Home > The ​Crown of Gilded Bones (Blood and Ash #3)(4)

The ​Crown of Gilded Bones (Blood and Ash #3)(4)
Author: Jennifer L. Armentrout

I couldn’t be the only person who found the whole thing…weird. Alastir’s daughter? And now his great-niece? I doubted there weren’t plenty of other wolven or Atlantians that would’ve also been well suited to marry Casteel, especially since Casteel had given no indication that he’d be interested in such a union.

None of that made Alastir guilty, but it was strange.

Now the wolven looked absolutely thunderstruck as he stared back at Casteel. “I don’t know what you think Beckett did or how it has anything to do with me, but my nephew would never be involved in something like this. He’s a pup. And I would—”

“Shut the hell up,” Casteel growled as I peeked around his shoulder.

The wolven blanched. “Casteel—”

“Do not make me repeat myself,” he interrupted, turning to the guards. “Seize Alastir.”

“What?” Alastir exploded as half the guards turned to him, while the others nervously glanced between Casteel and the only King and Queen they knew.

The King’s eyes narrowed on his son. “Alastir has committed no crime that we know of.”

“Maybe he hasn’t. Maybe he is completely innocent, as is his great-nephew. But until we know for sure, I want him held,” Casteel stated. “Seize him, or I will.”

Jasper prowled forward, growling low in his throat as his muscles strained under his mortal skin. The guards shifted nervously.

“Wait!” Alastir shouted, his cheeks mottling as anger pulsed around him. “He does not have the kind of authority required to make demands of the Guards of the Crown.”

I imagined the Crown Guard was a lot like the Royal Guard that served the Ascended. They only took orders from Queen Ileana and King Jalara, and whatever Royal Ascended were seated to lord over a city or town.

“Correct me if I’m wrong. I don’t think I am, but stranger things have happened,” Casteel said, and my brows puckered. “My mother removed the crown and told everyone here to bow before the new Queen—who happens to be my wife. Therefore, according to Atlantian tradition, that makes me the King, no matter what head the crown rests upon.”

My heart tumbled. King. Queen. That couldn’t be us.

“You never wanted the throne or the trappings that come with that crown,” Alastir spat. “You spent decades seeking to free your brother so he could take the throne. And yet now you seek to claim it? You’ve truly given up on your brother then?”

I sucked in a sharp breath as anger flooded me. Alastir, of all people, knew how much finding and freeing Malik meant to Casteel. And his words had cut deep. I felt from Casteel then what I’d sensed the very first time I ever laid eyes on him—a rawness that felt like shards of ice against my skin. Casteel was always in pain, and even though it had lessened a little with each passing day, the agony he felt over his brother was never far from the surface. He’d just recently allowed himself to feel something other than the guilt, the shame, and the anguish.

I didn’t even realize I had moved forward until I saw that I was no longer under the shade of the blood tree. “Casteel hasn’t given up on Malik,” I snapped before I could find my damn dagger and throw it across the Temple. “We will find him and free him. Malik has nothing to do with any of this.”

“Oh, gods.” Eloana pressed her hand to her mouth as she turned to her son. Pain tightened her features, and in an instant, soul-deep sorrow rolled off her in potent waves. I couldn’t see it, but her grief was a constant shadow that followed her, just as it did for Casteel. It hammered at my senses, scraping my skin like frozen, broken glass. “Hawke, what have you done?”

My focus darted to Valyn as I shut down the connection with Casteel’s mother before it overwhelmed me. A jagged pulse of grief surrounded him, pierced by a surge of peppery, desperate anger. But he locked it down with a strength that I couldn’t help but admire and envy. He bent and whispered in his wife’s ears. Closing her eyes, she nodded at whatever he said.

Oh, gods, I shouldn’t have said that. “I’m sorry.” I clasped my hands together tightly. “I didn’t—”

“You have nothing to apologize for,” Casteel said, looking over his shoulder at me and finding my gaze with his. What radiated from him was warm and sweet, overshadowing the icy ache a bit.

“It is I who should apologize,” Alastir stated gruffly, surprising me. “I shouldn’t have brought Malik into this. You were right.”

Casteel eyed him, and I knew he didn’t know what to do with Alastir’s apology. Neither did I. Instead, he focused on his parents. “I know what you’re likely thinking. It’s the same thing Alastir believed. You think my marriage to Penellaphe is yet another fruitless ploy to free Malik.”

“It’s not?” his mother whispered, tears filling her eyes. “We know you took her to use her.”

