Never in a thousand years could I have ever dreamt up this moment.
A laugh bubbled up, but I managed to squash it. Now was not the time for hysterical giggles.
Casteel reached between us and took my hand. My gaze snapped to his. Those eyes of his were like endless pools of warm honey, and when I breathed in, all I tasted was chocolate and berries.
“I love you,” I whispered, tears stinging my eyes.
Casteel smiled. Two dimples appeared, one after the other. I saw a hint of fang, and a wholly inappropriate twist started up low in my stomach.
And then we were walking forward, out into what remained of the evening sun and the breezy air, to stand above a crowd that nearly stopped my heart.
There had to be thousands—tens of thousands. There was a sea of people in the courtyard below the Temple, some standing on the rolling green hill and beyond, on the nearby buildings’ balconies, and in open windows. People even stood on the roofs of the shorter buildings. As far as I could see, the streets of Evaemon were filled.
“With the support and respect of the Council of Elders and the former King and Queen of Atlantia, the abdication and ascension of the Crown have taken place.” Willa’s voice carried from the balcony, falling upon the people like soft summer rain. “It is a great honor that I introduce He who is born of the First Kingdom, created from the blood and ash of those who fell before him, the second son of the former King Valyn and Queen Eloana—Casteel Hawkthrone Da’Neer, the King of Blood and Ash.”
My breath caught at the title that belonged to the Ascended— to the Blood Crown. Casteel stiffened beside me, but the crowd erupted in shouts and cheers, roaring applause that echoed throughout the valleys and the streets like thunder.
Willa held up her fist, and silence fell. “He is joined by She who carries the blood of the King of Gods, the Liessa, and the true heir of Atlantia—Penellaphe Balfour Da’Neer, the Queen of Flesh and Fire.”
I jolted, my heart stuttering. There was silence, acute and so intimidating—
Howls came from behind, startling me. Long, keening calls that were answered throughout the city. Below and farther out, men and women, the old and young in mortal form, answered in deep, throaty howls ending in high-pitched whoops.
Then a loud thump came from the yard. A man had slammed his foot into the dirt. The woman beside him followed, and then another and another, just like the day I’d arrived in Saion’s Cove. But these were not just wolven. They were Atlantian and mortal, their feet pounding the dirt, and their fists striking stone, the sound reverberating through the yard, the streets, the balconies, and from the terraces. Many were on their knees, slamming their hands down.
“This…this is good, right?” I asked.
“They’re sending a message,” Eloana said from behind us.
Casteel smiled down at me. “That they are yours. And that, if need be, they will go to war for you.”
War was what we were trying to prevent, but…I supposed their willingness was good to know. “You mean that they are ours.”
His smile grew, but he didn’t answer.
The slamming of fists and feet ceased, and silence fell around us. Tiny hairs rose all over my body as I slowly looked out at the city. Tens of thousands of heads were lifted now, watching us—or me—expectantly.
Casteel squeezed my hand. “They are waiting for your response.”
My response? “I have a feeling that a thank you would not suffice.”
Casteel choked on what sounded an awful lot like a laugh. I looked at him, my brows raised.
My eyes narrowed. “You don’t sound sorry.”
He bit down on his lower lip, but the corners of his mouth curved up. Not one but two stupid dimples appeared.
“You’re so annoying,” I muttered.
“Endearingly annoying,” he corrected, and his father sighed.
“More like it’s a good thing you’re pretty,” I grumbled under my breath.
Casteel tugged me back to his side, folding an arm around me. Before I could protest, he lowered his mouth until it was only an inch or so from mine. “More like it’s a good thing you love me unconditionally.”
“That, too.” I sighed.
Casteel lowered his head, kissing me, and there was nothing quick or chaste about the way his lips claimed mine. It might’ve even been a little inappropriate—or a lot—but so was the way I sank against the length of his body.
I jerked as howls and cheers erupted from the wolven and the Atlantians in the yard and from the city, mingling with catcalls and hoots.
Casteel chuckled against my lips as he pressed his forehead to mine. “Our people are really into displays of public affection, in case you haven’t noticed.”
“I noticed.” Face surely the color of a blood tree, I looked out at the city—to our people.
Willa turned back to the crowd, which had quieted once more. “From the Blood and Ash and the Kingdom of Flesh and Fire, our King and Queen have ascended the throne, sworn to defend Atlantia from enemies known and unseen. To rule with kindness and strength, and to lead with compassion and justice. From this moment to their last moments, they are your protectors.”
Casteel’s brilliant amber eyes caught mine. He took our joined hands and lifted them high into the air, and the people…the people celebrated.
The people of Atlantia were still celebrating the ascension of the Crown based on the joyous noise that could be heard faintly from within the Royal Chambers.
And Kieran had not been joking when he’d said that our rooms were the entirety of the east wing. The foyer opened into a sitting area, and on either side, doors led to his and her spaces. I wasn’t sure why they needed both, but there was also a private dining room furnished with a round table still large enough to seat several people. An atrium outfitted with comfortable chairs and settees was also present, with plush rugs and night-blooming roses that had opened their delicate petals at the first sign of the moon.
The bedchamber was…excessive.
A canopy bed sat in the center of the room, and it took up nearly the entirety of the space. The curtains were tied back, revealing fresh linens and a mound of soft pillows. There were only two chaises situated in front of the doors that led to a private terrace and garden, and a large wooden chest sat just inside the bedchamber. The wardrobes were housed in a room the size of my bedchamber in Masadonia. Casteel had explained it was called a walk-in closet, and I thought it could very well be a live-in closet.
The bathing chamber…well, it made the one in Saion’s Cove appear paltry in comparison. The toilet was hidden behind a wall, and there were two vanities, an indecently large soaking tub, and the life-changing shower stall that boasted multiple showerheads and stone benches.
And there were many indecent things I could think of taking place in there.
From the main entryway, a door opened to the staff hallway and the private stairs that led upstairs to rooms reserved for guests of the King and Queen. Those who had traveled with us were now settling in, and Casteel’s parents had just left after advising that if there was anything we wished to change about the quarters, we only needed to let Rose know.
Since very few items in the space could’ve belonged to either Eloana or Valyn, I had a feeling that many of the things already in the rooms were new and that they had planned for this moment from the second they returned to Evaemon.