” I asked, fighting back the horror his response triggered.
He nodded, his eyes locked with mine. “They have not attacked. They wait,” he said as a different kind of dread filled me. “For us. They have requested an audience.”
“Is that so?” His mother’s hands lowered to her sides as she let out a short, harsh laugh. “A random Ascended thinks they have the right to ask for such a thing?”
“It wasn’t a random Ascended,” Vonetta spoke as she stepped forward. Casteel’s jaw flexed. Unease coated her skin, and I knew that whatever she was about to say, she didn’t want to. “He claims to be your brother. Ian Balfour.”
I was moving before I realized it, coming to stand in front of Vonetta. “Did you—?” I stopped myself, willing my heart to slow. I had no idea if Vonetta had traveled here by horse or in her wolven form. Either way, I knew she hadn’t stopped. A thread of weariness clung to her. I reached for her, clasping her hands. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she stated. “You?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted, feeling as if my heart were about to come out of my chest. “Did you see him?”
There was a moment of hesitation before she nodded, and every part of my being zeroed in on that second. “You spoke to him? Did he look okay?” I asked as Casteel placed a hand on my shoulder. “Did he look happy?”
Her throat worked on a swallow as she sent a quick glance over my shoulder to Casteel. “I don’t know if he was happy, but he was there and appeared in good health.”
Of course—how would she know if he was happy? And, seriously, I doubted it was a warm introduction between the two. I opened my mouth, closed it, and then tried again. “And he was…he was Ascended?”
“He showed at night.” Vonetta turned her hands, grasping mine as she exhaled roughly. “He was…” She tried again. “We can sense the vampry. He was Ascended.”
Even though I should’ve known better—should’ve expected this—who I was at my very core rebelled against what she said as a shudder worked its way through me.
Casteel slid his hand across my upper chest, curling his arm around me from behind as he bowed his head to mine. “Poppy,” he whispered.
My chest tightened as sorrow sank its claws so deeply into me, I could taste the bitterness in my throat. I knew better. Casteel had told me that he believed Ian had Ascended. This shouldn’t be news to me, but a part of me had hoped…had prayed that Ian hadn’t. It had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that it confirmed we either shared one parent—our nameless birth mother—or possibly none at all. I didn’t care about that because he was still my brother. I’d just wanted him to be like me, to have Ascended into something else. Or that he simply hadn’t become a vampry. Then I wouldn’t have to make that choice I’d just spoken to Queen Eloana about.