“I did,” Casteel confirmed. “But that’s not why we married. That’s not why we’re together.”

Hearing all of this used to bother me. The truth of how Casteel and I had gotten to this place was an uncomfortable one, but it no longer made me feel as if my skin no longer fit. I looked down at the band around my pointer finger and the vibrant golden swirl across my left palm. The corners of my lips turned up. Casteel had come for me with plans to use me, but that had changed long before either of us realized it. The how no longer mattered.

“I want to believe that,” his mother whispered. Her concern was oppressive, like a coarse, too-thick blanket. Maybe she wanted to believe it, but it was clear that she didn’t.

“That is something else we need to discuss.” Valyn cleared his throat, and it was clear that he too doubted his son’s motivations. “As of right now, you are not the King, nor is she the Queen. Eloana had a very impassioned moment when she took off her crown,” he said, squeezing his wife’s shoulders. The way her entire face pinched in response to her husband’s comment was something I felt deep in my soul. “A coronation would have to take place, and the crowning would have to go uncontested.”

“Contest her claim?” Jasper laughed as he folded his arms over his chest. “Even if she wasn’t married to an heir, her claim cannot be contested. You know that. We all know that.”

My stomach felt as if I were back on the edge of the cliff in the Skotos Mountains. I didn’t want the throne. Neither did Casteel.

“Be that as it may,” Valyn drawled, eyes narrowing, “until we discover who was involved in this and have had time to speak, Alastir should be kept somewhere safe.”

Alastir turned to him. “That’s—”

“Something you will accept, graciously.” Valyn silenced the wolven with one look, and it was quite clear exactly where Casteel had gotten that ability from. “This is as much for your benefit as it is for everyone else. Fight this, and I’m sure Jasper, Kieran, or my son will be at your throat in a heartbeat. And at this moment, I cannot promise that I would move to stay any of them.”

Casteel’s chin lowered, and his smile was as cold as the first breath of winter. The tips of his fangs appeared. “It’ll be me.”

Alastir glanced between Jasper and his Prince. Lowering his hands to his sides, his chest rose with a heavy breath. His wintry blue eyes fixed on Casteel. “You are like a son to me. You would’ve been my son if fate hadn’t had something else in store for all of us,” he said, and I knew he was thinking of his daughter. The sincerity in his words, the rawness of the pain he felt sliced into him, cutting deeply, and fell like icy rain, only increasing when Casteel said nothing. How he’d kept that level of pain hidden from me was stunning. “The truth of what is happening here will be revealed. Everyone will know I am not the threat.”

I felt it then as I stared at Alastir. A surge of…determination and steely resolve pumping hotly through his veins. It was quick, but instinct flared inside me, screaming out a warning I didn’t fully understand. I stepped forward. “Casteel—”

I wasn’t quick enough.

“Protect your King and Queen,” Alastir commanded.

Several of the guards moved, surrounding Casteel’s parents. One of them reached behind his back. Valyn spun around. “Don’t!”

Jasper shot forward, shifting in mid-leap as Eloana screamed out a hoarse cry. “No!”

An arrow struck the wolven in the shoulder, stopping him in midair. He went down, slipping back into his mortal form before he slammed into the cracked marble. I stumbled back, shocked as Jasper went still, a pale, gray color sweeping across his skin. Was he—?

My heart froze at the sound of high-pitched yelps and snarls coming from below the Temple. The other wolven—

An arrow zinged through the air, striking Kieran as he leapt toward me. A scream caught in my throat as I lurched toward him. He caught himself before he fell, his back jerking straight and then bowing. The tendons in his neck stood out starkly as my eyes locked with his. The irises were a luminous blue-silver as he reached for the arrow protruding from his shoulder—a thin shaft leaking a grayish liquid. “Run,” he snarled, taking a stiff, unnatural step toward me. “Run.”

I ran toward him, grabbing his arm as one of his legs buckled. His skin—gods, his skin was like a chunk of ice. I tried to hold him, but his weight was too much, and he hit the ground on his back as Casteel reached my side, folding an arm around my waist. Horrified, I watched the gray pallor sweep over Kieran’s tawny skin, and I…I felt nothing. Not from him. Not from Jasper. They couldn’t be…this couldn’t be happening. “Kieran—?”

Casteel suddenly spun me behind him, a roar of fury exploding from him, tasting of icy-hot rage. Something hit him, knocking him away from me. His mother screamed, and my head jerked up in time to see Queen Eloana shoving her elbow into a guard’s face. Bone cracked and gave way as she rushed forward, but another guard grabbed her from behind.

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